‘I Am A Role Model’: The inspiration behind Bronson Koenig’s Native American activism

The Players Tribune
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Bronson Koenig does not have any Sioux blood running through his veins, but the star point guard for the Wisconsin Badgers drove 13 hours to stand with protestors in opposition to an oil pipeline in Fort Yates, North Dakota, this past weekend because his people have dealt with the same injustices currently facing the Standing Rock Sioux.

Koenig’s mother is full-blood Ho-Chunk, which, as Koenig explains, is the same thing as the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska. They’re the same people. They come from the same ancestors. They were the same tribe, except the Ho-Chunk are the people that opted to remain in Wisconsin when, roughly 150 years ago, the federal government came in and forcibly removed the tribe from their land. The Winnebago first were given a reservation in Minnesota before that, too, was taken, and the tribe was sent to a plot of land on the Nebraska-Iowa border.

This fight is personal for Koenig, even if he didn’t know any Standing Rock Sioux personally.

He’s embraced his place as a role model in the Native American community, where basketball is a massively popular sport. He understands that kids living on these reservations look up to him. As Clint Parks, a trainer that flew from Wyoming to Madison just to join the 1,500-mile round-trip drive, tells it, those kids see Koenig the way the rest of America sees LeBron James.

“My mom has always told me that I’m a role model whether I like it or not, and she’s always pushed me to be the best role model I can be for our youth,” Koenig says. He knows that he has a national platform right now, one that may not last beyond his senior season in Madison, which is why he has spent the last month doing everything he can to raise awareness for a fight he believes he was born into.

The protest centers around the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion project that is being built to carry 470,000 gallons of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois. The path of the pipeline does not cut across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, but the current plans would destroy sacred cultural sites and burial ground in addition to potentially contaminating the water the tribe gets from the Missouri River. On Monday, a D.C. circuit court officially halted construction on the pipeline until a decision can be made.

Since the protests began roughly a month ago, Koenig’s Twitter and Instagram pages have been littered with updates about the protests, a push for national news recognition he feels this issue requires.

That’s no different than any activist with a platform and an opinion, but to truly comprehend the importance of this trip and the value that the accessibility of an icon brings, you need to understand what life is like on that reservation.

Koenig hosted a basketball clinic at the local high school, photo courtesy Clint Parks
Koenig hosted a basketball clinic at the local high school, photo courtesy Clint Parks

The Standing Rock Reservation is a 3,571-square mile plot of land that overlaps the border between North and South Dakota. Bordered on the east by the Missouri River, the reservation is one of the poorest areas in the United States.

The unemployment rate on the reservation is a stunning 79% percent, according to a report from MSNBC in 2014, a number that is even more striking in comparison to the state of North Dakota, where an oil boom has lowered the state’s unemployment rate to 3.1%. Many of the jobs created as a result of this boom are in the construction industry, where infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline is needed to transport the oil and natural gas pulled from the earth to the rest of the country.

The poverty rate in Standing Rock is 43%, more than triple the national average, and the two counties that make up the reservation — Sioux County in North Dakota and Corson County in South Dakota — are two of the ten poorest counties in the country.

“Crumbling homes and boarded up, graffiti-scarred buildings dot this forlorn place, where the great needs of families are etched in the faces of many who live here,” that report from MSNBC read. “There’s a crippling Third World-ness to many parts of the reservation, with life expectancy and quality of life rates among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.”

“There is little economic activity to speak of and childhood mortality, suicide and dropout rates are among the highest in the nation. Food insecurity is vast. Access to quality healthcare and education is lacking. Far too many go without electricity or running water. These conditions are made worse by political and economic red tape that stymie growth and development.”

The camp Koenig stayed at while in North Dakota, via @ThePlayersTribune
The camp Koenig stayed at while in North Dakota, via @ThePlayersTribune

Koenig knew what he was going to see in Standing Rock when he arrived. He knew the numbers and he’s heard the stories, which is why the most tangible effect of Koenig’s trip was charity.

Koenig’s older brother, Miles, coordinated with the Three Rivers House — where he is a community outreach organizer — and the Hunger Task Force, among other charities, to stock an 18-foot trailer to the ceiling with supplies. Not just food and water, but things seemingly as fundamental as shoes and winter coats, two things will be vital for protesters and tribe members as fall turns to winter. The brothers, along with Parks, also lugged up a pair of generators, which will be useful on the reservation in the long-term but will be immediately useful for the thousands of protesters that are currently occupying four camps in and around the construction site.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that people needing shoes and coats with a North Dakota winter bearing down are struggling.

But knowing and being prepared to see it all up close are two different things.

“Just seeing the reservation and the condition that they live in,” Koenig said, trailing off. “It was pretty eye-opening and made me appreciate everything that I have. Seeing the kids walking around, the conditions that they live in, in the middle of nowhere? You don’t really have much to look forward to.”

“That place,” Parks said, “was given hope with Bronson showing up.”

The trailer, courtesy Clint Parks
The trailer, courtesy Clint Parks

There-in lies the importance of Koenig’s trip, the value that comes with embracing one’s status as the pillar of a community. It’s not just that he’s giving these people supplies that they need, supplies that will undoubtedly help them get by in what is always a long, dark, cold winter. It’s not that he’s hosting basketball clinics and allowing these children a chance to rub elbows and take pictures with their hero. And it’s not just that he’s shining a spotlight on a cause that has been totally overlooked as we argue over whether or not Colin Kaepernick disrespected the flag.

If we, as Americans, ignore a cause — one supporting our nation’s largest minority group — championed by an NFL quarterback because we can’t get past his method of protest, is it any wonder the DAPL protests struggle to make headlines?

So yes, the work Koenig is doing promoting the cause is invaluable, but it’s not as important as the self-confidence he gives Native American children around the country, the belief that they can make it out, they can be successful in life, they can put themselves into a position where they can give back to a community the same way that Koenig has.

And, quite frankly, it’s a chance to provide a simple distraction to everything else going on in their world.

“[We went] there to bring joy to their lives, take their minds off the issue with the tension that’s been growing there over the last month,” Koenig said. “Show them that I’m 100% supportive of them because they’ve been 100% supportive of me whether I have a great game or play awful.” It’s great to have the support of a community, to have an entire nation of people behind you.

And it was time for Koenig to show his people that he is behind them, that he’s in this fight with them. He was there because a retweet is fleeting. The only way to truly support a cause is by going all-in.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Koenig said. “I’ll remember it forever.”

via The Players Tribune
Bronson Koenig with children of the Standing Rock Sioux, via The Players Tribune