Oklahoma’s oldest college is looking to Native American runners to improve its national rankings.
Bacone College, a historic school meant to provide a Christian education for Native Americans, based in Muskogee, is increasingly focusing on recruiting Native American runners from a variety of tribes. In the fall, 33 of the 37 male and female runners will be Native American.
Coach Clay Mayes III has traveled primarily to the Southwestern United States to recruit the Native American runners, namely the Hope, Navajo, Laguna and Zuni reservations.
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“I found that the notion that they won’t leave home is completely false. It usually comes down to walking them through it,” Mayes said.
Mayes said he will ask what other recruiters have visited the areas and the kids usually say no one.
“So it really just comes down to someone taking a little time out of their day and going to visit with them,” he said.
They’re kids, he notes, and many want to go to college but don’t have the experience or anyone to talk to them to walk through the process of applying.
Mayes focused his recruiting efforts in the Southwest because, he said, those tribes are a little bit more focused on running. “I fully believe that other tribes can run just as well. The Montana tribes used to be just like the Navajos are now, but it really comes down to a lot of the Natives in the Washington, Montana, Oregon area are starting to focus more on basketball.”
He noted that the United States has had three Olympic medalists in the 10,000 meters event and two of them were Native American. “Statistically speaking, that should be impossible since the Native population only accounts for 0.8 percent of the U.S. population,” he said. “The odds of that happening are around 1 in 1,200. So, either the Native American runners were extremely lucky or extremely talented. I tend to go with the latter.”
He said he wishes more Natives in other communities would run. They’ve migrated to basketball, he said, and he would like to see that change.
To recruit the Native students, Mayes, who is Chickasaw and Cherokee, worked with Dr. Patricia King, Director of the Center for American Indians at Bacone, to learn how to interact within the communities. For example, he learned how important family is in Native communities and to include the family in the decision making. King also taught him to bring gifts and possibly tobacco for elders, she said.
Mayes efforts have paid off. He has two top 20 team finishes at NAIA Cross Country Nationals in 2015 and 2016. The boys’ team top runner, Jackson Thomas, is Navajo and is a five-time national champion.
“Coach Mayes is a treasure,” King said. “He’s marvelous. These kids probably wouldn’t be going to college if it weren’t for Bacone.”