Fort Lewis College is one of six Native American-serving, non-tribal colleges in the United States. They provide free tuition to Native American students, and 26% of all baccalaureate degrees awarded to Native American students come from Fort Lewis, the most of any college. Like the school, the school’s MCLA team does a great job honoring the Indigenous people in the area in multiple ways on and off the field.
The Fort Lewis army post was built in 1878 in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and later moved to Hesperus in 1880 in the southern slopes of the La Plata Mountains. In 1891, it was decommissioned and converted into an off-reservation federal Indian boarding school. In 1911, the land and buildings were transferred to the state of Colorado to provide free and equal education opportunities to Native American students. What started as just a high school has grown into a four-year college with NCAA Division II athletics that is also outside of the CSU system and has its own board of directors. The college now sits atop a mesa overlooking the city of Durango and the 13,000-foot peaks of the La Plata mountain. The buildings are custom-chiseled sandstone to reflect the heritage of the Pueblo Indians. Before on-campus events, a Land Acknowledgement is read to recognize that the land is connected to the communal and ceremonial spaces of the Jicarilla Apache (Apache), Pueblos of New Mexico, Hopi Sinom (Hopi), and Diné (Navajo) Nations.
The Fort Lewis College lacrosse team was started in the 1980s and now plays in the RMLC DII conference of the MCLA. The history of the school and the area inspires the team with a unique perspective in playing a truly Native American sport. A big way the team honors the Indigenous people of the area is through their helmet and uniform design. For the past 20+ years they have included different decals which includes the Skyhawk logo, sacred feathers worn by native members in the community, and patterns and designs used by multiple tribal communities within the Four Corners region.
I spoke with Skyhawks midfielder, Kyen Attakai, a full blooded Navajo whose clans are Tábaahá (Water edge ), Trizi Láni (Manygoats), Tsé Nikini (Cliff dweller), and Tótsohnit (Bitter water) who had this to say.
“My experience growing up in the Navajo Nation was one of the best experiences I could have had. When I was young, living in Whitecone, Arizona, with my two grandparents (nalí), we lived five miles from the main road, more than 50 miles from the nearest grocery store, and further from any town or city. Within my household, I had multiple family members living in a three-bedroom house, including me, my mom, dad, older sister, my six aunts, and my uncle. The house also had no running water, which I thought was normal at the time. Even when visiting relatives and family friends, they were all living in the same situation, and some were without electricity also. Growing up this way with my family, I never thought of it as a hard lifestyle because, for many generations, Native Americans have lived this way. In the Navajo culture, we are taught a lot of values throughout our life about family, nature, and living in balance. I’m very fortunate to be able to go to Fort Lewis College to get my degree in exercise physiology. They do a good job respecting our cultures and giving resources to learn some native cultures, which helped me cope with going to school away from home because other students were in the same situation. Fort Lewis was only five hours away from but within driving distance to be with family. Fort Lewis is also the place where I found the game of lacrosse. Playing on the Fort Lewis College Men’s Lacrosse team, we have built a brotherhood going into every game, battling for each to come out with a win. We, as a team, will welcome any newcomers who will come to work hard and have fun playing a great game. The Navajo Reservation is not known for the sport of lacrosse; it’s known for basketball. Navajo Nation has some of AZ’s biggest high school basketball stadiums. I played basketball in high school and saw how big it has grown in my town and reservation. Lacrosse has been more of a northern and eastern sport. When I found lacrosse in 2021, I had never played before or ever seen the sport played in person. I picked up a stick and did everything I could to learn and be the best I could at lacrosse. The game is a Native American sport, and that stuck out to me, and I took pride in a game that the creators had given us. Back in March, I had the opportunity to introduce the game to my hometown. We host a weekend of games inviting the community to come and watch. This past year it’s been my goal to grow the game of lacrosse not only as a player but as a teacher of the game.”