Pete Nez brings Diné philosophy to basketball and track teams

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Group of basketball players on the court
Pete Nez (in purple) is an assistant basketball coach and jumper’s coach for the track and field team at Redwood Valley High School in Redwood Falls, MN. (Photo by Kelly Guetter.)

By Dan Ninham

“Ya’at’eeh,” said Pete Nez, 39. “I am from Dinetah (Navajo Nation) and I am Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) born for Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle people).” Pete Nez is an assistant basketball coach and jumper’s coach for the track and field team at Redwood Valley High School, Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

“I was a student athletic trainer at Central Arizona College for three years,” said Pete. “I worked with some athletes that made it to the 2000 Olympics and some that made it to the WNBA and MLB. After graduating from Central Arizona College, I received an unexpected call from Bacone College asking if I was still interested in playing college basketball. I jumped on I-40 and drove east to Muskogee, OK. I played on the junior varsity team my first year and was moved up to the varsity team.”

While at Bacone College, Nez met Mat Pendleton of the Lower Sioux Community in Minnesota. Pendleton encouraged him to move to the Lower Sioux Community area for more opportunities and he did.

“My coaching started in 2010 in Redwood Falls as a middle school basketball coach and track and field jumpers coach,” said Nez. “I also coached the B-squad team and assisted head coach Brian Pendleton at Cedar Mountain High School. Another opportunity opened up at Redwood Valley. I had success with my B-squad program by helping kids understand the game by preparing them for the varsity level. Our varsity basketball team made it to the state tournament in 2019. A lot of the players on that team I had the opportunity to help mold when they played for me at the B squad level.”

“Track and field has been a very rewarding program as well,” said Nez. “I have worked with some great athletes that work hard and I can see their growth from week to week, month to month, and year after year. What makes this program successful is the work ethic of these kids, but the parents play an even bigger role by trusting me with their kids. Majority of my jumpers are non-Native and I was a bit scared when I first started because I had all these white kids asking me for advice and I didn’t know how to relate to them. I mean a Navajo ‘rez’ man with a deep Navajo ‘rez’ accent, but I have worked hard to relate to these kids. Especially the kids that live in the country that talk about their homes and it sounds just like my bringing up at home in Arizona.”

“I grew up in boarding schools on the Navajo Nation,” said Nez. “I have only played on the ‘rez’ and with Navajos, Hopis or Apache people. Finding great teachers and coaches is hard on reservations. There were teachers and coaches that I would make connections with that would leave after a year or two. This made it hard to commit to a sport but with basketball I wanted to always play in college and nothing was going to stop me.  I have tried to resign from the track program multiple times, but each year I get new athletes that have potential and they buy into my philosophy of Taa’hwo’aajit’eego and the Navajo way of life by greeting the sun early in the morning. I was always told that greeting the sun would bring great fortune to you and to live the beauty way with Hozhoo Jii. Parents help bring kids to early practice at 6 am and a lot of these morning practices are recommended by the athletes themselves. I also think of all those coaches that gave up or left the ‘rez’, and I don’t want to do that these kids.”

“One of the best things I love about coaching at Redwood Valley is the respect I get from everyone in the community,” said Nez.  “I have kids who have moved on to compete at the collegiate level for track or football. I coached one state champion while being the jumper’s coach, Cade Johnson, who played football at Minnesota State University.

“Growing up my family and other elders expressed Taa’hwo’aajit’eego,” said Nez. “I share this with my athletes. It means anything you want to do or be, it has to be up to you, you have to do a lot of the work yourself to get better at what you want to be or gain in life. With this philosophy my jumpers have helped our track program score and has helped our boys team make it to the state true team meet in 2018 and 2019.”