Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club is fighting to save the lives of Native American women

Donna Kipp is a fighter for the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club. Her father, Frank, owns the club. Kipp was a bronze medalist at the 2015 Junior Olympic Nationals. Watch “Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible” on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

In 2003, one year after I was born, my dad, Frank Kipp, founded and opened the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. I grew up at the boxing club. I found my strength at the boxing club. I gained confidence at the boxing club. And, most importantly, I discovered my purpose at the boxing club.

My dad started the club for the youth and the young adults on the reservation to keep them out of trouble, to keep them away from drugs and alcohol. Over time, the club became more of a refuge for young girls and women in the community. It became a place for girls like me to learn how to stand up for themselves, provide new outlets beyond the status quo and ultimately learn how to protect and defend themselves.

Today, people outside of our community are becoming more aware of the tragic statistics facing Native American women. Still, it’s something that isn’t broadly talked about or broadcast across every media outlet on the regular.

According to the Justice Department, Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than non-Native women. More than one in three have suffered rape or attempted rape, and more than 80% will experience violence at some point in their lives. For people outside of the Native American community, these might just be horrific statistics. But for the women in my life, this is our horrific reality.

Growing up, I always knew my dad was doing something impactful for our community. But honestly, I didn’t realize just how important the boxing club was for our community until I started getting more involved.

Often on the reservation, someone would ask me, “Who’s your dad?” And I’d respond, “Oh, it’s Frankie Kipp.” To which that person would say, “Oh my gosh, he’s such a good guy. He helped me quit alcohol, drugs and helped me restore my family.” This happened multiple times throughout my childhood. For my dad, it was natural for him to give back to our tribe.

I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps. I want to make an impact. I want to help the young girls in our tribe. I don’t want us to be another statistic.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been at the gym with my father. But it wasn’t until I was around the age of 7 that I started boxing. I mean actually boxing, not playing around and acting like I knew how to box — although I thought I was a pro because I grew up in the world of boxing.

At the time, I was attending a private school on the reservation. Looking back now, I can admit that I was an introverted little girl. I had my small group of friends, but I was always quiet and kept to myself. I started getting bullied by the older kids, and I stayed quiet about it all. I don’t know why I stayed quiet, but I think I was scared to speak up.

My dad noticed that I was struggling. It became apparent to him that I was being bullied and not succeeding in the private school environment. He said to me, “Well, if I’m going to put you in public school, Donna, you have to know how to defend yourself.” On the reservation, my dad knew that no matter what environment he put me in, I would have to know how to defend and stand up for myself.

I was just a little girl, but so much was happening in my life — things that I wasn’t even fully aware of at the time. My biological mom decided to leave our family and never came back. I lost her when I felt like I needed her the most, and I didn’t understand why she left. Now, at the age of 18, I fully understand that she was in a bad place with drugs and alcohol and couldn’t be the mom that I needed. Sadly, this isn’t rare on the reservation. You’re destined for that path before you’re destined for success.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before my dad remarried and my stepmom came into my life. She practically saved me. I consider her my mom. I don’t call her my stepmom or refer to her as Ember, her first name. I call her Mom. And without her, I don’t think I would’ve started seriously boxing — despite my dad owning the gym and being my trainer. My dad had a hold on me, but it was a mother figure that I needed in my life. It’s hard to explain fully, but I needed her. I needed that love and compassion that only a mother can provide. [Donna has several siblings, including step- and half siblings, that she recognizes as family.]

When my dad started to train me properly, I saw him in a new light. He was no longer my dad in those moments of training on the mat. He was my coach. He saw me as one of his students at the gym, one of his students that needed boxing to save them. I had to tell myself, “This guy is not your dad anymore. He’s your coach now. He’s going to treat you like everyone else.” That’s why I think it was important that I also had my mom. They balanced each other. And not many kids on the reservation are as fortunate to have two supportive parents in the household. I’m more aware of this today than ever before.

After learning the basics of boxing and elevating my training with my dad, I was ready to spar. When you’re a new boxer, you don’t spar. It’s not something you get thrown into right away. And at that time, there were no other girls my age at the boxing club.

My dad was like, “OK, Donna, you’re going to have to spar one of the little boy boxers and see what you can do.” My immediate response, without hesitation, was “OK!” At that moment, I had no fear. And I overpowered him. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I even remember my dad saying, “Oh my gosh, Donna. I didn’t know you could fight like that.”

Before I even got to middle school, I gained a new level of confidence that I never experienced before because of boxing. I became more outspoken. I started standing up for myself in new ways. I began to realize just how important boxing was to me and others in our tribe.

When I started boxing, I remember watching the older girls train at the club and viewing them as role models. They were not just boxers but fighters. All of those older girls embodied strength, the type of strength that we’d hear in stories about our ancestors. This meant something to me.

When I step into the boxing club, I’m no longer that little girl. I’m someone who competed in the ring at a high junior level. In 2019, I was a top female contender for the Junior Olympic national tournament. I’m the first Blackfeet Nation woman to accomplish what I accomplished in the ring. And I want to help the younger girls realize that they can accomplish their dreams, whether that’s in the ring or not.

When I look at the young girls that come to Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club, I see myself in them. I see the girls who are too afraid to punch and make a mistake. I see the girls who are struggling in their households and just want an outlet and family.

For the last four years, I’ve dedicated my boxing career to Native American women. Every single fight, I wear the initials “MMIW” on my boxing gloves. During my freshman year of high school, I started looking into why so many women from our community go missing and get murdered at higher rates than most. That’s when I learned what MMIW meant: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. From there on out, I decided that I wouldn’t ignore what was happening to our women.

In the spring of 2019, I competed in my final boxing match. After suffering a torn knee ligament, I don’t think I can continue boxing. And although I’m sad that I might never compete at a high level again, I know that I can still impact the boxing club as a trainer to all of the young girls who were just like me.

Since my last fight, so much has changed in the world. The boxing club is a place of security for a lot of people in our community. And due to COVID-19, we’ve had to close down the club. One of the reasons my dad started the club was to provide a safe space for kids for whatever problems they were facing: alcoholism, drug addiction, abusive parents, sexual assault. I’m not going to lie; it’s been extremely hard for a lot of us. But I’ve realized that there are ways to be present for my tribe even when I’m not present.

We have a huge group chat that my dad leads, and it is a place where anyone from the club can express their true feelings. If someone is feeling down, my dad will suggest going for a run or doing a home workout or just picking up the phone and calling. We all try to be there for each other even when we can’t be.

Recently, I graduated high school and turned 18. During this time, I’ve really reflected on what’s next for me. Right now, I plan to attend the community college on our reservation and pursue an education in radiologic technology to become an X-ray technician in the future — something that our reservation lacks in regard to medical services.

I love boxing and all that it’s given me. I will carry on what my dad has created at Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club. And beyond boxing, I want to continue what my dad has created when it comes to lifting up our tribe, celebrating our people and land.

Outsiders see the beauty of our land, but they don’t see the beauty of our culture and our people. We are more than drugs and alcohol. We are more than MMIW. We are a beautiful culture and a beautiful tribe. This is my home. This is my everything.