A tribe that settled in northeast Nebraska in 1865 has built an enriched culture and tradition that runs deep within their community.
The Ho-Chunk people of the Winnebago tribe in Thurston County is home to the Winnebago High School Indians. Teams that headline and a lively sports scene that continues to build up the community.
Winnebago is no stranger to high quality sports and always brings positive representation for the Native Americans athletes in Nebraska. The Winnebago High boys’ basketball team won the Class C title in 2015 and took the state by storm.
“We’re known as a basketball town and I know that a lot of the coaches and a lot of the parents around town they really want to be bigger, to be known as more than just the basketball town,” said longtime community youth basketball coach Quince Bass.
Being Native American, the Ho-Chunk people encounter being underserved in the media and are frequently overlooked by the sporting world.
One area of sports that is overwhelmingly underrepresented by Native Americans is golf. This is what the Winnebago Golf Association is attempting to change by bringing the Ho Chunk People a formal golf scene.
“We want to create an opportunity for everybody because we can change a couple of kids’ lives that maybe would have never had that opportunity if we didn’t have a golf course here,” said Aaron LaPointe. “A golf course that has a subsidized cost that has opportunities for young, middle aged [and] elders that may not have the resources to pursue a sport like this, that we can offer that for them.”
LaPointe is the chairman of the WGA and he has been playing sports, including golf, all his life. He coaches in Winnebago while also working full time at Ho-Chunk Farms Inc. Secretary Anthony Earth informally started the WAG 25 years in 1998 and is one of the original Winnebago golfers. Together, they are working with the Winnebago Tribal Council and newly elected tribal council member, Euguene DeCora Sr., to get a golf course in Winnebago, Nebraska.
“Our town is growing so much. We may double in size in the next 20 years. This town has so much growth. So that’s why we’re just trying to put our best foot forward and get ahead of it here,” said DeCora Sr., who won the tribal council election in October. “We need more gyms. We need our own golf course. We have a team that shows you we can do things and I’m telling you to watch out for us come golf season … they got a chance to make it the state as a team.”
However, Winnebago has a population of golfers that span beyond the ages of high school. That is what Aaron LaPointe is doing with the Winnebago Golf Association.
“Our real mission is to create opportunities for our communities’ members to pursue this sport at all income levels, at all opportunity levels,” said LaPointe.
Anthony Earth was a founding member of the then-informal WGA back in 1998 and has seen how impactful the game of golf is to the community and to family.
“I think it’s really growing the whole community,” Earth said. “That’s what I’m excited for, but it ain’t to benefit me or any of us. We want to see it for children or grandchildren moving forward, you know?”
The benefits rise past a familial connection and move into a health improvement. According to the American Diabetes Association, around 15% of all American Indians/Alaskan Natives have diabetes, the largest percentage among racial groups in the country. Earth knows that the WGA will help combat the fight against diabetes and play a crucial role for a Native community where family culture is so important.
“Hopefully, it’ll help with all other stuff there that we have to face or diabetes and health wise,” Earth said. “Hopefully it’ll help you know, it’ll be a place where we can all go and walk and play golf and have fun as family.”
As chairman of the WGA, LaPointe is taking charge of this tremendous project and is working towards getting the Winnebago people their own golf course.
“Anybody that knows golf, it’s expensive. If you don’t have the resources [it is difficult] to do the sport,” LaPointe said. “Our main mission is to get a golf course built…and for all people in the community to benefit. From somebody [whose] family cannot afford to buy golf clubs, or they can’t even afford to play nine or 18 holes a week.”
Combating the reality of low-income families in the area is something that LaPointe knows is present in Winnebago. And the WGA understands that they are building more than just a golf course.
“It’s not cheap to build a golf course. Land isn’t cheap. None of that stuff is cheap. So it’s going to take a long time. It’s going to take a lot of work,” LaPointe said. “If we can change 123 kids lives, give them an opportunity that that really turns it around for them. That’s a win. You can’t put a price on certain things like that.”
The entire community is supportive in getting a formal golf scene established in Winnebago. Quince Bass, a long-time youth sports coach, is one of those people.
“Getting a golf course here in Winnebago would be huge,” he said.
For small tribes like the Winnebago, who only have around 5,600 enrolled tribal members, seeing athletes representing their people on a national or collegiate level is inspiring to the community and to younger athletes regardless of tribe or clan.
“The kids or the young adults that are interested in golf that can see the ‘Hey, this guy just from the same kind of community as me, that means I could do it if I put my mind to it’,” Bass said.
People of Native American decent have not been well represented. In the sport that has swept the nation in popularity over the last 50 years. The first Native American to play on the PGA Tour was Notah Begay III of the Navajo tribe who debuted in the U.S. Open in 1999.
Since that day, Native Americans have not seen equal representation in the sport even with over 80 golf courses in the United States being on reservations. As of 2016, only 74 of the almost 28,000 registered PGA players are Native American.
“Native people, we really struggle with poverty. We struggle with a lot of historical trauma and for many different reasons and that can limit us as Native Americans,” LaPointe said. “And to see people like Notah Begay III and Rickie Fowler, all of these professional athletes that are Native American, they are a true representation of perseverance.”
Prior to the WGA finalizing its 501c3 status with the state of Nebraska or even before the Winnebago High School boys golf team took second place in the Lakota Nation Invitational in August of 2023, Bass indicated golf has had and always will have place in Winnebago and among Native American tribes.
“I think golf is going to be something really big in this community in the near future, and I want to be a part of it.”