The Next Wave of Indigenous Pro Athletes

They’re determined, driven and talented. These Native student athletes are already making splashes across Indian Country, and they haven’t even started yet. We meet these young professional athletes in the making.

Elisabeth “Bizzy” Feekes 

Tribe: Winnebago
Courtesy of Yvette Feekes

Elisabeth Feekes, or Bizzy for short, is a Sheldon High School student and is affiliated with the Winnebago tribe. Her family, community, and team know her for her invaluable volleyball jump serves on the court and strong character off the court.

Bizzy’s coach Danielle Walder said “during one of our early games this season, Bizzy had 19 serves in a row that gave us an amazing lead for that game. Because of her jump serves we were easily able to win that game.” Walder also pointed out that Bizzy puts in countless hours of practice during the offseason to better herself. Bizzy’s biggest strength in volleyball is her ability to play multiple positions on the court.

Describing one of the more difficult games of her career, Bizzy explained, “my proudest moment as an athlete was when my club team won a tournament despite the odds being against us.” Bizzy’s team was set to play a tournament in Minnesota, against teams who didn’t like them. “The team we played to get to the championship match was very talented. They were very confident and my team was worried.” From the moment Bizzy’s team stepped onto the court, they knew they had to fight for every point. After three games, Bizzy’s team walked away with the win. “Their coach was so upset she refused to shake our hands.” Then, Bizzy and company had to play the championship match. “If being tired wasn’t enough, we had to play the host team, and the coach from the team we had just beaten was our referee.” The gym echoed with rival fans shouting rude insults at the girls. “They even whispered mean things when we had to stand near them to serve the ball.” Finally, we won and I never thought it would feel so good to get booed. We learned that day that it didn’t matter what was against us, as long as we played as a team and fought for each other, we were unstoppable.”

The importance that Bizzy gives to being a team player is noticed by others. “As a player, I think the best thing about her is the way she wants everyone to do well,” Yvette Feekes, Bizzy’s mother, explained. “She will be more excited about her teammates getting a great hit or serving an ace than she is when she does it.”

Feekes also describes Bizzy as a tenacious perfectionist. “When she does anything, she isn’t going to give anything less than her best. She gets good grades, she is a hard worker on and off the court, she has the heart for service.” While Bizzy claims she is obsessed with volleyball, she hopes to eventually become a missionary overseas. She is just starting to look at colleges, and currently one of her dream schools is Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Bizzy’s athletic hero is Olympic long-distance runner Louis Zamperini. She holds Zamperini in such high regard because he rebounded after facing many odds, and also the depth of character he showed when he returned after World War II to forgive the Japanese prison guards who tortured him during his captivity.

When asked about the importance of mentoring, Bizzy stressed the importance of investing in our collective future via time spent with youth. “Most of the time, kids just want to know someone cares. And once they find an adult that cares, they are more likely to listen to what that adult says,” she explains. “Some kids don’t have a good role model in their life and just need someone to direct them. Adults just need to show that they care and kids will be more likely to trust them and listen to what they have to say.”

Looking to the future, Bizzy shared her positive outlook in life. “One message I want to share not only with Native youth but adults is that attitude makes a huge difference in all areas of life. If you spend time worrying about things you can’t control, you’ll never be happy. And if you spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself, you’re never going to be able to move forward to achieve things. Control the things you can, but don’t stress about the things you can’t.”

The Etcitty Sisters 

Tribe: Navajo

While football has the Manning brothers, tennis has the Williams sisters, and basketball has the Schimmel sisters, there is another pair of siblings to watch out for: the Etcitty sisters from the Navajo Nation. The noteworthy pair is both dynamos on and off the soccer field.

Hannah Etcitty is the older of the two, and currently attends Chicago State University in Chicago, Illinois. She is a member of Honors College and will be graduating in May with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. She hopes to attend graduate school and play another two years of soccer, and ultimately land a job with the FBI.

Riley Grace Etcitty is the younger sister. Grace attends Miyamura High School and hopes to someday become a Marine Biologist and study at either New Mexico State University or the University of California, San Diego. Grace is president of her Student Council, a member of the Key Club, the National Honor Society secretary, and an Anti-Bullying team leader. Both girls have exceptional academic records.

When asked why sports are important in their lives, Hannah replied, “I think that sports are very important to people because it teaches you how to work with others towards a goal. It keeps you in shape, and it also allows you to have connections with people who may mean something to you in the long run.” Hannah’s proudest moment was making it to a Division 1 college and getting to show Illinois what New Mexico can bring. “Signing that contract like, finally… I did it. Someone wanted me and sees me for my skill and heart.”

Hannah and Grace’s message for the Native youth is, “You do not have to limit yourself to where you come from. Never give up your dreams. Sports are a great way to help you accomplish them and even if you don’t succeed, at least you tried.”

Eli Smith 

Tribe: Ho-Chunk

Elijah Thomas Smith, or simply Eli, is a member of the Ho-Chunk nation and attends Black River Falls Senior High School. He participates in the Native Youth Student Council and competed in the 2014 North American Indigenous Games. Eli will also be competing in the 2017 North American Indigenous games.

He is a versatile athlete known for his skills in the cross country, track, and basketball. Steve Markee —the coach for the cross country, wrestling, and track teams at the high school— pointed out the two varsity letters that Eli earned. “Eli is a very likable young man with a great personality. He has a great sense of humor. Eli is a talented athlete. In this community, it is hard for students to stay involved in athletics. There’s a lot of pressure to get involved in things that are not good for people. Eli has avoided getting into these negative activities and maintains his status as a good student and excellent athlete.” Markee explains.

Assistant cross country and track coach Paul Rykken described Eli as “a role model, in my mind, because he is a respectful and thoughtful young man. He is proud of his heritage and is a leader in that regard also.”

Eli’s proudest accomplishment to date was training for and completing the Honolulu Marathon in Oahu, Hawaii, when he was only 12 years old. Despite being one of the youngest competitors, he finished in 5 hours, 19 minutes, and 49 seconds. He hopes that in the future he will be able to be of service to his people and his family, as he wants to help give back to his community.

Eli looks up to both Billy Mills and Steve Prefontaine, and he hopes to be just like them someday. His personal hero is his mom though because she has always been there to support him. Eli is a bright young man and an outstanding artist as well. He hopes to become a member of the Armed Forces someday and is considering college.

Eli’s message for Native youth: Keep yourself busy and always be learning to better yourself, challenge yourself, and don’t quit. To adults, he implored, “please support any Native youth in any sports, we could always use it.” When asked how as adults we could do better by our youth, he responded simply with, “time, spend time with us.

Savannah Chamberlain 

Tribe: Ho-Chunk

Savannah Chamberlain is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and is a gifted volleyball player. Savannah attends high school in South Sioux City and also holds the title of Miss Creighton University 2015-2016.

Savannah’s proudest moment as an athlete is during her senior year of high school volleyball when her team played against a team they haven’t ever beaten before. “One of my teammates, the middle blocker, hit the ball to the ten-foot line in the court and we all got excited and cheered loud.” According to Savannah, the next point after that was when they dug the ball up from their serve receive. “I was set and I hit it right at the ten-foot line. I remember how crazy loud we got after having 2 of us hit the 10 feet line on the opponent’s side twice in a row.” What made this more exciting for Savannah was the fact she was an under-height hitter. “But having that happen during a game just was amazing. I trained a lot to have that happen, and it finally did. I hit the 10-foot line and it was amazing!”

Her one true athletic hero is her uncle Joba Chamberlain. “It’s awesome to know my uncle is in the MLB [Major League Baseball] because it tells us as a Native American we can make it to the big leagues as he did. He followed his dream to continue to play the sport he loved and it inspired me a lot to know that if I continue to work hard that could happen to me.”

Savannah shows her strength of character beyond volleyball though. Her mother, Sharon Redhorn Chamberlain, explained, “Savannah makes me proud because she is disciplined and focused on her school studies, volleyball, and her cultural ways. She manages her time by making sure her grades are good, staying fit and making it to powwows or other cultural events.” Savannah gives back to her community by holding free volleyball camps for younger girls, helps with elementary volleyball camps, and in even volunteers in local drives for the homeless. Chamberlain adds, “She remains alcohol and drug-free and wants to be a role model to young athletes.”

“I am most proud of my daughter because she has grown to become a kind and generous person. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to try,” describes Savannah’s father Brian Chamberlain. “She was always a very good girl who liked doing things with her teams and in the circle. She is a very grounded person with a rock solid understanding of who she is and where she comes from.”

Savannah not only plays volleyball, but she loves to dance her style at powwows in which she has won numerous crowns. Most recently Savannah has crowned the Creighton University powwow princess crown. She will hold this crown until late spring 2016.

Savannah hopes to study at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Nebraska, or the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Wisconsin for a degree in education and law. Savannah loves learning stories and poetry from the older generation long ago. “Something about them is just interesting, and it helps with learning how they spoke and wrote back then.”

Riley Meier, one of Savannah’s teachers, stated positive attitude as her biggest strengths. “No matter what situation she is placed in, she always has a positive attitude and pushes through the situation.” Savannah shows strength in her responsibility traits as well. Not only does Savannah finish her homework and maintain good grades, but she is also always there when her peers need her. “Savannah displays many strengths, but among all, I believe her positive attitude is her biggest strength.” Savannah’s dedication was evident in the message that she hoped to impart to other Native youth. “If you’re in love with a sport and very passionate about it, keep chasing your dream. The only person stopping you is you. There are going to be people out there that will try to stop you, but you got to ignore them and keep moving forward. Hard work beats talent, and I’ve seen it happen many times.”

Galen Andrew Boltz

Tribe: Lakota

Galen Andrew Boltz is an all-around athlete and member of the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. He competes for the wrestling, cross country, track, football, and baseball teams at Todd County High School in Mission, South Dakota. Galen believes that playing sports teaches a person to have a healthy lifestyle and a strong mind, as well as an opportunity to learn teamwork, self-control, and respect.

Bob Kornely, Galen’s football and track coach, says, “He is one of our best student-athletes in our school. He is a three- and four-sport athlete that maintains good grades is very well behaved, and loves to compete. He is a good role model for our younger kids.”

One of Galen’s proudest moments was when his grandparents, Bernadette “Sassy” Shield Him and Ron “Papa Ron” Wewenis from the Kickapoo Reservation, surprised him at the homecoming football game this season. His parents are equally proud of him, sharing that
he has won 46 medals between his freshman and junior years of high school.

Alongside his already busy athletic schedule, Galen is also a member of the school’s chess club, a former trumpet player in the school band, and also serves as a mentor in the Tokala Injanyo Suicide Prevention Program. In the scant free time that he has, Galen spends time outdoors on his dirt bike or camping. He also goes to sweat ceremonies to clear his head and pray for the family. This past summer he was the fire keeper at Sundance.

Galen’s mathematics instructor, Aries Rivers Yumul, said, “He is exceptionally gifted in mathematics and what makes him a leader in my eyes is his willingness to help others who struggle in math and discover ways to reach his classmates who may see mathematics differently than he does. His strength is coupled with his weakness because he is unbelievably hard-working, even coming in on holidays, such as Veteran’s day, to get additional help or to help others at school; but this leaves him with very little room to rest.”

Galen hopes to go on to college and study Psychology at either Haskell Indian Nations University, Briar Cliff, South Dakota State University, or Fort Lewis College. He hopes to help other Native families in the future to break the cycle of violence, drugs, alcohol,
and abuse.

Galen’s message of self-betterment is evident in his advice to youths: “Always listen to your parents, stay out of trouble, stay in school, always respect your elders, and say no to drugs!