February 7th marks the 32nd Annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day. This day highlights the extraordinary achievements of female athletes and the positive impact that playing sports has on the lives of girls and women. More than that, National Girls and Women in Sports Day is a promotion of Title IX which ensures that students receive equal opportunities to play in sports free from gender discrimination.
Participation in sports is important because it serves as a protective factor that increases self-esteem and identity to safeguard young women from negative life outcomes. For American Indian and Alaska Native girls, the benefits of playing sports counter common health problems such as obesity and diabetes. They can also improve mental health and prevent substance abuse of opioids, meth, or other drugs. In other words, girls in tribal communities have better outcomes when involved in sports.
That is why this day is important to me as a woman who plays and appreciates sports. I grew up playing “rezball” and occasionally still find myself playing a pick-up game or two. While I am proud of my ability to drag myself up and down the court, I am more proud of the many life lessons that sports have taught and instilled in me. I am a product of being able to be coached, mentored, understand team dynamics and know what it means to contribute to a team for a win. My love of playing basketball taught me valuable skills that led me to play and know how to win at the game of life.
My experience is not unique. Sports are a positive influence for many girls on reservations and in urban Indian communities. The time spent running, shooting hoops, playing lacrosse, or softball is a chance to be free of worries for a moment. The opportunity to play sports can help girls handle life stress and keep them from falling into unhealthy habits, combats health risks, and most of all serve as a positive outlet for life challenges.
The sports we choose to play can also better connect us across generations and to our culture. For example, the Mohawk people are the inventors of modern lacrosse. They believe that it was a gift from the Creator to heal the people. Though traditionally played only by men, Akwesasne Mohawk girls recently began using lacrosse to heal and discover their identity, as depicted in the film, “Keepers of the Game.” As the girls improved their game and their own well-being improved, the Akwesasne community became more accepting of them playing this traditional sport. The Akwesasne Mohawk girls are hardly alone. Many young, female athletes in tribal communities see sports as a way to build better lives for themselves. Participation offers them the chance to dream bigger. Basketball certainly taught me to set higher goals.
Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota I had a front row seat to witness some of the finest woman athletes in Indian Country. While I might be biased to those athletes, I have come to admire many Native female athletes from across the country, and I like to believe I still have a front row seat to watching these women slay dragons. I watch these athletes build each other up, support each other, and work together for the big wins that contribute to a healthier Indian Country. They are teachers, counselors, police officers, nurses, health directors, lawyers, policy advisors, and elected officials. These women gracefully take on the role of coach, mentor, or leader of their community and the next generation. This eagerness to give back and help others succeed is fundamental to our tribal cultures.
So on this National Girls and Women in Sports Day, I encourage you to go outside to play a game with the girls and women in your life. Encourage them to join that first team and soon they will be running the world.