Minnesota Ojibwe football players play at the NFL Indigenous Bowl
The sight inside the US Bank Stadium stunned Gaabi Boucha.
The Ojibwe tribesman from central Minnesota was among 80 Native high school students from across the country gathered Sunday for the fifth annual Native Bowl. They represented over 50 tribal nations and were supported by Indigenous coaches, referees and staff.
“It really took my breath away just to look up and see the bleachers go up as high as the sky,” said Boucha, one of Minnesota’s three players to bowl. “This match is a very big opportunity for me, and I want to come here and put on a show for my people and for my tribe.”
Some players had never left their booking before. For others, it was the first time they had boarded a plane to come here. For everyone, the Indigenous Bowl marked a turning point in an effort to introduce more Native American students to a potential career in professional sports or at the college level.
U.S. Senator Tina Smith, who flipped a coin to decide which team gets the ball first, said the bowl means a lot to Minnesota, where the Vikings hosted the event for the second year in a row.
“Being able to host that here is really, I think, a reflection of [Minnesota’s] strong tribal nations and the great opportunity the sport provides for these young people,” said Smith.
“We know that the impacts of COVID have been felt especially in tribal communities,” she continued. “So to see these kids being able to come together and have this experience, you can just see them all standing very tall and feeling really proud of what they were accomplishing.”
Players draped themselves in flags representing their tribal nations. They flew across the pitch and slammed into each other’s shoulder pads as more than a hundred families and friends cheered them on. And the day before, the players met and practiced with the Minnesota Vikings players.
It was a big step for those playing on Sunday, but it wasn’t always like this.
Launched in 2017, the NFL Indigenous Bowl offers high school athletes from federally recognized Indian tribes with a GPA of 2.5 or higher a chance to play in front of college scouts and coaches. The event was led by Bennae Calac, a member of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians in California and founder and executive director of the 7G Foundation.
The Indigenous Bowl has grown over the years, with over 400 players from across the country applying this year. Other NFL teams have shown interest, and Calac says many players have gone on to play football in college or other divisions.
She says the event could become an incubator for Indigenous players, referees, coaches and staff hoping to work in professional football, and she hopes to expand the initiative to other sports.
“We want to help find advocacy for our people and show that we’re as good as everyone else,” Calac said. “It’s just not about sports. It’s about education, community, athletics, health and the environment. Because we believe that to take it to the next level, you have to have all of this.”
It takes hard work to reach that next level, but Boucha encouraged young people who want to be part of the next Indigenous Bowl to keep working.
“Keep your grades high. Get in the weight room. Stay physically fit,” Boucha said. “Your opportunity will present itself. And when it does, seize it.”
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