‘On Whose Land Are We Playing?’: Discussing the connection between sports and Indigenous culture 

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a US national holiday that aims to honor the Native American history of our country. UConn’s Native American Cultural Programs is hosting a full week of events in tribute to Indigenous peoples. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a United States national holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October, with the purpose of honoring the Native American history of our country. To fully honor the Native land the University of Connecticut sits on, this day has been extended into a full week of events in tribute to Indigenous peoples, all run by the Native American Cultural Programs (NACP).  

The land UConn inhabits is more specifically the territory of the Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett Nipmuc and Lenape peoples, who have stewarded this land throughout the generations. One of the main missions of Indigenous Peoples’ Week here at UConn is to further educate the student body of their impact on this Indigenous land, and their obligations to act with respect towards it. 

One of the events of this week was titled “On Whose Land Are We Playing?” The presentation was hosted by Dr. Chen Chen – an assistant professor in sports management and a faculty member of Native American and Indigenous Studies – who curated a conversation on how to play and consume sports in a way that’s respectful and reciprocal to cultivating a relationship with Indigenous land.  

Chen began by acknowledging the unspoken idea of how sports aren’t usually associated with the focus of Indigenous peoples and how they’ve been suppressed in American culture. What may first come to mind when thinking of sports is its superficial purpose in providing entertainment through exercise. However, sports are an enormous part of all cultures across the globe and tend to have much social influence.  

This conversation on sports can be viewed as a tool to help non-Indigenous athletes and sports fanatics become more aware of Indigenous peoples’ struggles – through the lens of their own passion. 

Chen referenced historical events that tie sports into Indigenous culture, including one from 1984 when Alwyn Morris became the first Canadian Aboriginal athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. Morris raised an eagle feather on the podium to honor his heritage. Another was an event that took place at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis called the “Anthropology Days.” This extremely racist competition was created to test the physical capabilities of Indigenous peoples, who the white game-makers thought of as unintelligent but possibly more physically fit, due to their more “primitive” ways.  

These incidents go to show the trials and tribulations Indigenous people have faced for centuries, and how – as a D1 school located on Indigenous land – UConn is deeply intertwined in the lasting impacts of these problems. 

According to Chen, further diversifying UConn’s Indigenous population – both on campus and in sports – is not the most effective way to improve and strengthen the university’s relationship with the Indigenous land it occupies. Although, it certainly wouldn’t be a negative goal. 

Instead, the most important course of action to take is to further educate oneself on the land’s history and to acknowledge the adversities Indigenous people face. Creating a kinship between the UConn community and the Native community, and living with respect for Indigenous peoples is paramount in ending the suppression of Indigenous voices and culture. 

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