2013 Review: Native American Players Find Family Connections in Oklahoma

December 12, 2013

The USGA added 13 players to its roster of national champions in 2013, but some of our favorite stories of the year weren’t necessarily about the winning putt or the turning point in a match. This is the second in a six-part series that reviews some of the compelling stories that you might have missed in our 2013 championship coverage.
Californian Shawnee Martinez had the chance to connect with her Native American roots during the 2013 Women's Amateur Public Links Championship in Oklahoma. (USGA/Joel Kowsky)

The U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in June was much more than a national championship for at least two contestants in the field.

The WAPL, which was played at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club in Norman, Okla., provided both Shawnee Martinez, 19, of Modesto, Calif., and Erika Salinas, 23, of Sacramento, Calif., with an opportunity to meet and spend time with their respective Native American families, and to gain a sense of community through their family heritage.

“It’s been good to be here because it almost feels like home,” said Martinez, who is part Mexican and a member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe. “This is where my family’s land is and it feels good to be among so many other people like me.”

Salinas met members of her Oklahoma family, which has roots in both the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, several years ago when she was 13.

“My grandmother’s sister still lives in the same house she was born in,” said Salinas, a senior at Sacramento State University. “Oklahoma is somewhere that I’ve always wanted to live and it’s just an empowering feeling to be here.”

While California has a large number of Native Americans, both players say that their families are scattered and that much of their cultural heritage has taken a backseat to the faster pace of the Golden State.

“I wish I could learn more about our heritage, but I’m so far away from other Native Americans in California,” said Martinez, a sophomore at Long Beach State University whose father taught her to play golf at age 4. “I am meeting my family members in Oklahoma this week for the first time.”

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Martinez, along with her parents and older sister, Marina, drove 24 hours from California, stopping only in New Mexico for a nap. The long drive was worth it for the chance to meet their family, as well as for Shawnee to play in a national championship.

Martinez said her father raises funds to help her travel to tournaments, and she earns scholarship money from her tribe if she maintains at least a 3.0 grade point average. “It’s huge to be here and I’ve got to take every opportunity I can get,” said Martinez, who majors in photography and hopes to play professional golf.

Growing up in California, Salinas says she never saw any Native Americans play golf other than former PGA Tour player Notah Begay III, who is Navajo. She began playing golf at age 5 and learned the game from her father. 

“My tribe supports me and that’s really important,” Salinas said.

Both players hoped that young Native Americans would come to the WAPL to see talented players from around the world compete in a national championship.

“I want them to realize there’s more to life and they are capable of doing more than they think,” said Martinez. “I don’t see too many Native Americans playing sports at all and that’s sad.”

Neither player advanced into the match-play bracket, but each said the championship provided a valuable learning opportunity.

“It was a great accomplishment just to get here and to play with the best of the best,” said Salinas, who also enjoyed reconnecting with her tribal culture. One of the things she learned from her grandmother, Tomah Yeahquo, is how to perform sign language for the deaf in both the Comanche and Apache languages.

Salinas plans to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work and she hopes to earn her Ph.D. in Native American studies at the University of California-Davis.

“Education is important and we need our educated people to lead our people,” Salinas said. “I’m the first person from my family to graduate from high school, so I want to do what I can to represent my tribe and my family, and to help lead others.”

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