Spirit Trail

Nanabah Allison-Brewer is the first American Indian to serve as a head volleyball coach of a collegiate team.

From the moment she touched her first volleyball, Nanabah Allison-Brewer sensed a powerful connection to the sport and envisioned ways it could serve her Native American people.

The former Division I player understood that volleyball—a sport that has etched her name in its history books—could transform the lives of women in her community and help them achieve their dreams.

Volleyball has made it possible for this 35-year-old Navajo woman to reach all her dreams – on and off the court. It also gave the Farmington, N.M., native the opportunity to fulfill her destiny and become the head coach of the women’s volleyball team at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Why Haskell, a small university in Lawrence, Kansas? Why did this respected player and the first American Indian to coach volleyball on the collegiate level follow a “spirit trail” that would lead her to Haskell – one of only 32 tribal colleges and universities in the country?

“I felt like it was my calling to give back to my native community,” said Allison-Brewer, who started her second season as head coach in August. “I knew I wanted to give back to my people and inspire them to dream those big dreams.”

This gentle spirit has inspired generations of Native Americans for more than 20 years. She earned all-state honors in volleyball and basketball at Farmington High School. She excelled in the classroom, too. After high school, this scholar-athlete became a DI standout at the University of New Mexico. Allison-Brewer made the team as a walk-on and is one of only a handful of Native American women to play volleyball on the collegiate level.

The defensive specialist also played basketball for the Lobos and was a member of the 1997 team that advanced to the NCAA Championship.

The two-sport collegiate champion graduated in 2000 with a degree in statistics. Over the next few years, Allison-Brewer coached volleyball at three predominantly-Native American schools: Chinle and Sabino High Schools, both in Arizona, and Kirtland Central High School in New Mexico.

Working with young players inspired this volleyball warrior to combine her passion for the game with her desire to help her people.

“Her interest (in Haskell) started when she was coaching and teaching at the high school level in New Mexico,” said Judith Gipp, Haskell’s interim athletic director. “That’s when she knew she wanted to be here and she started charting her path.

“Nana is very passionate and driven about volleyball and the role it can play in the success of Indian women and girls.”

The first steps on Allison-Brewer’s journey to Haskell took her to the University of Arizona. “She knew she needed a master’s degree (to coach at Haskell) and she went to Arizona to get one,” Gipp said.

Allison-Brewer wanted to improve her coaching skills, too. She volunteered as an assistant coach for Arizona’s volleyball team while she worked on her Master’s in Higher Education. The Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight during her final year.

The next steps on Allison-Brewer’ spirit trail led her to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. The Ivy League school hired her in 2006 as its assistant volleyball coach and recruiting coordinator. The Big Green had a 27-21 overall record during her tenure.

In 2008, South Dakota State University named Allison-Brewer as head coach of its women’s volleyball program. The move was historic for the game of volleyball and for tribal communities nationwide: It made Allison-Brewer the first American Indian to serve as head volleyball coach of a collegiate team.

“I’ve always wanted to be a role model (for my people) and encourage them that if they have big dreams they should go off and achieve them,” she said of her historic distinction.

Allison-Brewer led the South Dakota Jackrabbits for three seasons and compiled a 36-48 record. She resigned in early 2011 to spend more time with her husband, Joseph Brewer, Ph.d, and their three children.

But Haskell continued to pull at Allison-Brewer’s heartstrings. “It was time to give back to my community,” she said. Haskell only accepts students who are members of a federally-recognized tribe or are Alaska natives.

Allison-Brewer finally achieved her “Haskell” dream in August 2011 when she became head coach of the women’s volleyball team.

“I was given a chance to work with my Indian people in the classroom and on the court as a coach while having more time with my family,” said Allison-Brewer, who is also a mathematics professor at Haskell. “I am so thankful.”

The Haskell Indians had an overall 5-26 record during Allison-Brewer’s first season. The team went 3-9 in the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference (MCAC).

Allison-Brewer is confident her team will be more competitive this season. Her players are more experienced, she said, and the team added some much-needed height to its lineup.

“Our level of play has increased from last year,” Allison-Brewer told Volleyball magazine in early August. “We’re going to surprise some people and we’ll represent this institution and our community with great pride.”

Haskell, however, doesn’t measure the success of its volleyball program by wins and losses.

“We like to see high grade point averages and graduation rates for [Allison-Brewer’s] team,” Gipp said. “The wins and losses will come. What she’s doing now is building her foundation and creating opportunities for these girls.”

Volleyball has already helped Allison-Brewer’s “girls”—these “amazing women” as she calls her players—achieve success in the classroom. Her team had a cumulative grade point average of 3.19 in the spring 2012 semester. Allison-Brewer, a stickler about grades, raised the bar to 3.2 this season.

What does the future hold for Haskell’s volleyball program? A MCAC conference title? A bid to the NAIA championship? Allison-Brewer has her sights set on a loftier goal.

“I’d love to see one of my players compete in the Olympics,” she said.

Sound impossible? Not to Allison-Brewer, who is proof that volleyball has the power to make anyone’s dreams come true.

Editor’s Note: As this story went to press, the NAIA placed all of Haskell’s athletic programs on probation until 2014. Volleyball magazine confirmed the allegations that led to this action did not involve the volleyball program and the alleged incidents happened before Coach Allison-Brewer arrived at Haskell.

The Native American Volleyball Academy

Haskell University’s Nanabah Allison-Brewer founded the Native American Volleyball Academy (NAVA) in 2007 with a simple dream.

“I wanted to use volleyball as a way to help young Native Americans not only learn about the game, but also think about college,” Allison-Brewer said.

To achieve those goals, NAVA (navaleadership.org) sponsors an annual three-day volleyball camp for American Indian players. Athletes receive training from former DI and NAIA players and coaches. The camps also have classes on recruiting, scholarships, healthy lifestyle tips, and filling out college applications.

Retired professional volleyball player John Kessel applauds Allison-Brewer’s efforts to improve the lives of Native American athletes.

“I’ve told Nana that we need more role models like her,” said Kessel, managing director of region services for USA Volleyball and a NAVA volunteer. “She just continues to do good stuff.”

NAVA camps are open to Native American athletes in grades 9-12. The camps are held at the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, N.M.

What is Haskell Indian Nations University?

·Founded in 1884 in Lawrence, Kansas
·Had 22 Native Americans in its first class
·Started as an elementary school that focused on
agricultural education
·Originally called the United States Indian Industrial Training School
·Offered high school courses by 1927
·Evolved into a vocational-technical school by 1935
·Offered junior college classes in 1970. Changed its named that year to Haskell Indian Junior College
·Became known as Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993 to reflect the school’s vision as “a national center for Indian education, research, and cultural preservation”
·Currently has more than 1,000 students enrolled each semester
·Requires all students to be members of one of the 565 federally-recognized tribes in the country

Famous Native American Volleyball Players

Only a handful of Native Americans have competed in volleyball on the collegiate level. Nanabah Allison-Brewer is a member of that elite group. Other Native American collegiate players include Paula Feathers and Melissa Peterson.

PAULA FEATHERS Played with Allison-Brewer at the University of New Mexico from 1995 to 1998. The former DI athlete, who grew up on the Zuni reservation in New Mexico, holds school records in attacks, digs, and service aces with the Lobos. Feathers graduated from UNM with a degree in University Studies, specializing in Native American Studies and Psychology. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma.

MELISSA PETERSON This Arizona native was a standout middle blocker at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2005, she helped VCU earn its first bid to the NCAA tournament. At the time, Peterson was one of only seven Navajo women who had played volleyball for a DI school since 1986. When she competed in the 2005 NCAA tournament, she became the third Navajo woman to play at that level. (The University of Arizona’s Kim Nash was the fourth Navajo to play in the tournament that year.) Peterson tied an NCAA record during the 2005 season when she had 17 kills out of 18 attempts in one game. That translated into a .944 hitting percentage. Peterson also played basketball one season for the Rams. After college, she earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health. Peterson also coached volleyball at Haskell for four years.

Originally published in November 2012

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