Speaking their language: Navajo broadcast of NM State game highlights Navajo Nation, lack of Native Americans in college athletics
LAS CRUCES, NM (KTSM) – On Saturday, New Mexico State beat rival New Mexico on the football field for the first time since 2017, 21-9.
The Aggies and Lobos mean a lot to the state, but so do its indigenous people, who have lived in the region for hundreds of years. That history and tradition was honored at Aggie Memorial Stadium during the Battle of I-25 in Las Cruces.
English, or Navajo, you don’t have to be fluent in either language to understand Cuyler Frank. For the first time since 2013, Frank was back in the Aggie Memorial Stadium broadcast booth Saturday night, calling New Mexico State’s win over New Mexico in the Navajo language.
An NMSU graduate, Frank called Aggie games in Navajo for nine years previously, starting in 2005 when he called a 41-13 loss to California. He’s the first person in college football history to do call a game in Navajo; it eventually expanded to include basketball, baseball and other sports, too.
Frank credits former NMSU head coach Hal Mumme for helping him get in the booth back then, thanks to a chance encounter.
“Coach Mumme seemed really interested in it and they helped push that idea forward for me,” said Frank. “Being back on campus means a great deal to me.”
Saturday, he was there with his broadcast partner, Glenn King, calling the action on KCZY 107.3 FM for the Navajo Reservation, in partnership with Navajo Technical University.
The duo work with students at Navajo Tech and also call high school sports back home. They’ve even traveled as far as Wyoming to broadcast rodeo events and called the Battle of I-25 at University Stadium in Albuquerque in 2021.
“We always say that our language is important and that we need to have a way to carry it on,” said Frank. “I don’t think that there’s anything better than sports like basketball and football to preserve that.”
Taking it further, King is the grandson of one of three surviving Navajo Code Talkers, the group of men who used their language as an unbreakable code for the Allied Forces during World War II. With that in mind, King is doing his part to preserve a language currently spoken by around 171,000 people.
“America respects the Code Talkers now because the language won the war,” King said. “For us, we’re trying to reach the younger generation with our Navajo words.”
Saturday was even more special for Frank and King because of who was on the field for the Aggies. New Mexico State has four players with Native American heritage on the roster; two of them are from Navajo Nation: redshirt freshman offensive lineman Shiyazh Pete and graduate transfer tight end JJ Jones.
Thomaz Whitford and Louie Canepa are the other two Aggie players that are Native American. Pete went to high school in Shiprock, NM, on the Navajo reservation.
“It’s a privilege and a strong honor to represent my people,” Pete said. “I believe I’m the only one to go to an (NCAA) Division I school from my high school.”
Jones grew up away from the reservation, the son of a former New Mexico State Aggie and the grandson of a former Pittsburgh Steeler.
Jones played the first portion of his career in the Ivy League at Dartmouth College. After graduating he followed in his father’s footsteps to New Mexico State, which also brought him to Pete.
“Even though I grew up in California, I tried to stay as connected to the culture and the location as I could,” Jones said. “I’ve pretty much been the only Native person on all of my football teams. It’s nice to not only have another Native person, but someone from the same tribe and clan.”
Jones highlights a reality across not only college athletics, but university systems as a whole.
“A lot of these big diversity initiatives that have been happening have actually still neglected Native students and really continue to make us invisible,” said Michael Charles, an assistant professor at Cornell University and a member of Navajo Nation with a background in advocacy for the rights of indigenous people. “No matter what we’re doing, are we making sure we’re protecting our people?”
Charles described the feeling of isolation of being the only Native American on a diversity report released by Cornell’s Chemical Engineering department when he was an undergraduate.
In his work now, one of his goals is to improve that diversity by aiding more indigenous people to work in the field of academia.
“I don’t want any other student to be the “1” on a diversity report ever again,” said Charles. “That’s the dream is building it out so that by the time I leave, there’s 10 other Native professors that are able to step in.”
Data shows that Native Americans make up less than one percent of all undergraduates, but the numbers are even more strong when it comes to NCAA-sponsored athletics.
In 2021, there were over 493,000 NCAA student-athletes at over 1,000 colleges and universities schools across three divisions (NCAA Division I, Division II, Division III).
Just 2,091 of those student-athletes were Native American/Alaska Native, which means less than half of a percent (0.4%) of the NCAA’s student-athlete population could identify as indigenous. That comes out to an average of less than five athletes of Native American descent at each NCAA institution.
“You don’t see a lot of people specifically coming to recruit at reservations, especially the Division I schools,” said Charles. “The talent is there, the drive is there, the hard work is there. It’s really about who’s actually paying attention to us.”
Shiyazh Pete knows that from experience. He stands 6’8, 287 pounds, but his only offer to play college football – from any institution, NCAA Divisions I, II, III or otherwise – out of high school was to be a walk-on at New Mexico State.
“I only get one shot and that shot has to count is basically what I told myself,” said Pete.
Jones elaborated on the point.
“”I don’t think people recognize how tough it is to get here from where he came from, because there’s not the same opportunities that you have,” said Jones.
Now though, in just his second season of college football, Pete starts at left tackle on the Aggies offensive line with former NFL lineman Andrew Mitchell as his coach. Jones even thinks that Pete possesses the skillset to one day play in the NFL.
“The kid possesses uncanny physical traits,” said Mitchell. “He has great length and size and athleticism. He has a lot of the tools that you want and is just getting better with every rep.”
NCAA institutions aren’t the only options for Native American students, either. As of 2020, over 15,000 students attended 35 tribal colleges and universities, including Navajo Tech, where Frank and King work with students interested in the field of broadcasting.
Jones and Pete aren’t the first Native Americans to get their shot playing FBS football; the number has increased over the last decade. It’s all a part of increasing the visibility for everyone at all levels, while preserving a language and a culture for the next generation.
“They need to know about them (the Native American players) and hear about our people at this level,” said Frank. “Yes, there’s social media, but to actually hear them in our own language as well brings another element to it.”
Additionally, the Navajo language is now available on Rosetta Stone as the tribe looks to preserve its language and its traditions for future generations.
Frank and King will return to Las Cruces in December to broadcast the New Mexico-NM State men’s basketball game at the Pan American Center.