Native-specific active lifestyle stories were created to share what’s working in Indian Country.
During the spring and summer of 2017, NB3F worked with James Bell Associates to conduct in-depth interviews with three of NB3F’s community partners (grantees): Inter Tribal Sports (CA), the STAR School (AZ), and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (NM).
We are honored to share the stories of three community partners that utilize the strengths of their communities to increase youth participation in physical activities. The active lifestyle stories describe (1) the evolution of the programs or initiatives, (2) the resources each program needed, and (3) the impact the programs had on their children, youth, and community.
This story features Inter Tribal Sports (ITS), a nonprofit organization working to unify tribal youth and communities through structured athletic programs, while providing resources and creating a foundation of culture, leadership, and wellness. Headquartered in Temecula, CA, ITS currently serves children and youth from 20 tribal communities spanning a nearly 200-mile area across 4 counties in Southern California. The organization is governed by a board of directors with diverse representation from over 20 participating tribes and tribal organizations.
Unifying Tribal Communities
In 2002, a group of adults from four tribal communities in Southern California noticed there was a lot of division between the communities, and it was affecting the youth. At that time, kids were playing “rez ball” (a type of backyard basketball with no structure or rules), but the adults felt the youth needed something more structured that would keep them busy and bring them together. To address this need, they created the area’s first intertribal flag football league. Additional tribes began to show interest, and the football league evolved to include basketball and softball in response to the demand for more sporting options for tribal youth and families. The league was renamed Inter Tribal Sports. By 2009, ITS became incorporated, with multiple tribal communities helping establish ITS as a nonprofit organization with a board of directors and administrative team handling the day-to-day operations.
To date, ITS has offered a range of recreation sports leagues, cultural gatherings, and wellness activities to tribal youth and their families from as many as 22 communities in the region. Through quality activities, ITS strives to keep tribal youth active year-round, connect them with healthy activities and opportunities for personal growth, and expose them to the culture of Southern California’s Native peoples. The vision of ITS, as described by the executive director, is to create “new, healthy Tribal Leaders for the entire region . . . [that have] relationships [with each other] as a result of ITS programs.” The executive director and the board hope that youth participating in ITS activities will serve as role models and that they will one day sit across from each other at their council tables and “share [a] connection of healthy lifestyle, through sports, nutrition, and culture.”
Free and Inclusive Activity
ITS offers coed basketball, flag football, softball, soccer, All Stars Basketball, cheer, and running programs to tribal boys and girls aged 4–18. ITS offers these year-round leagues at no cost to the families. Typically, young people play for the tribe with which they are associated or enrolled, although some choose the tribe closest to their homes. In recent years, because ITS includes communities from all parts of Southern California, it has organized the sports leagues into three regions—northern, central, and southern—to reduce travel costs and time. Teams practice in their own communities at least twice a week and play a team from their region on the weekend. Then two to three times per season, ITS brings all the communities together for events like sports skills camps, league opening day, and championship game events for friendly, healthy competitions.
Through support from Marathon Kids and Nike N7, ITS started its running program last year. The program is designed to encourage youth and families to run together, and its goal is to get participating youth and adults to complete four marathons each year. Last year, 6 reservations participated in the program; next year, ITS hopes to have 12 or more communities join the fun. ITS plans to host at least one running event each year with all of the participating communities, and it hopes to expand the event to each of the three regions.
The leagues and running program are open to all youth, regardless of gender, skill, or experience level. ITS encourages youth who haven’t played, but want a chance to play, to sign up. One parent and coach described ITS as “one of those organizations that—[if] you want a shot, [they’ll] give you a shot, no matter what. You don’t have to be the best, you don’t have to prove yourself . . . just come and play.” This guiding principle ensures that children and youth living on local reservations have access to sports and to each other. As a result, ITS has become a “household name,” said the former executive director, who added, “it’s amazing to see . . . how many tribes know [what] ITS is, and they just expect their kids to participate.” For one ITS staff member, the experience has come full circle: his son and daughter play in the same league he and his brother joined when they were growing up.
In addition to the physical activity programs, ITS offers free enrichment programs focused on leadership, culture, and wellness outreach. The wellness outreach activities are offered at events to the whole family and promote healthy eating and drinking. ITS staff provide nutrition education that includes understanding nutrition labels, the intake of carbohydrates and sugars, the impact of nutrition on diabetes, and the importance of portion control; they also incorporate indigenous foods into the educational programs by providing samples of cuisine from all different regions. Last, wellness outreach efforts teach families how to refuel after playing sports, and ITS puts this knowledge into action by providing free healthy snacks and beverages to kids during the ITS sports games through its outreach booth: Rez Dogg Refreshments. Rez Dogg is ITS’ mascot. His backstory is that he started out as a wild “rez dog” that ran loose, chasing things and eating trash. One day, he decided to make a lifestyle change and began eating healthy and being physically active. Rez Dogg comes to all ITS games to promote and share his healthy lifestyle, and all of the families love him. ITS is also in the process of developing a leadership program, which it hopes will complement existing programs and involve peer education, personal development, and community service.
Sharing and Practicing Culture
ITS’ integration of culture into its programming reflects a tradition of sharing between the tribes in the region. Historically, tribes in Southern California came together for games, trading, gatherings, and ceremonies; however, more recently, tribes often come together only to mourn at a funeral or to celebrate a birthday. ITS seeks to uphold the traditional values of unity, reciprocity, generosity, and mentoring by bringing tribal communities and different generations together in good ways to focus on health, wellness, and community through its programs and events.
The structure of the games allows for and encourages cultural practices and traditions. For example, one parent said, “There are some players or some teams that get blessed by somebody coming out there with the sage . . . Some people meditate before the game.” By allowing the time and space for these cultural practices to occur before games, youth and adults not only are exposed to other tribes’ traditions but also may be inspired to practice their own on the field. Many teams also count off in their language during team huddles and then say a word in their language or the opposing team’s traditional name. A league site supervisor said he teaches his players “culture is respect. Respect not only yourself but the people around and respect the elders, respect Mother Earth, and respect each other.” In addition, ITS starts its Opening Day and Championship Game events with an elder or representative from the host tribe providing an opening ceremony or blessing and a performance by the Kumeyaay bird singers and dancers. ITS also hosts one or two cultural gatherings each year, where as many as 100 ITS youth come together at one reservation to learn about different tribal cultures in the region, including language, foods, traditional crafts, art, music, and songs. These events are taught by local tribal members who possess special knowledge of their community’s cultures.
Community Resources Underpinning Inter Tribal Sports
The work of ITS would not be possible without the support of the board members, coaches, tribal leaders, parents, community members, external partners, and dedicated staff and volunteers. Both former and current executive directors express that the importance of this unique collaboration cannot be overstated. The former executive director also said, “Working with so many tribes with so many unique aspects about each one, whether it be their community . . . their location . . . their recreational facilities, without the support of each and every one of those tribes and tribal leaders, which then carries over to the board representatives, I don’t think ITS would even be in existence today.” Both executive directors feel strongly about community involvement and the importance of the board comprising relatives of participating youth and representatives from each tribe—a component that makes ITS so distinctive.
ITS also benefits from the parents and relatives of the participating youth, as these individuals volunteer as coaches and site supervisors. In these roles they lead practices, help set up games and events, and assist with scorekeeping and additional parent involvement at the games. One parent described the responsibility by saying, “I have to be here like an hour, an hour and a half before the games so that we can set up all the popups, chairs, field equipment, and everything like that . . . And you know, it’s a lot of responsibility, it’s a lot of time.” He said he found the work rewarding and that involving family members created a more comfortable learning environment for youth athletes.
ITS also attributes its success to the resources that each tribal community contributes. Some communities have large, high-quality recreation facilities that can be used for Opening Day and Championship Game events, which must support multiple games at once; other tribes provide ITS teams with large, well-maintained soccer fields and multicomplex softball fields. Sharing these resources supports those tribes that lack such facilities, enabling tribal youth from communities with less resources to join in quality athletics and meet other young people.
External organizations provide additional support to ITS programs. Funders include NB3F, Nike’s N7 Fund for Native American and Aboriginal Youth, and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
Measuring Program Success
Assessing the success and impact of the program is important to ITS. Each year, staff gather feedback from coaches and ask participants what they like most about participating in the sports leagues and how ITS can help them reach their goals. Staff have also collected information on the amount of time spent being physically active and body mass index scores and other health data from youth. Culture is a big component of ITS’ programs, and coaches and mentors use observation and their knowledge of the programs to explain how efforts to infuse culture are affecting the youth. ITS has found that participation in the sports leagues increases year after year, which is a clear indication of the program’s success.
To strengthen evaluation efforts, ITS staff would like to capture the organization’s impact on health, social and emotional development, and academic performance. ITS would like to use these data to compare impact across seasons, leagues, and years. Staff plan to share this information with the tribes, so each team can use the data to strengthen its programs and meet the needs of its community members. ITS is developing a comprehensive evaluation and data collection plan with support from the California Rural Indian Health Board (CRIHB) and is exploring opportunities to partner with local universities to collect data and assess impact.
Here are some of the ways ITS has made a difference for tribes in Southern California:
- Teaching youth about their culture and the culture of neighboring tribes—ITS provides an opportunity for youth to learn about their own culture and cultural practices and the traditions of nearby tribes. Staff feel this knowledge has a lasting impact on participants. One founder noted, “At one time there was a lot of drug addiction, a lot of these kids they weren’t getting along. So now what I see is togetherness . . . they’re helping each other . . . the language, the culture, everything. They come together . . . and share their music, their stories, their songs.”
- Instilling positive qualities in Native American youth—ITS activities seek to instill in participants a range of values, including leadership, respect, self-improvement, and self-confidence. The former executive director noted ITS strives to teach children and youth the foundations for cultural behaviors and expectations, including “how to socially interact and be respectful of your elders, and how to say thank you appropriately if you ask something of someone.”
- Encouraging a lifelong commitment to physical activity among youth—ITS teaches youth the importance of continuing to be physically active as they get older. The former executive director views ITS as “working upstream—getting and informing kids and providing resources to kids . . . so they are less likely to [face health challenges] as adults or elders.” She feels keeping youth active year-round may lead them to “grow into physically active adults and physically active grandparents that are modeling that physical activity should be one of the number-one priorities . . . at any stage of life.”
- Motivating healthy eating habits—ITS has heard its wellness efforts are creating healthy lifestyle changes among participants. The executive director shared reports of youth making decisions to change their eating habits, read food labels, and exercise portion control. This is especially important for those young people who are approaching their teenage years—the time when they can make more choices about what they eat.
- Improving academic performance and attendance—School staff, parents, and coaches feel ITS has improved the attitudes of students and their attendance at school. The executive director has received testimony from parents, who say, “Because of ITS, our children are getting better grades in school . . . before they didn’t want to go to school; now they’re up and ready to go to school and their report cards are A grades.”
- Promoting family bonding and adult physical activity—Family members often sign up for ITS activities together, with parents and grandparents commonly volunteering to coach their child’s team. The result is multiple generations spending time together in a fun, positive, and active way. One staff member said ITS is “trying to really encourage the idea that our entire lives are meant to be physically active. And it’s really great to see that a lot of our parents now are more engaged physically with their kids.”
- Keeping youth busy, active, and happy—ITS gives children and youth quality, structured activities for after school and on the weekends. One youth said, “I’m thankful for them . . . letting us do active things, because I think without ITS, it would kind of be . . . boring, different. Because ITS, it gets us busy and instead of doing something like staying home playing a game, we can come out here and play.” He said the program makes him feel happy because he’s playing a lot of sports and gets to see his friends. Another participant said he started with ITS because his parents wanted him to be active, but he keeps coming back because it’s fun, it’s competitive, he gets to play with other tribes, and he wants to stay active. The former executive director said she felt a similar sentiment watching the number of participants increase season after season: “[The] bottom line is . . . are the kids having a good time when they’re playing? And that, we see, and we feel every day.”
- Positively affecting the broader community—The board of directors’ vice president said, “ITS has had significant impact on our entire tribal community. This has been attained through the positive outcomes with sports participation and other opportunities ITS has to offer. In addition to this, I feel ITS has united the entire region and facilitated . . . the reconnection of our reservations and other tribal communities.”v