More than just a tournament

Student athletes, when they're not playing at the Striking Eagle Native American Invitational at Albuquerque, are in classrooms like this one, weighing career and collegiate options after their high school careers are over. (Photo by Todd Fuqua)

ALBUQUERQUE – High school basketball tournaments are usually frenetic affairs – weekends filled with games and, hopefully, good competition.

Dr. Shawn Secatero, left, presents a gift to a tribal elder during last year’s Striking Eagle Native American Invitational at Albuquerque. (Courtesy photo)

There’s one tournament in Albuquerque every Christmas break which adds to the overall madness, yet it’s an addition students, coaches and teachers alike enjoy.

The tournament is the Striking Eagle Native American Invitational at Johnson Gym on the campus of the University of New Mexico, and it’s much more than just a series of athletic contests.

Dr. Shawn Secatero, co-founder of the SENAI, addresses fans attending a game in Johnson Gym’s main arena during the tournament in December. (Photo by Todd Fuqua)

Facilitated by UNM professor Dr. Shawn Secatero, the full name of the tournament is the Striking Eagle Native American Invitational and Education Fair.

That last part should give you an idea of what this is all about.

“Our elders from the Canoncito Band of Navajo served as our major inspiration for the SENAI event,” Secatero said. “They wanted to bring together all of the Native schools to compete in basketball and promote education through workshops.”

Among the schools invited to this event were Ruidoso and Mescalero, with the Mescalero girls team taking first in their bracket.

The field brings in schools from all across New Mexico, Arizona and even a little bit of Utah, with teams competing in high school and middle school brackets.

But  the most interesting aspect is what the teams are doing when they aren’t on the court. Every squad – coaches included – is required to attend workshops on life skills throughout the weekend.

One of many workshops conducted at the annual Striking Eagle Native American Invitational at Johnson Gym on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque. (Courtesy photo)

“The workshops are amazing, with the chance to learn some cultural things. Suicide prevention, bullying, social media, these are all the type of things the kids are dealing with in today’s society,” said Ruidoso boys coach Billy Page. “Maybe I’m old school, but the social media workshop I attended was an eye-opener for me.”

Students attending the workshops also had good things to say.

“It’s more like a team bonding thing, because we do these workshops and answer questions from the teachers and we do it all together,” said Ruidoso senior Hailee Blake. “We also get to bond with other teams that way.”

Of course, there’s basketball at the Striking Eagle as well, as Josiah Polendo of Ruidoso, right, puts up a shot during his teams’ first round game against Page, Ariz. (Photo by Todd Fuqua)

“I attended a gambling workshop and we made a poster detailing our culture,” said Mescalero freshman Samantha Kazhe. “We get some knowledge about all sorts of things. I’m hoping to go to UNM to study radiology, and this helps a lot.”

According to Secatero, the SENAI actually began in 2011 as the New Mexico American Indian Classic “to promote spiritual, mental, physical and social well-being through basketball.”

Within three years, the field had grown from 28 to 64 teams.

The daily workshops – administered by UNM, tribal colleges, New Mexico State, NM Tech, CNM and SIPI – cover such topics as health awareness, college prep activities, self-concept and well being.

In fact, higher education is the entire goal of the fair.

“Students evaluate the workshops for our data purposes and they have received an average nine out of 10 rating,” Secatero said. “These workshops are important because it keeps our streams of funding to support our event. It’s a lot of work and planning.”

Mescalero’s Ramona Fossum, left, and Tunte Baca defend a Cibecue, Ariz. player during the Striking Eagle Native American Invitational at UNM’s Johnson Gym in Albuquerque. (Photo by Todd Fuqua)

Secatero teaches educational leadership at the university, and his students help facilitate the tournament and fair, earning college credit for volunteer efforts and working with students in different tribes.

Additionally, he runs a Native based schools principals leadership program known as POLLEN – Promoting our Learning, Leadership and Empowering our Nations. Secatero can boast a 100-percent graduation rate, stating a Mescalero student was able to complete the program last year.

Administering a tournament and education fair as expansive as the SENAI is not easy, but Secatero can count on a great deal of help.

“The response has been very positive and we have a good number of volunteers, especially from the Tohajiilee Navajo community who have taken on the responsibilities of operating the games, concession stands, and even some of the workshops,” Secatero said. “We are also encouraging other communities to take part in volunteering. For example, we have a group of Native basketball officials from Ruidoso who pay for their own lodging, and transportation to attend our event. They like coming to our event and support the SENAI tourney.”

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