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Rarity in Division I Athletics, Native American Excels on Basketball Court

Basketball guard Tahnee Robinson is one of very few highly visible Native Americans playing on a Division I sports team. She is descended from several tribes. Her mother is Pawnee and Eastern Shoshone. Her father is Northern Cheyenne and Sioux. Her family still lives on the Wind River Reservation in Fort Washakie, Wyo., the same reservation where she grew up.

Although clearly a standout for the University Nevada Wolf Pack, Robinson was largely unknown outside of the Western Athletic Conference.

That was until Robinson became one of five finalists for the Sullivan Award, an honor bestowed each year by the Amateur Athletic Union to an outstanding amateur athlete.

Maya Moore, the nation’s most heralded women’s college basketball player, had been one of 12 semi-finalists for the Sullivan Award, named after AAU founder James E. Sullivan. But the University of Connecticut superstar’s name was absent from the five finalists.

Public votes account for a percentage of the final results, and Robinson credits her many supporters for helping make her a finalist. “For the Native American community to support me the way that they have is incredible,” says Robinson. “I’m not a member of their tribe, but they’ve supported me through everything, no matter what.

“People drive hours to our games,” she says. “Not only in Nevada (where there is a large Native American population). When we went to Louisiana Tech, there were a few people who drove four to six hours from home to watch the game. When we go to Idaho, there are people traveling to watch us play there.”

Robinson credits her parents with instilling in her a sense of importance about school and sports — something she said is lacking in many Native American households. Her mother was her first coach and her father drove her to the gym whenever she asked. They sent her to basketball camp and drove her long distances to tournaments.

“A lot of the parents don’t really back their children up. The kids feel they can skip school, they can party. Alcohol and drugs play a really big role in that,” says Robinson.

For most of elementary school, she went to school on the reservation — except for two years when she lived in Laramie, Wyo., where her mother was attending law school. She attended school in town for junior high school and high school.

“I definitely want people to be motivated, but not only the kids,” she says. “I want their families and their parents to learn from my mom and my dad. I want families to know that kids need guidance. They need to be pushed. You need to take time out of your day for them. There are a lot of parents lacking in that.

“When I talk to kids, they have big dreams,” she continues. “They say they want to be like me or they want to go to college. It’s great to have those dreams, but you definitely need people behind you to support those dreams. Kids can’t do it by themselves.”

Even with her support system, Robinson says her life took some unexpected turns. Wanting to stay close to home, Robinson originally chose to attend college at the University of Wyoming. Fall of her freshman year, she got pregnant and left school.

Only a few months after her son, Julius, was born in 2007, Robinson entered Sheridan College, a community college where for the next two years she excelled on the basketball court and in the classroom. Then Nevada coach Jane Albright offered her a scholarship. Her junior year, she was WAC Newcomer of the Year and first-team All-WAC. This year, she’s been named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s All-Region team and is a candidate for All America honors. This past weekend the Wolf Pack won its first-ever postseason game, advancing to the second round in the WNIT.

At Nevada, her voice has sounded loudly for Native Americans.

“I can be that person who made it so that little girls, little boys and even teenagers can look up to me and think, ‘I want to be like her,’” Robinson says. “To be able to change just one person’s life from what I’ve done is so satisfying.”

Albright, a veteran college coach, says she’s amazed to watch the impact Robinson has had on Native Americans in Nevada and beyond. The Wolf Pack are the only Division I women’s basketball team to be part of Nike N7, a program Nike has for Native American and aboriginal communities in the U.S. and Canada. N7 encourages physical activity, something often lacking on reservations, where childhood obesity is a significant problem.

“I go with her to the reservations and listen to her talk. It’s been inspirational to me,” says Albright. “I knew she could play basketball, but watching her grow and turn into this amazing person is extraordinary. The best is yet to come.”

On March 14, the Sullivan Award went to figure skater Evan Lysacek, a gold medal-winner at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Robinson says her next goal is to graduate from Nevada and play professional basketball, hopefully becoming the first highly visible Native American in the WNBA.

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