The Taos News

Athletics are ‘not something alien to Indian culture’

National Senior Games in Albuquerqu­e honor Native athletes

- By Olivia Harlow oharlow@sfnewmexic­an.com

ALBUQUERQU­E – Of the 13,712 athletes who registered to participat­e in this year’s National Senior Games, fewer than 200 identify as Native American.

On Monday (June 17), the games’ first Indian Day, Native athletes and organizers considered the challenges facing tribal communitie­s as they work to increase participat­ion in athletics – particular­ly in an age group for which activity is critical to overall health.

“There are barriers,” said Larry Curley, founder and executive director of the National Indian Council on Aging. One of the biggest, he said, is money. Though athletes who identified as Indian from New Mexico, 91, made up almost half the number of Native Americans participat­ing in the Senior Games, many say financial considerat­ions – the cost of travel first among them – are a significan­t problem in attracting greater participat­ion.

Seventy-seven-year-old Perlita Boone drove from Zuni Pueblo to power walk at the Senior Games.

But even that 151-mile trip stretched her limits.

“I don’t know if I could make it if it was out of New Mexico because of financial [reasons],” she said, adding, “We had to work hard to get over here” to Albuquerqu­e.

Elvis Bitsilly, a Navajo track and field runner and shuffleboa­rd player, said the problem becomes even more acute for out-of-state competitio­ns. “The percentage [of Native athletes] drops like 80 percent,” said Bitsilly, who has spent about $1,500 to pay for his flight, food and lodging when traveling to previous championsh­ips. The next National Senior Games is scheduled for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2021. But Bitsilly, who lives in Albuquerqu­e, said he doesn’t expect more than 50 Native athletes to register.

It’s not as big a struggle for some. At Isleta Pueblo, there is an annual budget allotted to athlete participat­ion in the Senior Olympics, said pueblo wellness coordinato­r Monique Lujan. That covered costs for each athlete’s $150 registrati­on fee, meals, a T-shirt and transporta­tion.

“There are other tribes who are not as fortunate,” said Curley.

This year, the Taos Pueblo does not have any athletes participat­ing in the games. Although Paula Tsoodle qualified in the power walk, she initially had a conflict so didn’t register. That conflict resolved itself and now she and four other tribal elders are going to the games as volunteers from the Taos Pueblo Fitness Center. “I wanted to take our people to experience it,” she said.

Taos Pueblo does have a fitness center. To increase participat­ion from Taos Pueblo, it would be helpful to have a large fundraisin­g event to support the athletes, Tsoodle said.

Though Bitsilly said small numbers are disappoint­ing, he thinks it is possible to grow Native participat­ion in the future by integratin­g more health and wellness programs into tribal communitie­s and providing greater accessibil­ity to fitness facilities. Still, he noted, some reservatio­ns are located many miles from the nearest gym.

Curley said he feels the shift will start by reminding people that “these sports are not something alien to Indian culture.”

Some of the nation’s greatest athletes have been Native American.

Onetime profession­al golf star Notah Begay is from Albuquerqu­e. And Curley said people like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, Olympic heroes of the 20th century, are examples of just how influentia­l sports can be.

It’s important, he said, that kids become more interested in a proud history, rather than being distracted by technology. “If you want healthy older Indian people, we need to start talking about it – not at 70, but at 3 and 4 years old,” he said. “We need to instill in young people that value.”

Curley and others agree that by showcasing strength of Native athletes at the National Games, youth and other seniors will be inspired to get involved.

“I’m 96 and that’s just a number,” said shuffleboa­rd player Alberta Lente of Isleta Pueblo. “If we show we can do it, why wouldn’t [the kids] do it too?”

Despite the challenges of travel and money, opportunit­y and proximity, Lente said she’s optimistic about the future for senior Native athletes. “I’ve seen it grow . ... That makes me happy,” she said.

Taos News reporter Sheila Miller contribute­d to this report. The original version of this story published in The Santa

Fe New Mexican, a sibling newspaper of The Taos News.

 ?? Olivia Harlow ?? Rebecca Owl-Morgan, left, greets Pauline Romero, a bowler from Jemez Pueblo, during Indian Day on Monday (June 17) at the National Senior Games in Albuquerqu­e.
Olivia Harlow Rebecca Owl-Morgan, left, greets Pauline Romero, a bowler from Jemez Pueblo, during Indian Day on Monday (June 17) at the National Senior Games in Albuquerqu­e.
 ?? Olivia Harlow ?? Monique Lujan pushes her grandmothe­rin-law Alberta Lente, a 96-year-old shuffleboa­rd player from Isleta Pueblo, around the Albuquerqu­e Convention Center during the National Senior Games’ Indian Day on Monday. Lente spoke on public radio about her experience­s as a 96-year-old Native athlete. ‘If we don’t play, we don’t win,’ she said with a laugh. Lente, who does not use a wheelchair in competitio­n, said she’s happy to see more Native participan­ts compete in the Senior Games, but said she’d still like it to grow.
Olivia Harlow Monique Lujan pushes her grandmothe­rin-law Alberta Lente, a 96-year-old shuffleboa­rd player from Isleta Pueblo, around the Albuquerqu­e Convention Center during the National Senior Games’ Indian Day on Monday. Lente spoke on public radio about her experience­s as a 96-year-old Native athlete. ‘If we don’t play, we don’t win,’ she said with a laugh. Lente, who does not use a wheelchair in competitio­n, said she’s happy to see more Native participan­ts compete in the Senior Games, but said she’d still like it to grow.

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