Native Americans Connect With Oklahoma Families During WAPL June 17, 2013 | Norman, Okla. By Lisa D. Mickey

Shawnee Martinez and her family drove 24 hours to Oklahoma, both to play in the championship and to meet her Native American family. (USGA/Joel Kowsky)

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

Coming to Oklahoma was a family reunion for Shawnee Martinez, 19, of Modesto, Calif., and Erika Salinas, 23, of Sacramento, Calif. It was a chance for each player to meet and spend time with their respective Native American families. 

It also was a time for each of the players – who met for the first time at this week’s championship – to feel a sense of community through a deep 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 newsContents 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 the cultural heritage of their families 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 who learned how to play golf from her father at age 4. "I am meeting my family members in Oklahoma this week for the first time."

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

Martinez said her father raises funds to help her travel to golf tournaments. She also receives scholarship money from her tribe if she maintains at least a 3.0 grade point average. Last year, she earned a scholarship as her tribe’s 2012 Athlete of the Year. 

"It’s huge to be here and I’ve got to take every opportunity I can get," said Martinez, who is majoring in photography and hopes to someday play professional golf. "But you also have to really want it and work for it."

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 added.

Both players believe it is important to show girls that opportunities are available to them through golf. They each hope young Native Americans might come to the WAPL this week 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 qualified for match play, but each said being here for 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. "To be around that and to be in Oklahoma has been a great experience."

While she was here to compete, Salinas has 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 will sometimes sign the words to country-music singer Lee Greenwood’s song God Bless the U.S.A. at tribal veterans’ functions. Her grandmother also taught her how to perform sign language for The Lord’s Prayer to start blessings.

She also dances in the Southern Traditional tribal style at Native American Pow Wows, wearing regalia stitched and crafted by her family. An aunt made her battle dress and her mother made her moccasins.

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.

But for now, if others see them competing in a national championship and earning college degrees through golf, it’s a start. Surely, they believe, others will follow.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.