They Had ‘The Ticket’: 8 Native Athletes Who Ventured Off the Rez

Archive photo / Billy Mills reacts after winning the gold medal in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

There are many types of warriors in Indian Country.

There are those who work to stay with the families, friends and fellow tribal members to contribute. There are also those warriors who work to venture outside of the Rez and return to help their communities with lessons learned.

Rez life can be tough. And while there are a multitude of reasons why a young person could be held back, there is something extra special about athletes who make the decision to venture off the reservation in a quest to better themselves and their communities.

Here are eight athletes who made a decision to venture to the outside world and in their quests, they were brought into the limelight.

Billy Mills, Pine Ridge Reservation

This Oglala Sioux Olympic runner might have the best story in the history of Native American athletics. In the decades before his shocking gold medal performance in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was just another child on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In fact, he may have had it worse than most in a place that has become increasingly known for high suicide rates. Mills was orphaned at age 12, which became part of the fuel he used in competitive running.

He went on to run track at Haskell Indian Nations University, formerly known as Haskell Institute. The Lawrence, Kansas opportunity saw him garner the attention of nearby University of Kansas, who awarded him an athletic scholarship. That move helped the team win two straight cross country outdoor national championships. It also helped Mills, who became a three-time All American, make a name for himself in the sport. The rest – his Olympic upset of Australia’s Ron Clarke, who held the world record – is history.

Aaron Tsinigine, Navajo Reservation

Basketball’s No. 1 on this guy’s rez, but rodeo comes in a close second. Tsinigine’s path to a world champion team roper in rodeo started when he took on the sport in Tuba City, Arizona. He started by joining the PRCA two years after high school. Like many Natives, he brought his talents to the Indian National Finals Rodeo.

But his career took off as a professional last year. In December, Tsinigine captured his first roping title at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, a rare achievement for Indian country. A little more than a decade out of high school, his abilities now bring in a healthy living and take him all across the country.

Russell Archambault, Standing Rock Reservation

This guy might have had the roughest upbringing of any Native athlete to make it to the mainstream. He was huffing gas with friends at 12 years old and was headed for failure. Archambault left a home where domestic violence was prevalent in the eighth grade, taking a bus from the reservation to St. Cloud, Minnesota to live with an aunt he barely knew.

This change of scenery led to his uprise. He was recruited to play for the University of Minnesota, where he helped lead the team to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. This brought the 6-foot guard into the limelight as one of the first Natives to do so back in the 1996-97 season. He may be remembered by some in a negative light, but his spot in Indian country hoops lore will always shine bright.

Cody Jamieson, Six Nations Reserve

This Iroquois was held up big time during his transfer from Onondaga Community College to Syracuse. The NCAA didn’t allow him to play until late into his first season. Jamieson hopped in the mix a couple games before the NCAA Tournament where his scoring ability helped lead the Orange to a national championship with his game-winning goal in overtime against Cornell in 2009.

Just five seasons later, he was named the MVP of the National Lacrosse League after leading the Rochester Knighthawks to their third-straight championship. He also plays for the Six Nations Chief of Major League Lacrosse, where, in September, he led the team to its third championship in four years.

Ryneldi Becenti, Navajo Reservation

The first Native American to play in the WNBA got her start at Window Rock High School in Fort Defiance, Arizona, which is 99 percent Native students. She then took her talents to Scottsdale Community College in Phoenix, where she earned All-American status twice.

After excelling at junior college, she was offered a roster spot at Arizona State, where she continued her successful ways. Becenti twice earned All-Pac 10 first team honors before representing Team USA in the 1993 World University Games. It took playing overseas for four seasons to get a shot at the WNBA, where she was signed by the Phoenix Mercury in 1997. It was the long route home.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Warm Springs Reservation

The New York Yankees centerfielder – and Colorado River Indian Tribal member – grew up on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. Ellsbury’s father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs while his mother was a notable artist in the community.

Like all Warm Springs tribal members from the reservation, this former Major League Baseball MVP candidate had to move off the reservation for high school in nearby Madras. Aside from baseball, he excelled in football and basketball too. Though he was 6-foot-1, his amazing vertical leaping abilities earned him the tipoff role on the hardwood. Ellsbury showcases that same ability in centerfield as he attempts to rob hitters of home runs.

Nate Brown Bull, Pine Ridge Reservation

Quick: name a 7-foot Indian If you can’t, don’t worry, you will be able to soon because of this success story from the Pine Ridge rez. Brown Bull, a center for Florida International University, spent his youth on a farm riding horses and milking cows. During the middle of a suicide epidemic his senior year of high school, Brown Bull led Little Wound in Kyle, South Dakota, to the state tournament.

Experts believe he recorded the first quadruple double in the history of South Dakota basketball, with his 28-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist, 11-block performance in the tourney. He’s hoping to continue to produce big numbers at the NCAA Division I level.

Shoni Schimmel, Umatilla Reservation

The former WNBA All-Star MVP got her start on the Umatilla Reservation in Mission, Oregon, picking up a basketball at age 4. The path to making her professional dream a reality took her west of the reservation to Hermiston High School and, later, even farther, to Franklin High School in Portland.

Who could forget her epic tenure at Louisville, where she guided the Cardinals to the national championship game? In the upset of Baylor, this 5-foot-9 Indian girl completed an improbable reverse layup on the 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner. The current New York Liberty guard was doing moves like that in reservation gyms long before that moment.

Cary Rosenbaum (Colville) is a correspondent and columnist for Indian Country Today. Find him on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum

Comments