USA Swimming News

Monday, November 30, 2020

Native Roots on the Starting Blocks

Native Roots on the Starting Blocks

Athletes swim for their clubs, their schools and their communities.

Native Americans Kate Bluford and Jazmine Wildcat proudly swim for their tribes, as well, representing a demographic with few participants in the sport.

Bluford lives in Mesa, AZ, with ancestral roots tracing back to Oklahoma and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribe. She has no American-Indian teammates and has only swam against one other Native athlete during her high school career. Wildcat — a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe and senior at Riverton High School in Riverton, WY — has one Native teammate, but she did not compete against other Indigenous swimmers this past season.

With numbers so small, is there added pressure stepping to the blocks as a Native American?

“I don’t feel pressure from others, but I do feel pressure from myself,” explains Bluford. “As I continue to compete and chase my goals of swimming in college and qualifying for the Olympic Trials, I hope to shed more light on Indigenous culture and encourage other Natives to become involved in this great sport.”

Wildcat’s feelings are similar. “There is some pressure because you want to represent yourself along with your people when you compete athletically. You want to bring that exposure that Natives still exist.”

As a middle schooler, Wildcat took a chance and joined the swim team, in part to spend time with her friends.

“I didn’t know anything about swimming. I barely knew how to stay afloat,” she laughs. “It was something to do. I joined when I was in sixth grade, and here I am now, senior year.”

Wildcat would like to see more participation in swimming by Native Americans. “The sport integrates our culture because we believe water has healing properties and cleanses,” she explains of the connection between the pool and her people.

She believes that the physical demands of the sport could help the health of her people, as well. “Speaking for Natives, we’re predisposed to a lot of things,” Wildcat says, such as diabetes, obesity and depression. “Swimming is physically challenging and requires different muscles than just running or playing basketball, so I think it would really help out Native youth and youth in general if more people would — and could — swim.”

Bluford’s swim journey began very early in life. “When I was less than a year old, I jumped into the pool and didn’t want to get out, so my mom enrolled me in survival swim lessons,” the 15-year-old says of her first plunge.

“I moved through the various levels, learning different strokes and spending time in the water, and became a competitive swimmer at 7-years-old.”

Both young women share a passion for advocacy and activism as well as swimming.

“So much of Indigenous culture is misrepresented and misunderstood,” explains Bluford. “A lot of what happens to Native Americans doesn’t happen to other groups.”

Bluford is active in the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (#MMIW) movement, raising awareness of the fact that Indigenous women experience violence and violent death at a higher level than other female demographic groups in the United States. A red hand painted across the mouths of activists symbolizes the silence of Indigenous women who have been harmed, have gone missing or have died.

“My parents never hid anything from me and my siblings,” Wildcat explains of her upbringing and early beginnings in activism. “They didn’t try to shelter us from what was going on in society.”

As she sees it, stepping forward to be heard is her responsibility, not only for herself but for others. “I want to inspire my sisters to speak up for themselves and be represented. I want us to grow up in a better place."

The 17-year-old has spoken on panels discussing gun violence and participated in protests against efforts to discontinue the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). 

Additionally, Wildcat founded the Nii'iini Project. In the Arapaho language, Nii’iini (nee-eeny-eeny) means “things are good.” The goal is to help others grow their mental wellness by encouraging them to engage in advocacy and community volunteerism.

Wildcat was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression when she was a freshman. “When I became open about it, I realized it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she says of the struggles she and many others face. “Mental health is health.”

The two swimmers carry their groups, topics of interest, backgrounds and organizations with them each time they dive in the water. Bluford and Wildcat are proof that while each swimmer is at the pool to compete, everyone brings their own identity and story to the starting blocks. 

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