Wisconsin tribal boxing clubs are producing champions and giving kids a positive outlet

·4 min read

Gage Wayka, 14, needed something to do on the reservation to help him lose weight and get into shape. He found his outlet at the Menominee Indian Boxing Club, where every day he takes instructions from his coach, pounds the punching bag and spars in the ring.

“It gets me out of the house and I get to take out my anger on these bags,” he said.

His cousin, Gerald Wayka Jr., 50, runs the club located in Keshena, Wisconsin, and believes it’s absolutely critical to help many kids on the reservation stay out of trouble.

“On the reservation, the alcohol and drugs are pretty bad,” he said. "Boxing helps a lot of them stay out of trouble and just keep a clean head about them."

A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed Native American eighth-graders surveyed were more than three times more likely to use marijuana and 70% more likely to drink alcohol compared with other U.S. youth.

A former Golden Gloves boxer himself, Wayka Jr. charges no fees to those who train at the club and he does not get paid for his training and mentorship at the tribally-owned warehouse building.

“If not for the tribe, we probably wouldn’t have a club,” he said.

Wayka Jr. said he puts in his time and energy to help his community teach youth how to be humble and control themselves in channeling aggression.

A sign at the club reads, “I will not use my hands to hurt or harm anyone.”

“I don’t promote fighting,” Wayka Jr. said. “I don’t like that.”

But he does promote champions.

Mark Waukau, for example, who trains at Menominee Indian Boxing Club, won the 165-pound Novice Division last month in the Wisconsin Golden Gloves Championship bout.

The club hosts about a dozen boxers-in-training every day, ranging in age from 8 to 30, and Wayka Jr. said some girls also come to train to learn self-defense.

Thirteen-year-old Ayanna O’Kimosh is a noted boxer who trains at the club.

Ayanna O'Kimosh
Ayanna O'Kimosh

Her success in her young career includes a Silver Gloves National Championship, two state Silver Gloves Championships, two regional Silver Gloves Championships and a Junior Olympics Regional Championship.

But O’Kimosh has championed another cause, and that is to empower girls and bring awareness to the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

Experts say Indigenous women and girls are more likely to be murdered or reported missing than those of other ethnic backgrounds, and research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that Indigenous women in the U.S. are three times more likely to be murdered than white women.

Besides raising awareness and fundraising for the cause, O’Kimosh also is working to teach self-defense to girls on the reservation.

Soaring Eagles Boxing Club

Armani Hill, 20, right, rest his arms on the ropes as he watches Manuel Lomeli, 17, grapple during practice at Soaring Eagles Boxing Club, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Armani Hill, 20, right, rest his arms on the ropes as he watches Manuel Lomeli, 17, grapple during practice at Soaring Eagles Boxing Club, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

In Oneida, Wisconsin, many of the same causes are fought for at the Soaring Eagles Boxing Club.

Shalyn Guillermo, 16, who trains at Soaring Eagles, said her father encouraged her to learn how to defend herself because of the epidemic of violence against Indigenous girls.

After training for about 10 years, she said she is confident in her skills to be able to protect herself.

Club owner Billy Pocan said the highly trained girls at the club also can help save other girls who are not trained near them in potentially dangerous situations.

Billy Pocan coaches his boxers during practice at Soaring Eagles Boxing Club, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Billy Pocan coaches his boxers during practice at Soaring Eagles Boxing Club, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Soaring Eagles also has been producing championship contenders in boys, girls, men and women, including the recent 138-pound Golden Gloves champ Isiah Steeno, 21.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Steeno said about winning the championship. “I’m thankful I have a good coach.”

He said Pocan helped him dig deep in himself and believed in him when he did not.

Pocan said a lot of the teens who come to the club aren’t very much into other sports at school, but have an inspiration in boxing.

Like Wayka Jr., Pocan hopes the club provides a positive outlet for teens on the reservation and keeps them off drugs and alcohol.

"You can’t save everybody," he said, "but at least you can save some kids off the streets."

Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or fvaisvilas@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Wisconsin tribal boxing clubs make champions, provide positive outlet