“Team Indigenous had to happen”

by Marta

In the roller derby world they are a force. Mick Swagger started with Portland’s Rose City in 2008, played on New York’s Gotham Girls Roller Derby travel team – winning the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) Champs several times – before they moved to Australia to join Melbourne’s Victorian Roller Derby. During that time the team became the first ever non-US team winning the Hydra. What some might not know: Mick is a fairly political person. Being an Indigenous person Mick uses the stage of roller derby to address issues faced by Indigenous women around the world. When Mick and their friend Jumpy McGee founded Team Indigenous the roller derby world was about to be revolutionized yet again. They became the first borderless sports team ever being accepted at a world cup in 2018. We met Mick at the world cup in Manchester in February and talked about the positive sides of decolonization and how they works towards more visibility of Indigenous women and people in roller derby. 

Mick, you came to the World Cup not only as a bench coach for Team Aotearoa – the team uses the Māori name for New Zealand – but also with Team Indigenous. What gave you the impulse to found Team Indigenous?

I’ve been in the social work field for a lot of years and have been an organizer within my Indigenous community. I joined roller derby to have a life balance and I needed some physical release in my life and wanted some exercise and thought: Wow, I am actually good at this. So I really pursued that. Having this platform by playing on the top teams in the WFTDA meant that Indigenous people became visible to the larger derby community. Indigenous skaters around the world sent me hundreds of messages of support and I knew Team Indigenous had to happen. People really wanted that representation and that’s what drove me.

Why is it important for you to do this?

It is important to us because we talk a lot about decolonization. It’s not meant to be scary or negative, where we are pushing people and telling them they’re wrong. It’s a process bringing back the positive aspects of our Indigenous culture and showing how beautiful it is. Decolonization to me is saying: ‘Hey look at all of us Indigenous players in the world cup, we want to remind you that this culture is around you, it’s living, it’s thriving and these are the issues that are happening in our shared community. The World Cup is the place to bring these issues as most of the derby community is politically active.

So this is a perfect stage for you.

It is the perfect stage for us to do this. And to remind people of that what is happening in our communities is really scary. The epidemic of thousands of Indigenous women going missing or found murdered within the boundaries of lands being extracted for oil and coal is not a coincidence that these industries are a direct cause of this epidemic. If we all have eyes on it we can make a change.

What kind of reactions did you receive? Were they all positive or do people have any issues with what you do?

In the beginning I was kind of prepared for some pushback. I was ready for: if they say this or have an issue with that this is how we’re gonna answer so they understand us. But I submitted our Application as an Emerging Nations and the Roller Derby Nations Committee was like: wonderful, we can’t wait to have you. From the derby community it’s been nothing but positive. Within the Indigenous community everyone is really excited. We are getting messages all the time. People want to know how they can try out for this team and also how they can bring it into their communities which is exactly what we are trying to do.

You yourself are Omaha, Diné and Pawnee. Have you always been aware of your Indigenous heritage or this something that came with age?

Always. I grew up on my homelands. I grew up in Dinétah. It is our traditional land in the south west desert of Turtle Island. It’s a beautiful place.

Is it New Mexico?

We are over four states. I also don’t like to name the states and I really enjoy educating people about where it is. I will say that it is from the northern of the Grand Canyon over to the Rocky Mountains and down to the Painted Desert for context. We have six sacred mountains that surround our homelands.

Have you always been politically active or did this start due to the actual political changes at the moment?

Definitely, my grandfathers and my uncles were a part of the American Indian Movement. They always taught us to speak up and stand out. My grandmother is always speaking out. Anytime that we are together as a family she is educating everybody about our rights. Since I can remember I have been taught to speak out, making sure that people see us and are aware of what’s happening.

It is the first time that a group of Indigenous women make up a team for the Roller Derby World Cup. Do you know of any other sports where this happened?

As far as I am aware this is the first team of women that have come together from Indigenous borderless nations and put aside our colonial countries and not worn our colonial country flags and have come together as Indigenous people globally and been accepted into a sports world cup.

So this is quite revolutionary that a modern sport like roller derby is going a different way.

For sure. I also acknowledge that we have so many teams in Pachamama (mother earth, the editor) that are Indigenous women but the political context of what is going on in Pachamama is that not everyone is going to identify as Indigenous and they are not always going to identify as being brown. We like to say like: ‘we are brown girls’. That’s not something that is always a positive thing in some of those countries. Its a layered issue.  There are a lot of Indigenous representation within other World Cup teams, and I’m so happy to support those teams and skaters. It’s also not lost on any of us that the teams from Puerto Rico, Colombia and Chile couldn’t afford to attend the World Cup, giving even more attention to the power and privilege western countries have access to. We are once again leaving behind Indigenous people in this sport.

What are your next steps?

There’s a lot of work to be done. I have met with people on the WFTDA-board and people on the advocacy committee and we are putting forward a couple of women on Team Indigenous to apply for those advocacy positions. Not myself, I really feel like I’ve had the platform for a long time. There are a lot of beautiful Indigenous women that have fresh energy, positive ideas and are ready to take that work on. The WFTDA is trans-inclusive, that’s a revolutionary thing in sport. However that doesn’t mean that trans folks are now included. Just because we have a policy doesn’t mean that there is a follow through. We need to back it up with actions. It’s the same thing with the advocacy committee. We know that there is racism in roller derby. How do we create a way for people to confront it in a way that people receive the message with a “call in” rather than “call out”? I am hoping having some Indigenous women in the advocacy committee will change that.

Interview: Marta Popowska
Photos: Jonas Vietense
This interview originally appeared in DogDays Magazine issue #1

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