National Native American Heritage Day and Month… and Bicycles

My last post was a mashup: a rant about commercialism and the whitewashing of the true history of Thanksgiving but also the good part of the holiday (gratitude). In keeping with that (Great) spirit and my belief that racism is you know, like, bad (der), it’s time to celebrate the next in a series mentioning the obvious but overlooked fact. That is, that people of color ride bikes just like this and many other white dudes and dudettes. We’ve taken a look at cycling in the Asian, Latino/a, and African American cultures, now it’s time for Americas First Peoples. Disclaimer: I’m a white person, and I’m not attempting to speak for anyone except myself. But I learned a lot researching this, and hopefully you will, too.

Source: Wikipedia

For some reason, Congress made the fourth (aka Black) Friday in November National Native American Heritage Day. In recent years the whole month of November has been commemorated the same. Sadly, thanks to racism in school boards and public education, the only famous Native American athlete I could think of was Jim Thorpe. There are well-known talented Native athletes in other sports, from basketball’s Kyrie Irving, other track and field stars, to hockey, and more. Here’s a list from Wikipedia.) But cycling has its place amongst America’s indigenous peoples, and now two Native American professional cyclists count in its ranks.

Neilson Powless and Shayna Powless are not only pros but as you might guess by the name, brother and sister. Neilson is part of Austin, Texas home boy Lawson Craddock’s UCI World Team EF Education-Nippo. He raced in the Vuelta a Espana in 2019, and the Tour de France in 2020 and 2021. In this year’s race he had two top five stage placings and was a factor in keeping his team leader Rigoberto Uran in the mix. Shayna started out as a runner and triathlete then cross-country mountain biker but now is mostly a roadie with Team 20 Pro Cycling. She won the national mountain bike championship in 2013 and other races, and continues competing as well as training other riders.

Neilson in one of two top five finishes in the 2021 Tour de France. Source: ESPN Marco Bertorello / AFP

Access to funds to develop riders into racers has been an issue. When you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing something, you might logically conclude that you’re not able to do it. That’s why representation and history matter. The American Society of Wheelmen famously excluded all types of people of color for many years. The Trail of Tears was a forced march of indigenous Americans that was a part of the forced displacement and ethnic cleansing by white Americans. There is an annual bike ride to commemorate this removal. Each year, members of the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians bicycle 1,000 miles from Georgia to Oklahoma. They retrace one of the paths, calling it the Remember the Removal ride. It is in honor of their 4,000 ancestors killed by the march. Read about it it in this article in Bicycling Magazine.

Before the start of the MMIW Bike/Run USA 2021 in Desmet, Idaho is visiting Native American reservations across the county to honor the growing list of indigenous women and children who have gone missing or were murdered. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Another event, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Bike Run, highlights another tragic aspect of life for Native Americans, women in particular: They “are 10 times more likely to be kidnapped or murdered with little to no conviction rates, according to U.S. Department of Justice research” according to the article in the Spokesman-Rview. (The film Wind River with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen explored this topic. The MMIW run and bike ride is crossing the country to meet with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo, and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet-level Secretary to continue to put pressure on addressing this epidemic of violence. Shayna Powless’s Dreamcatcher Foundation also focuses on this issue.

Dream Catcher Foundation

But back to today: Unlike in most communities in the U.S., Native American kids on reservations have a much harder time getting around by bike. Obviously, not every Native lives on a reservation; only 22% do. But due to long-standing income inequities, simply having a bike to ride is a luxury. If you do, having the money for repairing it, buying helmets, shoes, clothing, lights, etc. are real barriers. Here’s a heartwarming story of one eight-year old boy in Minnesota who on vacation in South Dakota decided that “kids need bikes.” With the help of his family and some bike shops, he proceeded to raise funds to deliver scores of them to numerous Lakota (Sioux) and other reservations. A web search brings up a number of similar stories. Clearly there is opportunity and thirst for biking “on the res.”

Many opportunities that people in the U.S. take for granted do not readily exist on Native American reservations. Across the combined 29,500-plus square miles of Hopi and Diné (Navajo) land, there isn’t one bicycle shop, according to the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division.

“Programs encourage Navajo youths to ride bikes” —The Durango Herald
Source: SiiHasin Bike Project via The Durango Herald

I witnessed this myself on my big trip in 2016 to the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, which included time spent in reservation areas. There was definitely substandard housing, little infrastructure, and I don’t recall seeing anyone on a bike — kid or adult. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

No matter who you are, riding a bike is a little bit of empowerment, of freedom, and hope. And after centuries of oppression, our Native sisters and brothers deserve so much better. With increased attention, support, infrastructure, and education, this dude hopes that biking will have a greater role to play for those individuals and tribes that want it on reservations and for Native Americans across the U.S.


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