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Two weeks after he began speaking out against an oil pipeline that could threaten sacred tribal land in North Dakota, college basketball’s most renowned Native American player decided Twitter and Instagram posts were no longer enough.
He wants to stand side-by-side with his people.
Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koenig, older brother Miles and trainer Clint Parks intend to leave Madison on Friday afternoon and drive about 11 hours until they reach one of several protest camps 30 to 45 minutes south of Bismarck. They’ll set up camp there for the weekend alongside thousands of other Native Americans whose colorful tribal flags line the dirt access roads and whose teepees, tents and RVs cover the prairie.
Koenig and Parks are also hoping to organize a free three-hour basketball clinic for Native American kids on Saturday evening. They’re in the process of seeking out a gym close enough to the protest site but big enough to accommodate a potential large turnout.
“I hope to bring awareness to the cause and give everyone there a little bit of joy and a little bit of hope,” Koenig told Yahoo Sports. “I want to take time out of my schedule to pray with them and protest with them and show them that I’m right alongside them. They’ve always had my back whether I have an awful game or a great game, and this is my way of repaying the favor.”
While the Dakota Access Pipeline would run through four states and transport about half a million barrels of oil each day, protesters insist the proposed route’s risks outweigh the benefits. The Standing Rock Sioux have argued construction of the pipeline could damage sacred sites and burial places and potential leaks could pollute the drinking water used by residents of the nearby reservation and millions further downstream.
Opponents of the pipeline won a surprising but significant victory last Friday when a federal order temporarily halted construction near the reservation and called for “serious discussion” whether tribes should be more involved in future infrastructure projects. Nonetheless, throngs of protesters from tribes across the country continue to converge on the North Dakota prairie in hopes of obtaining a permanent construction stoppage.
Koenig joining the fight is significant because of his stature in a Native American community largely devoid of prominent basketball players. Only about a dozen players in men’s college basketball each year are of native descent, and few are as revered as Koenig.
When Wisconsin plays at other Big Ten programs, Native American families with no other ties to the Badgers show up wearing his jersey and waving posters with his picture on them. Anytime Wisconsin has a big game coming up, he can expect a flood of well wishes from Native American fans on social media. Among the dozens of autograph seekers who approached Koenig at the Ho-Chunk Nation’s annual powwow earlier this month was a floppy-haired boy who handed him a black Sharpie and asked him to sign his forehead.
“In the native American community, I would compare his platform to a LeBron or Carmelo,” Parks said. “For his community, that’s what he is to them. I’ve had the opportunity to work a couple different camps at reservations with Native American kids this summer, and these kids are not saying they want to be LeBron or Steph. They’re saying they want to be Bronson Koenig. They can’t really identify with LeBron or Steph. But they see Bronson, and they think, ‘That’s me. If he can do it, I can do it.'”
Koenig’s popularity stems from both his accomplishments and his outspokenness.
Hailed as one of the nation’s premier high school point guard prospects after leading La Crosse Aquinas to a pair of state titles, Koenig signed with Wisconsin despite offers from the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Virginia. Koenig emerged as a key contributor on Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four teams in 2014 and 2015 and sank the buzzer-beating corner 3-pointer that sent the Badgers to the Sweet 16 last March.
Koenig grew up in predominately white La Crosse rather than a reservation, but his parents still instilled pride for his Native American heritage and sensitivity to their plight as an oft-overlooked minority. His mother is 100 percent Ho-Chunk and works for the tribe’s technology department. His father studied anthropology and encouraged Koenig to learn about different different cultures.
One of the reasons Koenig chose Wisconsin over higher-profile basketball programs was because of the proximity to his own tribe and many others. Former Badgers coach Bo Ryan understood being a role model was important to Koenig and sold him on the fact that Native Americans would be able to attend his games and chat with him afterward.
When Wisconsin played at Nebraska during Koenig’s freshman year, a group of boys basketball players, parents and coaches from the Winnebago Tribe drove more than 100 miles to meet him. Koenig spoke to them for about 45 minutes the morning of the game, describing his own path to big-time college basketball and emphasizing the possibilities for the boys if they worked hard on the court and in the classroom.
“That was my first true speaking engagement,” Koenig said. “That kind of opened my eyes a little bit. It allowed me to see how big a role model I am to real people. My outlook changed after that. It made me look at my actions and make sure I’m always doing the right things.”
From taking several American Indians studies classes, to accepting more opportunities to speak with kids, to strongly criticizing the disrespectful use of Native Americans as athletic mascots, Koenig has taken his role model status seriously at Wisconsin. Last year, he even had his barber carve a feather into the side of his head so that his haircut would reflect his Native American pride.
In recent weeks, Koenig’s focus has been on the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline. In a late-August Instagram post, Koenig wrote, “ANOTHER treaty NOT honored and no respect for the people who inhabited this country for thousands of years. … My people have been mistreated for far too long.”
For Koenig, the next logical step is piling into a car and road tripping 11 hours so that Native Americans understand his words are more than just lip service. He views it as his responsibility at a time when more and more prominent athletes from other cultures are speaking out about social issues that are important to them.
“There aren’t many Native American LeBron James and Colin Kaepernicks in professional sports really, so I look at myself like I’m kind of in their position,” Koenig said. “I’m still in college, but I’m still one of the more well known Native American athletes in this country. So I kind of feel obligated to speak up for our people.”
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