Warning: Domestic violence, Missing and Murdered Indigenous People
For Kola Shippentower, Umatilla, the world of tackle football is pretty new. She grew up tossing the ball with her brothers and her oldest son is a lineman for his high school team. But until recently, she never imagined herself out on the field.
That all changed when she heard about the Oregon Ravens and filled out an application last season. As of Jan. 5, signing day, she is officially a player for Oregon’s very own tackle football team for women and nonbinary players. Shippentower, lucky number 29, is the first Native American player for the Ravens, a team since 2017.
“The diversity of this team is amazing,” Shippentower said. “It’s amazing to see so many different backgrounds and so many different colors and so many different mixes coming together as one as a team.”
An athlete and an advocate
Born and raised on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Shippentower is still actively involved in her community, where she raises her three sons. Her traditional name is Tumhiya and she is 34 years old.
While football is a new sport for Shippentower, being a professional athlete is not. In 2010, Shippentower began training in mixed martial arts, originally as a form of self defense. Shippentower is a survivor of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
“Given my background, not only as a fighter, but also as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, I needed to utilize my platform to do something bigger than myself,” Shippentower said. “When Creator puts something in our path, we have to be ready to take that. Since starting my advocacy work, we have definitely experienced a lot more deaths and a lot more cases of missing and murdered people.”
Sadly, she is no stranger to the grief of losing a loved one. In 2016, Shippentower said, her little brother was killed in Portland. In 2014, one of her cousins was pulled from the river, dead. Ten years earlier, in 2004, she lost her aunt and cousin.
As an Indigenous person, Shippentower knows the statistics and the heartbreaking reality that Indigenous people face disproportionate rates of violence. Shippentower is a strong advocate, raising awareness about the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP).
Though mixed martial arts started as a form of self defense and empowerment for Shippentower, she quickly fell in love with the sport and now uses her platform as a professional athlete to advocate for and raise awareness about the MMIP epidemic.
“The warrior aspect of it, this is my jam,” Shippentower said. “I really felt my responsibility to pick this up and use my platform.”
Shippentower quickly advanced in her practice, and is now a brown belt in jujitsu.
“If you had seen her from when she came in to now, it’s just night and day,” said Jeremy Harrington, her longtime coach and mentor. “She’s pushed through when most people would give up.”
In 2021, she founded The Wisáwca Project, a consulting business where she helps her clients create a personalized safety plan coupled with self defense training.
Her goal with the business is to empower and motivate others to advocate for their own safety.
Even in this day and age, American football is a sport associated almost entirely with male athletes. Players of the Women's National Football Conference are working to break down that assumption and prove that any gender can play tackle football, and play it well.
Unlike National Football League players, who receive exorbitant salaries, Women’s National Football Conference players instead have to pay to play. That takes serious dedication. Players put their bodies on the line every practice and game without having team doctors or physical therapists — and seeing specialists happens on their own dime.
Yet Shippentower and her teammates are determined. Fully padded, they play tackle football on teams of 11. This is not the bikini football that people may associate with women football players.
“We sacrifice so much just to go out. And pay literally just to get hit,” said Keky Duren, one of Shippentower’s teammates. “We’re serious about this sport, and we love it.”
A police officer in San Mateo County from 1999 to 2015, Duren retired after a spine injury and moved up to Portland. Her doctor gave her the go ahead to play contact football, wearing a brace, and she has been playing ever since.
Now 47, this will be Duren’s final year before retiring from the Ravens. The self-proclaimed hype person of the team, Duren immediately recognized what Shippentower would bring to the field, and made sure to let her know.
“Kola is going to bring something unique and something the world should be talking about. We’ve never had anyone on our team quite like her,” Duren said. “Kola is a beast.”
The first game for the 2024 season will take place April 6, though practice is already well underway.
Shippentower tried out for three different positions and is still waiting to hear which she will be assigned: running back, linebacker or quarterback, which Duren encouraged her to go out for.
Once she gets her jersey for the season, Shippentower plans to do a photo shoot with her son who also plays football, both in their gear.
“My boys absolutely love it, and that’s my biggest motivating factor,” Shippentower said. “If mom can do it, so can you.”
Lead image: Kola Shippentower is a mixed martial arts fighter who helps other abuse survivors by training them in safety and self-defense techniques. The red handprint tattoo on her right arm, a symbol of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, is joined by doves representing members of her family who have passed on. Photo by Kathy Aney/EO Media Group