Developing Self-Esteem and Leadership Skills in Native American Women: The Role Sports and Games Play

By Schroeder, Janice Jones | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, September 1995 | Go to article overview
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Developing Self-Esteem and Leadership Skills in Native American Women: The Role Sports and Games Play


Schroeder, Janice Jones, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Native American women view competition as a motivating, stimulating force that spurs individuals toward greatness.

The values and skills Native Americans - particularly Native American women - needed for survival were perpetuated through games and sports. However, there is conflict between the values these women learned from participating in sports and games in which they excelled and the values they find in the workplace.

Although many popular contemporary sports have their origins in Native American games, little recognition goes to the Native Americans. An account of the games played by Native Americans would fill several books, and several have been written that list various sports and games. Several authors even describe how each game is played (Culin, 1907; MacFarlan, 1958; Schroeder, 1976; Grueninger, 1986, 1988). Examples of modern games and sports that have roots in the Indian culture include lacrosse, field hockey, ice hockey, soccer, football, baseball, bowling, dog mushing, running, swimming, throwing spears (javelin), shooting arrows, wrestling, and racquetball.

Native American games can be divided into two general classes: games of chance and games of dexterity. Games of chance were created to develop risk taking, competition, and the power of observation. Games of dexterity were designed to develop stamina, strength, dexterity, and speed. Both classes of games were found among all Native American tribes. The same games appear among even the most widely separated tribes.

There is no evidence that the games were imported to North America at any time before or after the European conquest. Therefore, they appear to be the direct and natural outgrowth of aboriginal institutions in North America. While these games were played for recreation, they had a more far-reaching purpose. In addition to the skills listed, these games and sports helped develop pain tolerance and courage, skills required for survival and life.

It was through games and sports that Native Americans developed their self-esteem/worth, self-discipline, dependence, and self-reliance, and at the same time, developed skills in working cooperatively with and for the welfare of the tribe. These games were gender-based; that is, the skills needed for respective role responsibilities were also developed through games and sports. Those who excelled in these skills went on to be chosen as tribal leaders.

As a result of the "male-dominated" colonizers, leadership and the Native American woman has been a neglected area in research studies. As writer Stan Steiner (1965) observed, the breakdown of women's status in tribal communities as a result of colonization led to their migration, in large numbers, into cities, where they regained the self-sufficiency and positions of influence they had in earlier centuries. He writes:

...in cities, the power of women has been recognized by the extra-tribal communities. Election of tribal women to leadership position in the urban communities has been a phenomenon in modern times.

This self-redefinition among Native American women who intend to restore their former stature has resulted from political awareness. Not until recently have Native American women chosen to define themselves politically as Indian women - a category that retains American Indian women's basic racial and cultural identity. This distinguishes women as a separate political force in a tribal, racial, and cultural context - but only recently has this political insistence been necessary.

The Native American women I interviewed are in leadership roles in the workplace. They all have participated and have excelled in sports and games. For example, Beverly Masek, a state legislator in Alaska, excelled in dog mushing. She attributes her success in dog mushing to the skills learned in her traditional native sports. While in the Iditarod race (a dog sled race of 1,050 miles), she depended on her stamina, self-reliance, and risk taking.

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