TOPPENISH — Before he left for the Indigenous Bowl a few weeks ago, Kyal Shoulderblade-Sampson talked with his girlfriend about taking a stand on an important issue.
Shoulderblade-Sampson, who played football for Yakama Nation Tribal School and graduated in June, was aware of another Native athlete, Rosalie “Rosy” Fish of Muckleshoot Tribal School, who raised awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women. Fish had a red handprint across her face and “MMIW” in red letters on her right leg while competing at the 1B small-school state track and field meet May 23-25 in Cheney.
Fish won three of four races, finishing second in the other. She dedicated each race to a particular woman, highlighting them with photos and information on a display she made for the meet. Shoulderblade-Sampson was there, too, competing in the 4x400.
“I was thinking about (Fish) and her stand, and I wished I would have done the same thing. She brought attention to a cause that’s being swept under the carpet,” said Shoulderblade-Sampson, who is 18 and the son of Robert Sampson and Billie Shoulderblade. He is Yakama and lives in Toppenish.
He showed his girlfriend, Annie Heemsah, a photo and mentioned his idea. They talked about it.
“It’s an Indigenous Bowl, and Natives will be looking at it. I thought it would be a good thing to do,” Shoulderblade-Sampson said. “My mind was set on buying black paint.”
The handprint represents indigenous people who have been silenced by violence.
On June 29, he played in the second annual Indigenous Bowl in Soboba, Calif., with a black handprint on his face. So did the sole participant from Canada, Nick Wakos of Sagkeeng First Nation. The two had met and hung out in the days before the game and and were the only players with black handprints on their faces.
“He’s a cool guy,” Shoulderblade-Sampson, a wide receiver and linebacker, said of Wakos. “I had no idea he was going to do it until that game day.”
Wakos told CBC News he wanted the image to be seen by American players and his friends back home.
“It was a message for teens and youth to step up in their community,” he said, noting the number of missing women from his First Nation, some of whom he knew.
For Shoulderblade-Sampson, wearing a black handprint was “more for the general idea of it,” he said. The issue impacts entire Native communities, including those without lost or murdered loved ones.
“Honestly, it’s important to me because I’m Native. It’s not just my family being affected (or) my friend’s family being affected; it’s the (entire) Native family being affected,” he said.
“I’d like for more men to stand up and notice. It’s pretty gut-wrenching to know that Native American woman are being taken.”
Shoulderblade-Sampson, Wakos and Fish are among a growing number of young Native athletes taking a stand for missing and murdered indigenous people and demanding action to end a legacy of violence that has continued unabated for centuries.
Fish, who graduated and will compete for Iowa Central Community College this fall, ran the state final of the 1,600 for her relative Alice Ida Looney, who disappeared from Wapato in mid-August 2004. A hunter found her body in late November 2005 amid dense brush on a small island in Satus Creek, about 12 miles southeast of Toppenish. The FBI lists the cause of Looney’s death as inconclusive.
No one knows exactly how many women have gone missing from the Yakama Reservation. Many cases of missing people or mysterious deaths of women and men remain unsolved. At one point during an FBI investigation spurred by rumors of a serial killer, investigators found as many as 32 dating back to 1980.
Young men need to take a stand on the issue, Shoulderblade-Sampson said. Native men in general should take an active role in ensuring the safety of the women and girls of their communities, he said.
“My friend Nick, he mentioned men stepping up to protect the women,” he added. “I think that’s a huge point.”
Though for now he plans to attend Heritage University, Shoulderblade-Sampson hopes he can keep playing his favorite sport in college. He participated in the Indigenous Bowl with fellow Yakama Nation Tribal School player Jake Castilleja, who will play for the College of the Siskiyous in northern California.
Their coach, Keri Ewing, who has since left the tribal school for southern Oregon, spoke highly of Shoulderblade-Sampson. Ewing noted that he was a 2018-19 MaxPreps/USA Football Player of the Week nominee. Shoulderblade-Sampson also was his school’s 2018 Offensive Player of the Year.
“Kyal was great. I got there right after football season the year before (and) Kyal was one of the first ones in my weightlifting class. ... Pretty soon Jake was in there. I had six kids showing up every morning. That was a cool thing,” he said.
“Our season started off kind of rough, but we finished the season really well. You could see that there was a change from people just playing the sport to loving it, and Kyal was a huge part of that,” Ewing added. “Kyal, he’s kind of the embodiment ... of tribal school football, what I wanted it to become. He worked hard.”
Ewing was “pumped” when he saw a photo of Shoulderblade-Sampson with the black handprint across his face, but he wasn’t surprised.
“Kyal’s like that. He’ll take a stand for something he believes in, do what he can,” Ewing said. “I think that’s good. I was proud to see that.”