JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: A legacy of Native American boxing
Imagine a car filled with young American Indian boxers on the White Earth, Leech Lake or Red Lake Reservation. They could be headed towards Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids or Bemidji. They are young teenage boys who may have not trained too well, have not eaten too well and who may be going up against a more fit experienced boxer.
The voices of the boys are filled with timid enthusiasm. The coaches remind them again about saving their energy and not to go all out in the first round. They try to give them confidence. Some of them will be in the ring for the first time.
Parents, relatives and friends follow behind in a convoy of cars and pickups. A grandmother who wanted to come but wasn't able to go gives one of the boys a hug before he leaves and tells him he will do just fine. There is talk of stopping to eat afterward. The boys will be hungry. Everyone has a feeling of pride. The night will be long but regardless of the outcome, it will be a good night for Native people.
The year could be in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. Boxing for Native Americans was coming into its hay day. It was a huge deal in the Native communities of northern Minnesota. Many young Native men and boys saw stepping into the ring as a way to find success and achieve greater fulfillment in life and they did it with gusto.
Hard to believe, but even as recently as the 1970’s some Native American people on reservations lived in tarpaper shacks with few conveniences. Poverty was real. Unemployment was high. Fewer Native youth graduated from high school and fewer yet from colleges and universities.
Other than such things as hunting, fishing and gathering wild rice, the positive outlets for Native youth were limited. But, then there was boxing.
Fred Weaver was one of the first boxers from White Earth who took up the sport in the military in 1919 and brought it back to the reservation. Simon Bishop, another fighter from Naytahwaush fought professionally in the early 1920’s. Charles Buckanaga wrote in his 1979 book “The American Indian Boxers of Minnesota,” and from which much of this information was taken, wrote, “He (i.e. Bishop) traveled to Dunseith, North Dakota in 1921 where he scored two, first round knockouts over two local heavyweights on the same evening.”
Charles continues, “In addition to the physical conditioning, the sport also helped us Indian kids develop socially, emotionally, and economically. Although many of us went on to other things in life after our boxing days, it was the positive contributions from the fight game that helped our lives to be fuller and happier than they might have otherwise been.”
Tommy Tibbets, Sr. was a Bemidji lightweight in the 20’s and 30’s who lost only three bouts in seventy-five bouts. He later coached the golden glove team for 10 years.
In 1945 a Ball Club fighter, Allan Wilson, became well known while fighting for Flandreau Indian School after winning a third-round knockout of Wahpeton’s Donald Maher. He put together an amazing 101 wins in his 106-bout career.
One name you will know is Bellecourt. Billy Bellecourt of White Earth was the first enrollee to win the Upper Midwest title in 1949. There were twelve other children in his family, so undoubtedly, he learned how to duke it out with his siblings. He was also an ex-paratrooper.
Curtis Buckanaga was one of Minnesota’s most outstanding boxers in the late 40’s and 50’s. Charles writes, “The smooth punching, Pine Point boxer had all the tools of the trade and everyone knew it once he stepped into the ring.”
I first became aware of the boxing world in the Native American community while teaching at Pine Point. The Buckanaga family was very instrumental in promoting the sport on the reservation and throughout northern Minnesota. They realized that when older boys and young adult men took up the sport, they were more likely to have a better life and make better decisions.
John Buckanaga, Jerry Buckanaga and Charles (Chuck) Buckanaga all became known for their boxing prowess and they all helped other Native youth realize its value. Charles was named the head coach of the 1975 National All-Indian boxing team. Ten years later and while I was serving as high school principal where he taught English and was instrumental in promoting and coaching boxing at Red Lake, which also had its share of young fighters.
Don Sargent of Naytahwaush became the first Minnesota-born American Indian boxer to win a National Golden Glove championship in 1959. After attending BIA boarding schools, he joined the Navy. He then became part of the Navy team and was the Far East Navy Boxing Champion.
Other notable American Indian boxers who were Minnesota Upper Midwest Golden Glove Champions were: Cedric Littlewolf from Cass Lake, Francis Ballanger from White Earth, Jerry Buckanaga from Pine Point, Lawrence Bellanger from White Earth, Ricky Littlewolf and Scott Papasadora from Cass Lake and Bill Rossback from Red Lake. There were many others.
The young boys and coaches in the car talked about their experience as they drove home. Some had won their match and some had lost, but the coaches had positive things to say about all of them and, of course, their friends and family were very proud. All of the boys promised to train harder, get to school, eat better and the next time, all promised to do their best to win.
It was a good night.
The history of American Indian boxing is a story to be told. It leaves a positive legacy for American Indian people and represents another important part of Native American history. If Mohammed Ali were alive today I am sure he would appreciate what boxing did for many American Indian people and proclaim, “You guys are the greatest.”
Riddle: What did one lamp say to the other lamp? (Hey! You turn me on!)
Many young Native boys turned on by boxing helped leave a wonderful legacy for Native American people.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.