by Samantha Pell
PHOENIX — Brewers reliever Joba Chamberlain wants to shake hands with 22-year-old Wisconsin basketball star Bronson Koenig.
Not because Chamberlain is a die-hard Wisconsin fan — he’s a University of Nebraska product — but because Chamberlain wants to thank Koenig in person for the article he wrote for The Players Tribune about his visit in September to the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp in North Dakota.
Like Koenig, Chamberlain is from the Ho-Chunk Nation. He didn’t know of the connection until he read Koenig’s article.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is a 1,172-mile underground oil pipeline, and part of it is being constructed near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has said the pipeline would damage sacred burial sites and contaminate drinking water.
The protest camp, which continued until last month, was located within the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which spans parts of North and South Dakota.
“I didn’t know many people at the camp, but something was compelling me to go,” Koenig wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “My brother, Miles, our good friend Clint Parks and I made the drive from Madison in 14 hours, with the flag of our Ho-Chunk tribe flying from our trailer.”
“It just was awesome to see his stance and see the pride that he takes in our culture and what it stands for,” Chamberlain said at the Brewers camp at Maryvale Baseball Park. “I think about an hour (after reading the article) I followed him on Twitter and he followed me back and we just had some dialogue.
“I think that is the biggest thing for me — to be able to shake his hand and say, ‘Thank you.’”
In his article, published on Dec. 1, Koenig expressed thoughts on his Native American heritage, on joining the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline and on leading free basketball clinics for the local children at Standing Rock.
“In basketball, you strive to anticipate what’s going to happen next,” Koenig wrote. “Running through drills out there on the dirt and the prairie grass, my eyes kept wandering to the horizon — to the hills just a mile north where the bulldozers were. I’d never played basketball surrounded by police and blockades.”
Koenig wrote it was a trip he had been “meaning to make” and that September was his last opportunity to join the protests before his senior year began.
“He didn’t have to do it,” said Chamberlain, 31. “To use the platform that he has in such a positive way and to bring an eye-opening experience to a lot of people who don’t know what is going on and to do it the way he did it and the class and maturity in which he did, it was very impressive.”
(Video by Sydney Cariel/Cronkite News)
Over the last few months, Chamberlain has become a self-proclaimed “semi-pseudo” Wisconsin fan. As a Husker, that’s hard for him to admit.
“He played against Nebraska so you can’t necessarily be a fan,” Chamberlain said of Koenig. “But instantly I was a fan. Obviously I had seen him play before, but just didn’t really put the connection together.”
Koenig is from La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Chamberlain from Lincoln, Nebraska. The Ho-Chunk Nation resides in both states. Koenig’s mother is full-blooded Native American, as is Chamberlain’s father, Harlan.
“I often felt like a minority within a minority,” Koenig wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “Not Native enough. Not white enough. Like a stranger in two lands. I’m still struggling with that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I went to Standing Rock.”
Chamberlain’s father was born on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska and was struck by polio as a baby. He was moved from the reservation to a children’s hospital for treatment. Effects from polio and other ailments have left him confined to a motorized scooter. He raised Joba and his sister, Tasha, as a single parent.
Joba Chamberlain said: “It’s just something whether you have a little or a lot, it’s just something you take pride in to know where we come from and all that has gone into who we are as a nation.”
With family still on the reservation in Nebraska, Chamberlain tries to visit often. Chamberlain travels with his father and with his son, Karter, to powwows. Karter thus learns more about his Native American heritage.
Chamberlain has tattoos on his right arm showcasing that heritage.
“I’m very proud of it and I wear it with pride,” he said of his tattoo array. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. I always have, and it is a huge part of me and part of my sleeve and who I am.”
Included in his right sleeve are a drum, buffalo, the words “Ho-Chunk Pride” and “Buffalo Clan,” and three eagle feathers. Two of the feathers represent his son and his dad.
“The drum circle is about how it’s basically our circle of life, where we start from and how it all comes full circle from birth to death,” Chamberlain said. “It’s just something that means the world to me.”
While his tattoos display part of his life, Chamberlain said it’s his job, as well as the nation’s, to tell their stories.
“Native Americans are just a huge part of this country,” Chamberlain said. “I just think there are so many aspects we learn about and that (Native Americans) are a huge part of a lot of things.”
Regarding issues like the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Chamberlain said, “There are a lot of opinions that people are going to make and certain assumptions and whatever, but just be educated about it. Just go into it with an open mind and kind of have an idea of what is at stake and what is going on. There are two sides of every story.
“You don’t have to be in the big leagues, you don’t have to be a superstar. You don’t have to be anybody. Everybody is a somebody in some aspect, and if you do it the right way and affect people in a positive (way), you are a role model.”
Chamberlain said that when Koenig shared his story publicly, he educated kids who will follow in his footsteps.
“To know there are people out there, let alone kids that are doing this and taking a stance and understanding what it means, I love people like that,” Chamberlain said. “I become a better person for it, and I hope I can try to lead my son in the right aspect of that direction of ‘Hey, there are people that can make a difference and you can be one of those people.’”