By Margaret Knight, Executive Director of the Association of American Indian Physicians
In recognition of November as Native American month, the participation and involvement of Native Americans in tennis comes to mind. In 1976 a group of Native American tennis players formed the North American Indian Tennis Association (NAITA) in order to draw awareness to a sport that was not in the list of sports that Native Americans played. The NAITA has since that time held a national tournament every year in various cities across the nation in hopes of growing tennis in Native communities. These cities include Albuquerque, Topeka, Tulsa, Denver, Portland, Phoenix and Oklahoma City.
This is the only National Native American tennis tournament in the country. This unique event presents an opportunity for Native people to showcase their tennis talents, renew old rivalries and build new ones. The event works to promote the game of tennis to Native communities to provide a healthy and fun form of exercise for children. A major goal of the NAITA founders and board members is to “grow” the game of tennis among Native Americans. Tennis clinics are held for Native children during the tournament with the help of USTA and other Native tennis players. Competition categories include open, intermediate, senior and junior divisions for both men and women. A dinner is held on Saturday evening for awards and special individual recognitions for those who have supported Native Tennis over the years. Native Americans throughout the country travel to this event and in the past Oklahoma has had the highest participation of Native players.
For the past 15 years, NAITA has partnered with USTA to continue efforts to involve and increase participation of Native Americans in tennis. USTA provides resources and support for this activity. In 2009, USTA, NAITA and the Red Earth Festival collaborated to provide the “Slamming & Jamming” Block Party that combined tennis and basketball to attract participants of Red Earth to tennis. The event drew over hundreds of children and their parents.
In the past year 2012, NAITA partnered with the Jim Thorpe Games held in Oklahoma City, OK with 11 sports that drew over 2000 Native athletes from throughout the United States and Canada. The Jim Thorpe Native American Games celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jim Thorpe’s gold medal performance in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. The tennis event drew over 100 Native tennis players to compete for gold, silver and bronze medals. Again, support was provided to this event by USTA, providing tennis clinics for the athletes and community children. Many tribes were represented in tennis, such as the Cherokee, Navajo, Kiowa, Caddo, Cheyenne and Osage tribes. There was welcome support from USTA and USTA Missouri Valley staff for the tennis during the Jim Thorpe Games.
I believe tennis is very important in Native American communities as we face the many health disparities such as diabetes and obesity. As we find more and more of our young children are now being affected by many health issues, I think that tennis could be one of the ways along with proper nutrition to combat these diseases in our Native communities. I also think the benefits of tennis extend beyond that as children learn about sportsmanship, discipline and a fun sport. Recently USTA provided a session at the National Indian Education Association national conference in Oklahoma City to bring awareness of the many resources and programs available through USTA to Native educators. I feel that USTA’s outreach to Native programs and organizations can certainly help in bringing awareness of tennis and everything that it offers to Native people. I think it is important that we continue to collaborate with USTA to grow the game of tennis in Native Communities. I also look as a lifetime sport that can be enjoyed by Native American families for many years.