By Ellen McGirt
December 2, 2016

Two weeks ago, I wrote about some of the players from the University of Wisconsin’s basketball team who have become outspoken advocates about race and justice, often to their own detriment.

The New York Times profiled three of them here.

One of the athletes, Bronson Koenig, grew up in Wisconsin, a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe. He’s just published a beautiful essay about his trip to camp with the protestors at Standing Rock earlier this fall. It’s worth a read.

Koenig made the trip before his senior year and basketball season began, not sure of what he’d find:

“I didn’t know many people at the camp, but something was compelling me to go. My brother, Miles, our good friend Clint Parks and I made the drive from Madison in 14 hours, with the flag of our Ho-Chunk tribe flying from our trailer. Even though there were over 300 tribes represented in the camp — some from as far away as Florida, Alaska and even South America — I immediately felt a connection. It was hard to describe. Way out there on the prairie, far from home, I felt a sense of comfort.

I’d come to join the protest, and also to give a free clinic for the local kids. As a college basketball player, I felt that it was the best way I could show my support for the protests. One of the greatest things about the game is that wherever you go, you can ball. On reservations, there’s almost always a game of “rez ball” happening.”

When he showed up, around 50 kids were waiting. “I’d never played basketball surrounded by police and blockades,” he wrote. A later indoor clinic pushed the limit of the gym at Standing Rock High School to capacity. “Then a kid, maybe 13 years old, raised his hand and asked me, “Did you have any Native American role models growing up?” He hadn’t. And his emotional reaction to the question caught him off guard.

Koenig bears witness to the work the protestors are doing with the tender fierceness of an activist in the making. But he also takes the time to sort through what his own success, as nascent as it is, means to others who are leading different lives. It relates to his struggle to understand his own history and mixed-race identity.

“My whole life I’ve had friends and classmates ask me the most basic questions about my heritage. Did I wear feathers? Do my parents run a casino? One high school classmate even admitted that he didn’t think Indian reservations still existed,” he wrote. He felt like a minority within a minority. “Not Native enough. Not white enough. Like a stranger in two lands. I’m still struggling with that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I went to Standing Rock.”


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