The Remarkable Story of NDN Sports, A Website Dedicated to The Native American Athlete
Tyler Jones has a voice that was meant to tell stories. Assertive with the twang of a regional accent, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in whatever he is saying. For most of his still-unfolding career, however, he has been listening to others tell their own respective stories.
His success is owed to his unrelenting passion for the craft and a work ethic that sees him regularly pull 60 hours of work a week. It’s also thanks to an outlet that provides a platform dedicated to Native American athletes and the reporters who tell their stories.
NDN Sports, a clever gramogram that when said out loud explains the drive and mission of this website.
Back when he was 18, Jones was just out of high school and ready to cut his teeth as a reporter. The first gig he ever got for NDN Sports was a pretty big one.
“It was baptism by fire,” Jones tells En Fuego. “Here I was within my first semester of my freshman year covering an NFL game, the Chiefs and the Jets was the very first game I did. And I remember sending my mom a photo that said, ‘Mom, I made it.’”
A young man just out of Broken Arrow High School had a platform to not only cultivate his voice but to cover sports from a perspective not often afforded Native American sports fans.
And that moment was brought to you by the tireless efforts and serendipitous beginnings of NDN Sports, a website and social media destination born of, well, happenstance.
There Has to Be More
Something as important as NDN Sports, a website that is not only about representation but also access and visibility, had to start after careful planning and painful deliberation.
Or, as founder John Harjo explains, “It was kind of an accident”
“The original idea kind of came from a paper that I had to do,” Harjo explained. A college paper on Native American athletes ran into an immediate roadblock when Harjo discovered that there was a dearth of representation out there.
It isn’t blind luck that the website exists per se but the fact that this man doing a paper realized suddenly that there was a huge chasm where vital information should be. There really should be no problem finding great sports stories about Native American athletes.
But back at the turn of this century, that’s what we had. And 20 years later it’s still remarkable how little of the spotlight Native American athletes get on the national stage. A website like NDN Sports is doing more than bringing crucial stories to the community, they are creating an archive, a record that some truly great talent did truly great things.
Only, and I write this as a smile crosses my face as I empathize with the immense task that took place, NDN Sports began from the very bottom of data acquisition. They were sifting through haystacks and found gold.
“At the time, the Internet wasn't anything what it is now, but all I could find was Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe, nothing against Billy Mills or Jim Thorpe, two tremendous, tremendous athletes, both gold medalists in the Olympics. But that was it,” Harjo recalled.
The painfully obvious thought was there had to be more out there. Just anecdotal evidence from his inner circle meant there were athletes not getting the recognition they should.
He and friend Brent Cahwee went back and forth about the absence of Native American athletes on the internet.
At the time, Cahwee had been studying computer information systems at Missouri State University. An initial discussion on Harjo’s paper slowly blossomed into an idea to at the very least design a website.
The two scratched out a million possible URLs even IndianSports.com, a destination that, at the time, returned a wealth of cricket news. So, they decided to go with the slang NDN Sports, which is still alive 20 years later.
A Veritable Hay Stack
Harjo and Cahwee messed with some designs and finally had something they liked. Like two people who just plunked a pretty penny down on their first gorgeous automobile, they savored the look and feel. The euphoria was short-lived. “We looked at each other and realized we had no content,” co-founder Brent Cahwee admits.
They are sitting there back in the year 2000. Phones aren’t nearly as smart as they are now and the internet was like the slow drip of syrup compared to today’s speed.
Finding Native American athletes to cover wasn’t as easy as Googling names. It would take patience and arduous effort to create a list that didn’t previously exist. It would also take a very real love for sport and for their community.
The two set forth by first asking their inner circle if anyone knew of athletes and then branching out from there.
“Certain last names come from certain tribes,” Cahwee explained. “And so we used to scroll the colleges from those areas for those last names, every roster boy and girl. Like for Navajos, Begay is a common last name. So, any college within driving distance of the Navajo reservation, we started going through the rosters on that website and say, look, here's one, here's one and so on and so forth. So the early years was just really kind of just figuring everything out.
“It was like creating a whole new medium for Indian country because there wasn't a lot of news for Native Americans on the Internet back at the time. You had all these newspapers but a lot of them didn't have websites.”
They Knew the Website Though
It was evident early on that they had something. A message board the website used to house was like a virtual meeting place that Native Americans flocked to ahead of the advent of Facebook and Instagram.
NDN Sports was a destination and quickly becoming a cultural touchstone for the community at large. Harjo has a wonderful story of how quickly hard work can slap you in the face in a wonderful way. You can toil away for years not thinking you are making a dent and then one day you realize you caved in a wall.
Harjo remembers being at a National Indian Gaming Association conference one year in Tulsa when he struck up a conversation with Litefoot, the actor who played Little Bear in the 1995 movie “The Indian in the Cupboard.”
The conversation meanders its way to Harjo’s reason for being in town, to which he told Litefoot that he was there to promote a Native American All-Star football game.
The actor turned to Harjo, not knowing what he did beyond scouting this game. The website’s co-founder recalls the actor saying, “You know, you should contact those guys from NDN Sports; just go to N.D.N. Sports dot com, talk to those guys. They'll know, I promise you.”
All these years later and the interaction leaves Harjo with a smile, “Nobody knew who we were, but they knew who the website was.”
An Empowering Platform
Cahwee and Harjo knew what they wanted to do and that the work was important, but to accomplish their goal they would have to figure it all out as they went along.
Neither had any journalism training, so piecing together the website meant learning on the fly. Harjo’s very first interview was with Kelvin Sampson, the college basketball coach who has helmed the likes of Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana was nice enough to give the budding reporter pointers after the landline interview.
“The only way you're going to get better is you're going to fail,” Cahwee notes. “You have to expect that you're going to fail. Don't expect that everything's going to be perfect because you learn more from your mistakes than your wins.”
It’s a mantra that has served the two well as they continue to push forward and cover sports in their own way, offering a platform to young writers like Tyler Jones and imbuing their first steps with not just the opportunity to succeed but the empowering liberty to fail.
“We want to give kids an opportunity that we didn't have,” Cahwee explained about the difficult initial days at the website.
“No one showed us the ropes. No one showed us about the media room. No one showed us about credentials. No one showed us about meeting with sports information directors. We had to learn everything the hard way and it didn't have to be that way. But we did it. And now we want to share that knowledge with these young and up-and-coming writers that are out there and give them an outlet to kind of grow that talent.”
Representation is the best kind of contagion. It can slowly work its way into the culture. Not only does it inspire, but it also makes the previously astounding suddenly mundane in the best way possible.
The thought of being a top-tier athlete is now something that is attainable, a dream that you can strive to accomplish.
Jones has a story that brings even more warmth to his voice during our conversation. He recalled covering Oklahoma State’s Lakota Beatty in a game against Kansas when he ran into a good friend of his at the game.
It was a strange encounter for the fact that his friend was there with his son and the two weren’t at all OSU fans. Ever the reporter, Jones went to get a quote as to why they were there.
His friend’s answer was simple but profound, “She (Lakota Beatty) is showing that my son can be like that and do that and that somebody that looks like him can make it, that he can get there.”
“And that's when it hit me,” Jones said. “This is why we do this…And just to point out these athletes and give them this attention it displays to those native communities, 'Hey, there's somebody that can be like you.' There's opportunities for you that you can be successful and to have those role models and point that out, give them that attention. I think that's what it's all about, quite frankly, is you show and spotlight that next group for people to see that, hey, we're still here and we're thriving.”
Cahwee and Harjo have careers outside of NDN Sports. Jones has a morning show with KLWN among the many endeavors he conquers on a weekly basis.
The website is a passion project in the noblest meaning of that term. It’s to give a platform to writers who might not normally get the opportunity or practice and give a spotlight to the athletes who have been shrouded in relative obscurity for far too long.