Race, Social Justice

How some athletes are taking on the challenge of decolonizing sport

The athletes of Team Indigenous Roller Derby want to take colonial oppression out of the Roller Derby World Cup, and are the first to have a worldwide team of indigenous people

During international tournaments, athletes usually bond under a single flag, fighting for country rather than individual pride. Sports can become a nationalistic brand, and allow people to find community with neighbors they may have not previously.

But what if the flag of the place you live, erased the identity of your culture?

This is a question that indigenous athletes have asked themselves over and over again when asked to represent a colonial power. Often times, neo-colonialism thrives in these moments of nationalism, bleaching the identity of native peoples.

One group of women decided to turn the culture of colonialism on its head. In 2018, a group of female athletes set forth on decolonizing roller derby by playing as part of Team Indigenous Roller Derby.

The players of Team Indigenous come from all corners of the globe. In their mission statement, they state, “ we are the First Nations and Indigenous people of our Ancestral Lands, linked globally through the sport of roller derby.” Their members represent people from the Sioux and Mohawk tribes in North America, to the Taranaki Iwi tribe in New Zealand.

Team Indigenous was conceived from a need for diversity in a sport that strives to be a source of empowerment for women and non-binary athletes. The governing body of women’s flat track roller derby, The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has made a commitment to inclusion and diversity among its members

However, even with the best intentions, WFTDA membership and roller derby participation is largely held by middle-class white people. This is often because of the cost of the sport, monetarily and in time. Between $55 helmets, $100 knee pads, and skates that can cost over $400, the cost can be too much for many to bear. That does not include practice time, which for most members is a minimum pf two hours, two times a week.

In an interview with The New York Times, Melissa Waggoner, or Mick Swagger as she’s called on the track, said, “when I talk about decolonizing roller derby, I talk about recognizing that opportunity and access exist in roller derby only for white privileged American and European people.”

With this focus, Team Indigenous was born from late nights talking in online video meeting rooms, in Facebook Posts and text messages. The women who formed the community around the cause celebrated their heritage, both the ones they knew and the ones that had been erased due to the colonial whitewashing of American culture.

When they met for the first time at the 2018 Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby World Cup for the first time in April, it was a family reunion. They quickly became fan favorites throughout the tournament.

Their message still continues today. The Team Indigenous Roller Derby Facebook page has 7,300 followers and regularly post advocating for the recognition of indigenous people in society. Even after the World Cup, they strive for recognition of problems that plague indigenous people and raise money for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW.) The charity supports the search for Indigenous women who have been targets of violence, whose murders have never been solved.

In a world where the FIFA World Cup is one of the most televised events in the world, it’s a wonder that it took until 2018 for the conversation about decolonizing sports to reach a substantial audience. Women are the only group of people successful in breaking down the walls of neocolonialism in sports and celebrating their heritage in such a public way.

The athletes of Team Indigenous aim to grow their message. When asked about their goals after the World Cup, some would go on pilgrimages to find their heritage. Some would return home and organize indigenous teams in their communities.

With the continued effort of decolonizing sports – perhaps there will be more flags in our tournaments, and not just the ones of oppression.