Native American fighter Dan Hornbuckle brings hope to impoverished reservation in South Dakota

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

He was, he thought, just another anonymous face in the crowd, out for an enjoyable stroll through a fall festival on a brilliant North Carolina afternoon.

Dan Hornbuckle didn't know how wrong he was, however. A Native American, Hornbuckle had started to compete in mixed martial arts a few years earlier when he decided to check out the fall festival in Cherokee, N.C.

Hornbuckle is a member of the Cherokee tribe, and, as happens to most natives, he'd suffered through his share of racism and bigotry through the years.

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He got into MMA at 24 because he loved to train and compete, but he never saw himself representing any kind of higher power. The last thing he regarded himself as was a role model.

As he walked through that fall festival, looking at the arts and crafts, checking out the flea market, sampling the food during a typically American day, he was struck by the number of people who were congratulating him.

"I just had everybody coming up to me going, 'Oh, great job; great job,' " he said. "And then the Chief came up to me and he just couldn't thank me enough. I wasn't sure what he was talking about. He said, 'We appreciate everything you're doing and the positive impact you're making.' And I was like, 'OK. Thanks. But just what is it that I am doing?' "

Hornbuckle had dedicated himself to being in the best shape possible and was quickly gaining notice as an MMA fighter.

Nowhere was it noticed more than among those in the East Cherokee tribe.

"The Chief said, 'You don't realize what a positive role model you are [for us] by just fighting,' " Hornbuckle said. "I was like, 'Really?' And he said, 'You're dedicating yourself to a goal. You're sacrificing time away from friends, family to get there. You're achieving things at a professional level that not many Native Americans have ever achieved before. You're passing on a very important lesson.'

"In my itty, bitty little world, all I was doing was fighting. But on the reservation, I came to realize I was a very positive role model. I don't want to say it was pressure, but it was a motivator that made me realize I had more ability than just being a fighter with a bad hair cut."

From that day, Hornbuckle, now 32, realized that he was a sort of proselytizer, as well as a fighter. He's become a very successful fighter – he's 24-5 and has fought for Bellator and World Victory Road, among others, and is the reigning DEEP welterweight champion – but has realized that his calling is to be more than just the greatest fighter he can become.

He has the ability to impact lives, which Mike Kelly quickly recognized.

Kelly is a Pennsylvania businessman who works with children with special needs. He's also an MMA fan of more than 15 years, and Hornbuckle was one of his favorite fighters.

Kelly arranged a May trip to bring Hornbuckle to South Dakota to the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe of Native Americans.

It's an extraordinarily impoverished area with few opportunities.

"In a past life, I worked in the inner cities, and if you went a half-mile in any direction from the inner city, there were 500 job opportunities, from A through Z, for someone who wanted one," Kelly said. "But on the reservations, those opportunities aren't there. Pine Ridge is beautiful land, but it's barren. There are limited opportunities for them."

Kelly discovered Pine Ridge in 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He lost a friend in the attacks and he and his wife, Annie, felt the need to get off the grid for a while to regroup.

Los Angeles and New York weren't "away," in their view. So he began to research what there might be to do in South Dakota. As he read, he learned about the Pine Ridge Reservation and made a point to visit.

"We went to the reservation and I was terribly moved by what I saw," Kelly said. "I have a soft spot in my heart for the underdogs in life, and what I saw there just touched me deeply."

He became friends with tribal leaders, and even after returning to his job outside of Philadelphia, never forgot them.

Learning that Hornbuckle was a Native American gave Kelly an idea: He thought it would be great to bring Hornbuckle to speak to the children at Pine Ridge. He knew they'd be impressed to see one of their own had made it.

Kelly, though, wasn't very optimistic that Hornbuckle would share his interest or be willing to help.

"I'm just a regular guy, but I've had some interactions with celebrities," Kelly said. "I've done fundraisers where we've tried to get a celebrity to help us and they're on board if you pay them and all of that.

"Dan turned out not to be like that. He said yes right away and he couldn't wait to help. He would have stayed longer if it had been possible."

Hornbuckle had built an MMA academy in his home of Mahomet, Ill., which was an affiliate of the American Top Team. Kelly flew to Mahomet to pitch a trip to Pine Ridge.

Hornbuckle said he was interested, but he was immediately wary.

"I was like, 'Whoa. You're a world traveler. What do you want? What's the angle? What's the catch?' " Hornbuckle said. "I wasn't really understanding. I know how Natives view any outsiders coming in. A lot of my family still lives on the reservation and history has shown many times people coming in saying they're going to help and they don't actually help."

Hornbuckle expressed that view to Kelly. But after a three-hour talk, he said he felt as if Kelly were "a long-lost brother."

"I understood where he was coming from. He was sincere about wanting to help," Hornbuckle said. "He didn't want his name out there. He just wanted to help people who needed to be helped. I was down for that."

It wasn't an easy trip. They flew to Rapid City, S.D., then drove about two-and-a-half hours from there to Pine Ridge.

There was no cell phone reception. There were few signs of life, as even telephone poles were a rarity. It was a long, narrow stretch of road and a lot of wilderness.

"Those are some bad lands out there, brother," Hornbuckle said. "My cell phone reception was completely cut. That little tether we always rely on? Gone. I realized we were going toward a much different life."

Kelly had arranged for Hornbuckle to speak to the children, but never did he expect it to go as well as it did.

Not only was a famous person coming from very far away to help, he was, in many ways, one of them. He was a Native American, as well. He'd suffered the same things they suffered, but he managed to overcome the odds to succeed.

Hornbuckle was well aware of the obstacles to success for those on the reservation. He remembers being told while swimming in a community pool in Illinois that he wasn't welcome because of his skin color. When he was very young, he was trying to ride a Big Wheel toy tricycle down a steep hill.

He was struggling and one of the children said to him, "You can't ride this Big Wheel because you're black."

It was one of his earliest memories of discrimination.

"I've dealt with that kind of ignorance most of my life," he said.

And so when he got to Pine Ridge, he was welcomed as a hero. He had fought on television. He had a championship belt. He started on the reservation and had made himself a success, as a man, as an athlete and as a businessman.

"Dan has a commanding presence and you can tell quickly by looking at him he's an athlete," Kelly said. "They were enthralled by him. When he spoke, you could have heard a pin drop.

"He did such a great job, because of the way he interacted with them. He used humor and he involved them in his story. It wasn't a monologue for 40 minutes. He shared his life with them and a lot of them shared their lives with him. I expected it to be a success when I sat down with Dan, because of the kind of person I saw him to be, but it was far beyond what I ever could have imagined."

Hornbuckle felt the same way. But he said he felt he gained more personally from the session than he was able to give.

He's running a successful gym and he's doing well in MMA. That trip to South Dakota served as something of a wakeup call.

"I realized how good I have it and how many luxuries we have in our everyday lives that we take for granted," Hornbuckle said. "It put my focus back on appreciation. It's not that I didn't appreciate what I had before, but this trip allowed me to see how lucky I am, how fortunate I am. I have a lot of luxuries in my life, even if I don't think of it in those terms.

"I tell the kids I train in jiu-jitsu [at my academy], you all have your Xbox and your PlayStation and all of that and you complain about the smallest things. Try living like these people, some of whom don't have toilets and running water. And yet, they get up every day and work hard. And that makes me realize, 'You know what? I'm blessed. There is no reason I can't work hard and try the best I can to be the best I can be today.' I'm all around better for having gone."

No longer will he ever see himself as just another anonymous face in the crowd.

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