For native student at Fort Lewis College, lacrosse and his family were a lifeline as pandemic disrupted classes

It wasn’t until she picked up a traditional lacrosse stick in seventh grade in the Twin Cities Native Lacrosse League that Polk finally found her sport. She first played modern lacrosse when she tried her hand at her high school team as a ninth grader. Lacrosse quickly became a driving force when it began to look to colleges.

And while she was able to experience campus life for a few months, Polk’s fall semester at Fort Lewis was cut short. In early November, the lacrosse coach called an urgent team meeting. A party on campus was the source of a coronavirus outbreak. The team, gathered on the pitch, fell silent when their coach told them training was on hold for the remainder of the fall.

Then, the college announced that all teaching would be remote until the Christmas holidays. Polk made the decision to return to Minnesota and finish the semester there, so her parents once again left for Colorado to bring her home.

Jeremy Wade Shockley / For the Hechinger Report / CPR News
Nina Polk, who is Diné (Navajo), Sičangu Lakota, San Carlos Apache and Quechan, holds a traditional Great Lakes lacrosse stick. Tribes such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Choctaw, and Ojibway played traditional lacrosse before it was appropriated by European settlers, who adapted it to create modern lacrosse.

While Polk was disappointed to miss fall lacrosse training, being home was in many ways a relief from the stress of campus life during the pandemic. It also allowed her to spend precious time with her family, including her parents, her three grandparents and her little sister, Tusweča, which means “dragonfly” in Lakota.

“When she was born I was like, ‘I’m going to be the best sister ever,'” Polk said. “I want her to like lacrosse. I’ll try to teach him that.

At 19, Polk is over ten years older than Tusweča. His parents were around his age when they met at Haskell Indian Nations University, a boarding school turned tribal college in Lawrence, Kansas. She said she got her love of art from her mother, a mixed media artist, and her athletic ability from her father, a professional disc golf player.

In January, when the campus reopened, Polk returned to Colorado and joined his fellow Skyhawks on the lacrosse field. Although the spring season was disrupted by frequent coronavirus tests, shin splints, and canceled matches, Polk was happy to spend weekends on the road, doing his homework on long bus trips and in highways. hotel rooms in places such as Colorado Springs and Denver.

Polk also shared her culture with her teammates by teaching them the history of the game. Some of them even knew her through TikTok before meeting her in person. Before entering college, Polk had started recording and sharing TikTok Videos on the differences between modern and traditional lacrosse, which has attracted tens of thousands of views.

In videos and in conversations with her teammates, she explained how tribes such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Choctaw and Ojibway played traditional lacrosse before it was appropriated by European settlers, who have adapted to create the modern butt. She learned the Great Lakes version, called thakápsičapi Where baaga’adowewin, played by the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes.

“We call it the Creator’s Game or the Medicine Game, because we think it was given to us by the Creator,” Polk said. “It was a healing game because it connected us to the earth, to animals, to water.”

After successfully completing the spring semester at Fort Lewis, Polk returned to Minnesota for the summer. She resumed her traditional Great Lakes stick and has been invited to speak about the history of Indigenous lacrosse at several professional lacrosse events.

While Polk feels welcome at Fort Lewis and enjoys sharing her culture with her teammates across lacrosse, she, too, is feeling the effects of the pandemic on mental health. She lacked motivation for online learning and worried about her grades. And she struggled with her art classes, which had always been an important creative outlet. She even began to wonder if this was still the career path she wanted to pursue.

Lacrosse, on the other hand, had become Polk’s lifeline.

“That’s what motivated me, the game itself,” she said.

210929-WEST-NATIVE-COLLEGE-STUDENTSZachary Robbins / For the Hechinger Report / CPR News
Fort Lewis College women’s lacrosse forward Nina Polk on the field during an away game at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in March 2021.

At Fort Lewis, Nixon says last year’s challenges are manifested in college retention rate – the number of freshmen returning for second years. As of fall 2019, the college retained 62% of all students and 57% of Native American students. In fall 2021, the numbers were 54% and 49%, respectively, meaning that less than half of Fort Lewis’ Native American freshmen in fall 2020 returned to campus the following year, according to college data.

This corresponds to national trends. Native Americans were the group of students most likely to withdraw or take time off of college due to the pandemic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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