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CARNEGIE, Okla. — If a visitor strolled into the Kiowa Elders Center early Sunday evening, the hall looked much like it normally does. A buffalo head hung over the fireplace. Deer, moose and elk antlers were mounted over doorways. Old sepia-toned photos of famous Kiowa chiefs, such as Lone Wolf and Satanta, men who tangled with the likes of Custer and Sheridan, hung on the wall.
But that visitor would also see nearly 100 members of this formerly nomadic tribe, faces painted with stripes of red, white and blue, waving American flags and watching a large flat-screen TV, cheering on the United States team in a match against Portugal in a stadium in Manaus, Brazil.
The reason for this soccer fever was personal. Enrolled Kiowa tribal member Chris Wondolowski is a forward on the U.S. team — the first tribally enrolled Native American to participate at the World Cup.
For soccer fans, the climactic moment in that game happened in the final agonizing minutes of injury time, when Portugal scored and leveled the match at 2-2. But for the people at the Kiowa World Cup watching party, the real excitement happened before then.
Tribal members leaned forward in their folding chairs in the final 10 minutes of the match, some wearing T-shirts with Wondolowski’s likeness, listening intently, then cheering when one of the ESPN announcers intoned, “Fairy tale for Chris Wondolowski, another player who’s really paid his dues in the game. The San Jose Earthquakes goal scorer plays in the World Cup.”
A shot of Wondolowski appeared onscreen as he prepared to enter the game, and the room erupted in cheers and applause.
“A half Native American and a member — Chris Wondolowski — of the Kiowa tribe,” the commentator continued. “He is on for the USA, a born goal scorer.”
Despite the mispronunciation of Kiowa, which rhymes with “Iowa” (it’s not KEY-o-wa), another round of applause and cheers. His fairy tale is theirs as well.
Among nearly 12,000 Kiowa tribal members, most of whom have never held much interest in soccer, 31-year-old Wondolowski is an outlier. However, his rise on the international stage has brought a newfound passion for the sport among his fellow tribal members and others in Indian Country.
“I’m a fluent Kiowa speaker. I’ve been all over the world. But I don’t understand soccer,” said Dorothy Whitehorse-Delaune, Wondolowski’s 82-year-old grandmother. “But for somebody that didn’t speak English until they were 6 and then having someone playing on an international team, and he’s from your family? It’s just overwhelming. Look how far we’ve come.”
Beginning his career with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2005, Wondolowski played for the Houston Dynamos until he returned to San Jose in 2009, eventually earning most valuable player before being chosen to represent the U.S. at the World Cup.
He is known as Wondo by some and also by his Kiowa name, Bau Daigh (pronounced bow dye) which translates to “warrior returning from battle.” As for soccer, there is no word in Kiowa for the sport. However, Whitehorse-Delaune has one idea for what it could be called: pau-ah-dau ate on-goo-goo.
She broke it down: pau-ah-dau for “ball”, ate for “there,” on-goo-goo for “kick.”
“That’s the only way I could explain it if I was telling one of my elders. ‘They’re playing kickball, pau-ah-dau ate on-goo-goo,’’’ she said. “That’s the name I would give to soccer, but I don’t know what the goalie would be.”
The Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma is based in Carnegie, Oklahoma, about an hour and a half southwest of Oklahoma City, with tribal members spread across the Sooner state and around the world.
The tribe had been nomadic, and first recorded contacts with the Kiowa can be traced to the 1700s in what is now British Columbia in Canada. They migrated south through the Great Plains, acquired horses on the way and mastered the animal and the Plains.
“We followed the buffalo from there all the way down here today in southwest Oklahoma,” said Joe Fish, a Kiowa Tribe historian. “I wouldn’t be scared to say that we would have went even further.”
Wondolowski is one of the few players globally to self-identify as indigenous.
“[Wondolowski] is half, and hardly nobody knows that unless he tells them,” said Fish. “Times are changing. There used to be full-blood Kiowas, but now there’s a lot that are maybe a quarter or an eighth of each tribe. But as long as you got that drop of Kiowa blood in there, you’re a Kiowa.”
It was hot and muggy. A few white clouds passed over the green grass of the Kiowa Complex like the lost feathers of some giant swan. About two dozen kids in shorts and short sleeves stood underneath the great blue sky in a circle awaiting instruction.
“Does everyone know what jumping jacks are?” asked Steve Quoetone, director of the Kiowa Nation Youth Activities Sports Club.
“Yeah,” answered a few children.
“All right, then we’ll start with jumping jacks,” said Quoetone. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah!” yelled a handful of attentive kids.
“I can’t hear you,” hollered Quoetone. “Are you ready?”
“Yeeeaaaaaaaaah!” they screamed in unison.
Ten jumping jacks later, the children were split into groups and began kicking soccer balls around. Parents and grandparents watched from the shade and laughed with each thump of the ball. Within the hour — after the watermelon-seed-spitting contest, of course — participants of the Kiowa Nation Youth Activities Sports Club’s second annual soccer camp would be squaring off for a few prizes and bragging rights.
“This would not be happening today if Chris had not made it to where he is,” said Quoetone. “He’s changed the Kiowa way of life, where now we not only watch the Super Bowl and the national championship in football and basketball, but now we’re watching soccer.”
The club works to encourage Kiowa kids to pursue sports beyond high school as a means to enter college, and Quoetone and crew provide mentoring, work to find scholarships and are involved in everything from baseball to track and field. With the addition of soccer to the organization’s repertoire, he hopes the sport will take root in Kiowa country and spread across Oklahoma. The goal: a league encompassing Carnegie and surrounding communities.
“Chris’ role on the U.S. team is probably the most important role of all because he is an original American,” said Quoetone. “Not only do the Kiowas follow him, but all the other Native Americans across the United States and Canada are following him. So he has a pretty big audience, but he also has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.”
Native Americans make up just under 1 percent of the U.S. population, and of its Native population, Kiowas make up less than a half of 1 percent.
“We may be a small tribe, and we’re not very well known, but we’re big,” said Ahnawake Dahn Toyekoyah, the 2014–15 Kiowa tribal princess. “These kids, they might think that just because of the color of our skin, we can’t do as much, but we can as long as there’s role models like me and especially like [Wondolowski].”
Dorothy Whitehorse-Delaune shows her support for her grandson.Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America