Rachel Beth Banks
PHOENIX – After 10 years, 30 nominees and decades of discovery, the first National Native American Hall of Fame will induct 12 honorees in October.
Many of the inductees, such as Olympic star Jim Thorpe, astronaut John Herrington and Maria Tallchief, the first Native American to be a prima ballerina, are well known and have been lauded with awards and honors.
But something was still missing, said James Parker Shield, a member of the Chippewa Tribe and chief executive of the Native American Hall of Fame, who dreamed of the hall for a decade.
There’s a National Women’s Hall of Fame and others honoring various groups, he said.
“But there’s no hall of fame for Native Americans, and I think that there should be,” Shield said.
Harvard professor Phil Deloria, the first tenured Harvard professor of Native American history and the son of author Vine Deloria, one of the inductees, said Shield’s work is valuable.
“Like all halls of fame, it calls attention to certain kinds of extraordinary people who provide role models and opportunities to think about the world in which those folks lived and acted,” he said. “It starts conversations, it establishes aspiration.”
Shield said he pushed to make the hall as inclusive as possible. That started with a voting process in May encouraging Native Americans to weigh in on who, among 30 people nominated by the hall’s board, should make the finals.
“We didn’t want an overrepresentation of any one particular tribe,” said Shield, who wanted to avoid a “popularity contest.”
He and board members chose the inaugural group based on leadership, legacy, mentorship and sacrifice. The honorees represent 10 tribes in eight categories, such as science, athletics and advocacy. Six are women.
Arizona’s Lori Piestewa, Hopi, the first Native American woman to die in combat as a member of U.S. military, is among those who will be celebrated for her military service. The 23-year-old Marine fought in the Iraq War and was captured in the early days of the conflict. Piestewa was gravely injured and died in a hospital before American troops could rescue her.
Piestewa Peak and the Piestewa Freeway were renamed in her honor. Shield said family members from Tuba City, Piestewa’s hometown, are expected to attend the Oct. 13 ceremony at Indian Steele Park.
Ryneldi Becenti, Navajo, who was born and raised in Fort Defiance, was nominated for the Hall of Fame as the first Native American woman to play in the WNBA. She played as a free agent for the Phoenix Mercury from 1997-98.
Becenti, who said humility is a characteristic of the Native American people, said her mentors and teammates deserved credit. The award, she said, brings honor to inductees’ tribal nations.
Among the other future inductees is Lionel Bordeaux, Sicangu Lakota. Bordeaux is one of the longest-serving university presidents in America, serving more than four decades as head of Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota.