Winning for Native America

Spring, 2011
Naomi Lang, Joba Chamberlain and Notah Begay III are winning for Native America.

“Winning for Native America” is a short documentary that weaves together the stories of three professional Native American athletes. PGA golfer Notah Begay III, New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain and Olympic ice dancer Naomi Lang are making a positive impact on the Native American community and, with their success, undoing negative stereotypes about Native Americans.

He pitches for the Yankees, but he belongs to the Buffalo Clan.

New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain was the highest-drafted Native American in baseball history, and is one of only three Natives active in Major League Baseball.

“There’s two things that I think I stand out for. First of all, my name’s Joba,” he says with a smile. “And second of all, I am Native.”

He goes by another name, too: Hanaga, which means “First Son” in Ho Chunk. That’s the language of his ancestors and of the Ho Chunk Nation in Winnebago, Neb., where much of his family still lives.

At the age of 21, Chamberlain roared into Yankee Stadium clocking fastballs in the high 90s and was christened “Joba the Heat” by delighted fans. He bounded from the Single A Florida State League to pitching for the Yankees in just a few months. And the same Joba Chamberlain was made an honorary member of the Ho Chunk Tribal Council, or tribal government. He’s the same Joba Chamberlain who dances in powwows when he goes home to Lincoln, Neb.

As a Native American, he’s almost alone on the diamond: the other two active MLB players are Kyle Lohse of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox.

In the Navajo language, Notah Begay III’s first name means “Almost There.” Begay has won four times on the PGA tour, including his first two events as a rookie. And at 22, he shot the lowest score in the history of U.S. collegiate golf. He burst into the pro golf scene in 1998, scoring the first ever 59 on the U.S. Challenge Tour. Begay is exceptional, not only because of his splashy debut into professional golf, but because he identifies himself as the only full-blooded Native American on the PGA Tour.

RIO GRANDE, PR: Notah Begay III hits a drive during the second round of the Puerto Rico Open at Trump International Golf Club on March 13, 2010. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images, used with permission)

“When I got to the PGA Tour and even when I got to Stanford,” says Begay, referring to his alma mater, “I was usually the only Native American on the golf course pretty much any day. And you just kind of get used to it.”

“Almost there” in a sense tells the story of all Native American athletes. Even as a handful excel at the highest levels of professional sport, their achievements are overshadowed by the immense struggles for access and opportunity facing Native people.

At the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Naomi Lang became the first female athlete who identifies as Native American to compete in the Winter Olympics.

It was February 8, 2002 when five Utah tribes—the Ute, Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Navajo/Diné—led the opening ceremony with traditional dancing and drumming in full regalia. With the announcement of each tribe, hundreds of Native people danced and marched into the rink. They clasped American flags and eagle feathers in the same hand, their feet tapping and lifting from the ice in unison, bells and shells jingling, multicolored feathers whooshing. And leading each tribe was a tribal elder on horseback.

Lang still struggles to find the words to describe the honor of being chosen, at the age of 23, to present gifts to the five Utah tribes at the opening ceremonies. “And then you just see these horsemen coming at you, over the ice, they’re walking on the ice,” Lang recalls of a Goshute nation leader who welcomed her in his traditional language. “It was like you were transported back, way back to the old days.”

Their exceptional athletic success makes Lang, Begay and Chamberlain highly visible members of the Native American community, a community that is growing at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the American population yet has a hard time shedding images of those “old days.” The contemporary Native American is often invisible: Natives appear in media coverage of casinos, mascots and the third-world poverty conditions on some reservations. But there is less discussion of the modern Native American, and so antiquated stereotypes persist.

That makes it all the more difficult for Native kids to see themselves as high achievers.

“It’s almost impossible for Native kids to envision what success looks like,” says Crystal Echo Hawk, the executive director of Begay’s NB3 Foundation. “You go in there and talk to these kids, they just feel totally hopeless.”

Begay says, “Native students that go to school are often ridiculed or put down for trying to excel, for trying to become educated, by their own community members, because they’re perceived as trying to be too good or trying to not fit in.

“Native Americans truly have to walk in two worlds. And they have to understand that it’s OK to be both,” says Begay. That means succeeding in mainstream culture or in corporate America, for example, while keeping a strong connection to one’s Native community. Begay is proof that this kind of success is possible.

As is Naomi Lang. Lang is slender and poised, as if waiting for the first musical note, for her cue, for the lights to come up and her performance to begin—an effortless composure no doubt developed from almost 30 years of dance experience.

She is sitting beside Nancy Kerrigan in the dressing room before a recent show, perched and at ease. The small space is littered with skating paraphernalia and bustling: a tailor sews final seams on a costume and the finest American figure skaters casually contort their limber limbs into pretzels with rubber stretching bands.

On the evening of this show—“A Salute to the American Age of Skating” at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City—Lang’s long brown hair is curled into sleek ringlets and she wears sparkly silver nail polish. She’s a self-confessed “Twilight” addict with an easy laugh, but she’s also serious about her ancestry and about confronting stereotypes of Native people.

Naomi Lang in her powwow dress (left) and shawl (right) as a young girl. (Photo courtesy Leslie Dixon).

She’s a member of the Karuk tribe of California and grew up attending powwows, idolizing the twirling grace of shawl dancers and eating homemade Indian fry bread. She recently attended a powwow in Arizona, where she now lives with her husband and two children. “The beans and the cheese and the lettuce and—oh!” she says, her hands on her heart as she recalls her recent fry bread experience. “I had like three fry breads. Don’t tell my partner. Shhhh.”

Her skating partner of 13 years is Russian-born Peter Tchernyshev, with whom she won the United States Figure Skating Championships as a pair skater for five consecutive years, from 1999 to 2003.

“You don’t just go call someone Pocahontas or do oh-oh-oh-oh because it’s just stereotyping Native Americans,” she says of being mocked while wearing traditional regalia on Grouse Mountain during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “And I always get mad. Always. I’m like, ‘Don’t do that. Because that’s not right. Don’t ask me if I live in a teepee.’”

Starting at the age of 11, Notah Begay daubed red clay on his cheeks before golf tournaments as a kind of personal prayer. It’s something he saw many runners in the Pueblo tribes do, something that made him proud to be Native American. But when he started attracting the attention befitting a winner on the PGA tour, and media accounts called the clay war paint, Begay stopped doing it.

“The media started to sort of get the message mixed up,” Begay says. “I felt like it was going to be too much of a deterrent to the positive things I was trying to do for the Native American identity.”

This Navajo, Isleta and San Felipe Indian, now 38 and never fully recovered from a golf-related back injury, calls the last few years of his professional golf career “a dramatic fall from grace.” At the end of the 2000 season, he was ranked in the top 25 golfers in the world. Now, he doesn’t make the top thousand. “I realize that I may never do some of the things that I thought I was going to do in my life,” he says. “And I’m OK with it, because what it’s given me in the context of family and career and perspective, is invaluable.”

Though he is not a fluent speaker in his Native languages, he sings to his two kids in Navajo or Keres almost every day. And though they’re very young now, Begay says, “as soon as they’re ready, they’ll start dancing and learning how to pray. And our way. Because all of the other stuff doesn’t really matter. You know, the degrees, and the money.”

May 1 is a feast day on the Pueblo/San Felipe reservation just north of Albuquerque, and traditional dancing is one aspect of this celebration. In his 38 years, Begay estimates he has danced in 30 of them. It’s just one of Begay’s customs to honor his people and remember his ancestry. “If you can’t go through life knowing who you are and what you come from and what that means,” he says, “Then you’re perpetually lost and looking.”

Baseball keeps Joba Chamberlain a little busy in the summer, but he always tries to make it to the powwows on the Ho Chunk reservation in Winnebago, and in his hometown of Lincoln a few hours south. “I dance traditional,” Chamberlain says, referring to one of three styles of men’s powwow dancing in which the dancer carries his head held high, proudly and with an air of distinction.

“It’s special to see and it’s fun to go, and it’s a workout, too,” he says. “When you put all your regalia on, it gets pretty warm.” He has his own handmade regalia, including a chest plate and two roaches, a type of intricate headdress.

He grew up going back and forth between Lincoln and the reservation, where many of his relatives still live. His father, Harlan Chamberlain, fell ill with polio as a boy and was taken from the reservation as a ward of the state to be treated. “He was in the Children’s Hospital for 6 years, 11 months and 21 days,” Chamberlain recites with a characteristic reverence for his father and best friend. The polio left Harlan paralyzed on his left side and reliant on a motorized scooter.

Chamberlain says watching his dad overcome physical struggles taught him never to complain about his own injuries or whine about working hard. He vividly remembers having knee surgery when he was 18 and having to stay in bed to recover. Though Harlan cannot walk without assistance, that didn’t keep him from providing comfort to his son. “It was four o’clock in the morning, and my dad—on his crutches—had an ice chest in his teeth, walking” when his son needed to ice the knee. “Not once in my life have I heard him say, ‘Why?’” says Chamberlain, combing his fingers through his wavy brown hair.

At spring training in Tampa, Fla., Chamberlain just finished running five 400-meter sprints in 90 degree heat, and he isn’t complaining. This tall, cheerful 25-year-old likes to sing along loudly with rap songs (he was in musicals as a kid), spontaneously chest bump his teammates and playfully put fellow players in a headlock. On this particular day, he’s taking heat from his teammates for the crowd of fans corralled at the field’s chain link fence, chanting his name. The outstretched arms of hundreds of fans jut through the gaps in the fence, groping with baseballs, posters and gloves. Still panting from his run, Joba scribbles autographs, pausing every few minutes to mop the sweat off his face with his jersey.

Joba Chamberlain receives a gift of a blanket from his cousin Brian Chamberlain, left and St. Augustine School principle Don Blackbird Jr., during his visit to St. Augustine's school in Winnebago, Nebr. in December of 2009. (Sioux City Journal, Jerry Mennenga, used with permission.)

Under that pinstriped jersey, tattooed in dark, black ink on his right bicep are the words “Ho-Chunk Pride” surrounded by a grazing buffalo and three eagle feathers. “One for myself, one for my father and one for my son,” says Chamberlain, whose son, Karter, turned 5 in April.

Chamberlain says he is proud of his ancestry and of the other two Natives in professional baseball, including his friend Jacoby Ellsbury. “There’s not very many of us and we have to take pride in the three of us that are actually here, and to create something for other kids in our heritage that gives them something to look forward to,” he says.

Begay, Chamberlain and Lang all strive to use their status as professional athletes to give back to the Native American community. Using the money they have earned and speaking out about their personal stories, they hope to pave the way for the next generation of Native American kids.

That’s why Chamberlain started his own Dream Big Foundation. Every Christmas, he goes to the St. Augustine Indian Mission, a parochial school on the Ho Chunk reservation, to give children backpacks, Yankees pennants and hats. “It’s always nice to see Yankees stuff on the reservation, because there wasn’t very much when I started,” says Chamberlain. “I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’ve turned a lot of them into fans, and hopefully can create an atmosphere of kids wanting to play baseball and wanting to play sports and be successful.”

Chamberlain with students in the Mission's chapel where he answered questions and later handed out gifts. (Sioux City Journal, Jerry Mennenga, used with permission.)

Begay started the non-profit Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3) in 2005 to promote health, wellness and leadership development for Native American youth. His foundation gets thousands of kids off the couch and onto state-of-the-art athletic facilities, like the $750,000 soccer complex recently built on the San Felipe Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, the first facility of its kind available to the community.

It’s the kind of facility Begay didn’t have when he lived on the Isleta Pueblo reservation just south of Albuquerque for seven years. He grew up in a small brick house without heating and recalls that “plug in heaters and sleeping in the same room were ways we got through it all.”

Begay’s family also went to great lengths for his education, enrolling him at Albuquerque Academy, a college preparatory school. “My parents struggled immensely to get me through that school,” says Begay, who commuted to school from the reservation for the first few years. He says he owes a debt of gratitude to his late friend Vince Cordova for acting as a liaison to the school. “We were often late on tuition payments and Vince made it a point to explain the situation to the school so that I would not be dismissed.”

In addition to these fights for resources, there was also a lack of established athletic programs on the reservation. “There was just always a need for things to do,” Begay says. So he would “hang out by the ditch banks” or play in the street.

When Begay was 15, his father got a job with the Indian Health Service that relocated them to Albuquerque. While Begay would miss events and traditions on the reservation, he discovered a new passion in Albuequerque. As fate would have it, the backyard of his house was adjacent to the city-owned Ladera Golf Course. Begay was fascinated by the game from the first time he saw it, and he didn’t let a fence in his backyard stand in his way.

“Notah kind of bent the chain link fence so he could come in and hit balls,” says Dan Zamora, who managed the course and is still a close friend of Begay’s. He fondly remembers the little boy with “legs all the way up to his ears,” an “obsession” with golf, and “a great golf swing.”

“His dad came up to me and said, ‘He doesn’t have any money and I don’t have any money, but he wants to play golf,’” Zamora recalls. So they worked out a deal so young Begay could play golf as much as he wanted in exchange for cleaning carts, sweeping bathrooms and emptying trash cans.

“I never saw a kid who wanted to practice that bad or hit balls that much,” says Zamora. “He wanted to work so hard, and that’s why I did it.”

But not all Native kids have the opportunity to attend college preparatory schools or the tenacity to wake up at 5 a.m. to work on a golf course. That’s where organized sports leagues come in for some communities. Sports organizations and programs are popping up across Indian Country, with varying degrees of success and sustainability.

To show solidarity with the Native community, Olympic alpine ski racer Suzy Chaffee, who is not Native herself, has taken up the cause of creating the first Native American Olympic Team, a team that would compete independently from other U.S. Olympic athletes. Chaffee calls it her mission to provide greater opportunities to Native kids through the sport she loves, and she founded the Native American Olympic Team Foundation to foster these opportunities. She has poured $250,000 of her own money to creating this infrastructure specifically for up-and-coming Native athletes to reach the Olympic Games, and says she is “keeping the effort alive” with her Social Security checks.

Despite these efforts, Cindy Stinger in the media and public relations office of the U.S. Olympic Committee, expressed doubt about the potential for Native Americans to compete on their own team. “I think they’re going to have to work through the mechanism of the national governing body” of the Olympics, she said in a phone interview.

Stinger pointed instead to the Native American Sports Council (NASC), a nonprofit organization that aims to foster athletic excellence and provide a gateway for Native athletes to the Olympics. But the NASC seems to be inactive, with no recent updates on its website, and no one returned calls or e-mails. Asked about the NASC’s status, Stinger said only, “hopefully somebody’s running that organization.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) pledged its support of gender equality in athletics in its most recent report, “The Olympic Movement in Society.” The report highlights the IOC’s goal to “ensure strict equality between men and women, to provide women with wider access to sports activities, and to encourage them to take leadership positions in sports administration,” but does not refer to ethnic diversity once.

Maureen Weekes, also in the media and public relations office of the United States Olympic Committee, said USOC does not record ethnicity because “keeping track of diversity is like keeping track of religion.”

It seems that aspiring Native athletes have few allies advocating for them at the highest levels of mainstream athletics, so the Native American community strives to provide what programs and infrastructure it can.

There is a vibrant “Rezball” Native basketball movement across the country, and the all-Native U.S. Indigenous Games will take place in Milwaukee in July of this year. According to organizer Artley Skenandore, the goal of the event is “to come together and celebrate relationship through competition, while fostering healthy lifestyles for our Native American youth.”

But most tribes don’t have organized athletic programs or sports leagues, let alone golf courses, baseball diamonds and skating rinks. For many Native American kids, even the dream of competing in high-level athletics is too far out of their reach.

There was a time in Naomi Lang’s young skating career when she thought she would have to give up her dream, too. The costs of skating put a strain on her mom and brother; Lang recalls buying bargain clothes and sleeping on a mattress on the floor until she was 18.

“There’s no one that tells you that this is going to cost $60,000 a year at the high levels,” says Lang’s mom, Leslie Dixon. Dixon moved Lang and her brother to Michigan when Naomi was 8. There she raised them as a single mom on a nursing salary while her ex-husband remained in California. Just as Naomi’s skating career was taking off, Dixon prepared her daughter, then a high school senior, for having to give up her skating dream.

Naomi Lang (right) as a toddler with her mother and older brother. Her mother, Leslie Dixon, raised her two children as a single mom. (Photo courtesy Leslie Dixon).

And then came the letter in the mail from Peter Tchernyshev. In his wide search for a skating partner, he had spotted Lang skating at the 1996 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif. Soon after, Tchernyshev held tryouts. As soon as he saw Lang’s graceful ballet movements at the barre, he knew he had his partner. Dixon fondly recalls Tchernyshev telling her, “If she will agree to skate with me, I’ll cancel the rest of my tryouts with all the other girls.”

He also offered to pay her way if she’d be his partner and move to New York to start training for the Olympics. Thirteen years later, they’re still skating together in shows, though no longer competing. In fact, Lang says skating without Tchernyshev feels as if she’s missing her right arm. With Tchernyshev living in Russia, the two choreograph their performances by video chatting on Skype and skate together only when they meet to perform.

But Lang is the exception, not the rule. In 115 years of Olympic Games and over 11,000 U.S. Olympic athletes, only 14 have identified as Native American. And she is one of only two females among those 14. Lang is a minority within a minority, fighting the odds in a long history of underrepresentation of Native Americans.

“On a lot of reservations, what you’ll hear from these Native kids is, ‘We want to be active. We want to be healthy,’” says Crystal Echo Hawk, a Pawnee Indian. “But they don’t have the access and opportunities.”

Lang says one of the secrets of her success is believing in herself and picturing herself on the podium. And when she’s not skating in shows, raising her kids or—her most recent achievement—running in marathons, she’s drawing up plans for her Native American Skating Foundation. “I don’t think Native Americans really have a chance,” says Lang, pointing to a complete lack of infrastructure for aspiring Native skaters. “So I’ve been trying to start this program to get kids out of their reservations and into something positive.”

It wasn’t easy for Chamberlain to get his start, either. “At times I didn’t think I could do anything,” Chamberlain remembers. “I never thought I’d play major league baseball, to be perfectly honest.”

But his dad raised him playing sports, being resourceful in order to afford the equipment. It all started with a box of baseball gear Harlan Chamberlain bought at a garage sale. “I went to a parochial school, and they stopped their softball program so my dad went and bought everything over there.”

Chamberlain’s current position on the Yankees, as a reliever or starting pitcher, is less certain than before, and rumors circulated in the offseason that he might be traded. But so far this spring training, he’s been throwing in the mid 90s and helping his team to early wins.

Even though Chamberlain spends much of his time away from the reservation in Nebraska, he still has a house there and stays connected to family and friends. “It’s just Joba from high school or Joba from college or just Joba my friend,” he says of recent visits. “I’m very proud to call Lincoln, Nebraska my home.”

But leaving the reservation and tribal community can take a toll on the athlete and the tribe.

“If you’re a reservation-based kid, you go from a school of 99 percent Native Americans to a school of less than one percent Native Americans,” says Begay, speaking from personal experience. Soon after enrolling at Stanford University in 1990, he called home and said, “I don’t think they know what an Indian is here.”

Begay says that when he left the Isleta reservation at age 15, he missed everything. “You miss seeing your friends, you miss the food, you miss the landscape,” says Begay. “You miss the traditional dances and things that go on at different times of the year.”

Some say that when athletes leave the reservation for mainstream athletic competition, the tribe loses a pillar of its fledgling athletic infrastructure. Native kids lose a local role model or coach.

“I find myself obligated to serve my community and my family here on territory,” Michael Snyder wrote in an e-mail. Snyder is a leader in the Seneca athletic community and co-founder of the Basil Williams All-Native Basketball Tournament, one of the largest Native basketball tournaments on the East Coast. When this aspiring football player did leave the Seneca’s Cattaraugus Territory in upstate New York for college, he missed the ceremonies and friendships from back home. But he admits that those who stay at home often don’t live up to their potential.

“We definitely need a better vehicle for exposure for college recruits to see Native athletes as a whole,” Snyder continued. “It is sad to see all the wasted talent that surfaces at Native tournaments.”

NCAA figures show that this Native talent is not making it to the collegiate level. Native representation in all divisions of collegiate sports has been stagnant at less than half of one percent for over a decade, though Native Americans represent two percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 census. When Native kids do make it to college, only 40 percent complete their bachelor’s degree in 6 years, according to the U.S Department of Education. This is the lowest rate of the five ethnic groups the Department of Education uses in its research.

While separation from the tribal community puts extra pressure on student athletes, Native ancestry is also a source of inspiration. “It’s done nothing but serve as a source of strength for me and has allowed me to really solidify my identity,” Begay explains.

When Lang started ice skating at the age of 8, Dixon remembers telling her “to always have a kind heart” since “winning wasn’t the most important thing.” So when Lang’s first coach suggested the budding skater enter a competition, Dixon discouraged it. “Mainstream sports are so competitive and it’s like every man for himself and I’ve seen people want to win at any cost,” she says.

Native tradition places great value on acting in the interest of the community. Some argue that this value could rub up against the fierce competitiveness in mainstream athletics. “I think that a lot of Native Americans are less likely to want to stand out, because there is a huge emphasis placed on community,” says Begay, adding that this value does not necessarily preclude a Native individual from excelling.

These three athletes strive to honor Native values, even now that they have achieved mainstream success. When Lang recalls the victory that “started it all,” a U.S. Novice Dance Title in 1995, her eyes brighten and she remembers vividly the excitement of skating with “the big skaters.”

And now she is one. As Lang and Tchernyshev perform at the Atlantic City show, her mom is in tears. “There’s Brian Boitano and there’s Tenley Albright and there’s Debi Thomas and there’s my baby girl! What is she doing out there with all of those people?” says Dixon, beaming.

But these athletes are proof that to succeed in the mainstream does not mean abandoning traditional values. “To walk in one arena doesn’t mean you have to leave another,” says Begay. “You don’t have to leave your Native identity behind to be a successful corporate entrepreneur, to be an independently wealthy individual,” says this economics major who earned $1.2 million in his first year on the PGA tour.

Begay is confident and cool even about his indiscretions. Just under 6 feet in height and with earrings in both ears, Begay, unruffled, explains what happened on January 19, 2000.

That date stands apart from Begay’s career of philanthropy and excellence, but falls all too well into the paradigm about Native people that Begay labors to dispel.

That night in January, Begay hit a parked car as he was leaving a bar in Albuquerque. “It was the case of a really, really bad decision to drink and drive,” he says.

And when his public relations team started crafting his defense of the DUI charge, Begay told them, “We are not going to get out of this, we are not going to try and skirt the issue.” Instead, he pleaded guilty, and admitted a previous drunken driving incident five years earlier. “I was always taught that when you make a mistake, you apologize for the mistake and you hold yourself accountable for it. And, this is what I did.”

That’s what Joba Chamberlain did, too, when he was also charged with a DUI in Nebraska in 2008. “A lot of people want to hide from something, but I’ve never been one to hide,” he says. “I was wrong and I’ll be the first one to admit it.”

“They can talk about alcoholism. They can talk about drugs,” says Chamberlain, and following his DUI charge, many did. But he says this life experience has actually helped him connect with young people going through similar struggles. “I’ve been able to go and talk to kids and talk to organizations about it and be able to spread the word that it’s not right, you can make the choice not to.”

Chamberlain speaking at a press conference in 2009 in Winnebago, Neb. (Sioux City Journal, Jerry Mennenga, used with permission.)

Though Chamberlain says it was a valuable lesson, it wasn’t without media or public scrutiny. “Obviously there’s the stereotype of Natives being alcoholics,” he says, recognizing that his misstep didn’t help alleviate it. But, “There are things you can be successful with in life,” he continues, as if addressing the next generation of Native kids, “and you don’t have to choose that path.”

Chamberlain thanks his dad for keeping him on the right path. Harlan Chamberlain raised Joba as a single father; his mother has long battled drug and alcohol abuse.

“You become a creature of habit and you become a creature of your environment, and where we grew up, that’s kind of just the way it is,” Chamberlain says. He still has faith in his mother’s recovery, though he says they haven’t spoken in four years. “She’s always going to be my mom, and I’ll always love her. But there’s things she has to figure out in her own life and I’ll be there to support her if I get that opportunity.”

When Lang says the secret to her success is believing in herself, she’s not being corny. Her optimism is one of the qualities that have kept her going through financial struggles and injuries, and that is now helping her forgive her estranged father. He remained in California when the rest of the family moved to Michigan. She had not seen or spoken with him in seven years when he recently wrote her a letter asking if they could communicate again.

“I opened it up and it was a letter for me explaining things that had gone on in his life and things that he wasn’t proud of,” says Lang. “I always wondered about him, and I knew he had a problem with alcoholism; it’s basically why my mom left.”

Lang is Karuk on her father’s side; he gave Lang her Karuk name, Maheetahan, which means “Morning Star.” But it was her mother who taught her about her Native heritage, in her father’s absence. “He’s only seen her skate once, when she was 10,” Dixon says. “She was just getting started.”

Lang hopes she will develop a relationship with her father, but says she still has a “wall” when it comes to him, and stays away from alcohol other than an occasional glass of wine.

Lang knows alcoholism isn’t an issue in just her family and hopes that her Native American Skating Foundation will encourage more healthful habits among Native kids, a mission also undertaken by the NB3 Foundation. More than 30 percent of Native 4-year-olds are obese, a rate higher than in any other ethnic group and twice that of white or Asian children, according to the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

“We are losing a generation of children at a horrific rate,” says NB3’s Echo Hawk, referring to health complications and suicide. “This becomes a question of our future as tribal peoples. There’s no time to waste.”

Begay, Chamberlain and Lang are engaged in the same fight against unhealthy living and to establish infrastructure for the next generation of Native athletes. Their mainstream success plays a powerful role in their Native communities by bringing to light the accomplishments of contemporary Native Americans. And these athletes hope their excellence will replace the negative and stereotypical associations many make with Native people.

“I think it’s very important that we’re not lost in history,” Lang says. “It’s good for us to be able to tell our story, and how we got here, and how we struggled.”

Chamberlain says he tries to spread a message of “being Native and being proud of it” and plans to do more for future athletes from Indian Country through his Dream Big Foundation.

Though Notah Begay’s first name means “Almost There” in Navajo, he has in many respects gone all the way. But the Native community is in dire need of support from mainstream infrastructure and athletic institutions to keep future generations on the right path. The community also needs recognition of contemporary Native American contributions—those of a pitcher, skater and golfer included.

It’s their stories that might inspire a Native kid to dream bigger, and to claim his or her own victories in the Native community and beyond.