Celebrating Indigenous Contributions in Sports

The contributions that Indigenous people have made and continue to make to sports is substantial. Our fortitude and resiliency are shown through the courage we exude through our games.

Natives and sports go hand in hand. Many of us can remember playing soccer, football, baseball, and basketball for hours on end. Or sitting on the sidelines clapping and cheering and showing our support. It was our way of making memories, keeping in shape, and instilling values around health and fitness in our children.

For many generations, we have understood the connection between healthy bodies and healthy communities, which is why First Nations Development Institute has made it a top priority to strengthen American Indian economies and support healthy Native communities. Because when Native communities are healthy, it is reflected in their lives, practices, and programs.

The resiliency of Indigenous people is grounded in their physical well-being. Health and wellness are deeply rooted in who we are and what we do, our food systems and agricultural practices, and our relationship to the land. Through the cooperation of not just food-sharing practices, but also, group cooperation through sports, we have created outlets that promote collaboration, harmony, participation, compassion, and necessity.

At First Nations, we foster the knowledge and skills that bring forth the common good and advance wellness within Native projects and programs.

Indigenous athletes make Native communities strong

Indigenous people have been playing sports since time immemorial. Staying active and creating new ways to improve strength, coordination, and dexterity helped our ancestors both spiritually and physically.

From lacrosse to crew, basketball to blanket toss, and archery to snowshoeing, our relatives understood the benefits of ceremony around sports, friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) competition, as well as the importance of gained skills.

Over the years, many Indigenous people have given back to their communities and made them proud through sports participation and advocacy.

Photo credit: Lakota Country Times

Billy Mills helped create Running Strong, a nonprofit organization that builds up the next generation of Native American leaders and strengthens Native communities holistically. Notah Begay III created a foundation to ensure Native children achieve their full potential by advancing Native American community health. And Jocelyn Alo gives back to her community by visiting softball camps and inspiring young girls to pursue their dreams.

Notable Native athletes

Indigenous people are and always have been athletic. It is only in recent times that we have started recognizing the accomplishments of Native GOATs (greatest of all time), such as:

  • Maria Tallchief (Osage): First-ever major prima ballerina and Native American woman in ballet.
  • Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation): First Native American to win a gold medal for the United States. He won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics. He is considered one of the most multifaceted athletes of all time, having skills in American football, baseball, and basketball.
  • Clarence “Taffy” Abel (Ojibwe): First Native American to win a medal in the 1924 Olympic winter games.
  • Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota): Broke Olympic records in the 10,000 meter and is the only American (man or woman) to with the gold in that category in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
  • Notah Begay III: One of the only Native American golfers to play in the PGA Tour and four-time PGA Tour winner.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury (Colorado River Indian Tribes/Navajo): First Native of Navajo descent to play in Major League Baseball.
  • Jocelyn Aloha Pumehana Alo (Native Hawai’ian/Samoan): Concluded her career from the University of Oklahoma as the NCAA all-time leader in home runs (122), slugging percentage (.987) and total bases (761), second all-time in RBIs (323) and fifth in runs (281).

The contributions that Indigenous people have made and continue to make to sports is substantial. Our fortitude and resiliency are shown through the courage we exude through our games.

While colonizers have done their best to strip of us of who we are, our homelands and resources, and our way of life, no one can take from Indigenous people their agility, fitness, camaraderie, and amazing physical drive.

―This blog was inspired by Jocelyn Alo, my favorite player of all time and an inspiration to Indigenous people everywhere.


Marisa Page
First Nations Development Officer