Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (2024)

Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (1)

SALT RIVER PIMA-MARICOPA INDIAN COMMUNITY, Ariz. — The atmosphere inside the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community's rec center buzzed with anticipation at the start of a two-day tournament featuring 24 teams from three states.

Team captains assembled along long tables to hear the rules from team organizers and referees for one of Indian Country's most popular games: No cursing. No yelling at officials. No spiking. And possibly the most important rule: "Keep your butt on the chair at all times — the 'one-cheek' rule doesn't apply here."

That's right, butts in chairs. These teams were itching to start play in the second annual Salt River Seniors Chair Volleyball Tournament, nicknamed "The Big One." Teams with names like Tribal Roots, Pyu Puma, Native Chaos, Fort McDowell Firebirds and Blackwater Jackrabbits squared off against each other and tribal teams across Arizona, California and Nevada.

Chair volleyball has taken senior centers in Indian Country by storm. Over the past decade, dozens of teams have formed and seniors can be found honing their skills, serves and game strategies in tribal communities across the region. One Washington state tribe even included a game of chair volleyball with tribal council members as part of a meeting with tribal elders.

The game provides seniors age 55 and older with physical and mental exercise and the opportunity to socialize with other Native people. It also gives these silver athletes another chance to win gold, or at least continue playing sports in their retirement years.

Jennifer Veaco, a family physician with Phoenix-based community health provider Native Health, said chair volleyball helps seniors meet a goal of 150 minutes of physical exercise each week. "It also supports cardiovascular health and builds upper body strength, promotes hand-eye coordination and stretching and is good for self-esteem," she said.

The game also gets seniors out of the house, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to stick close to home, said David Willis, athletic manager for Salt River's community recreational services department.

Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (3)

"I'm excited to see them active," he said. "Our elders are hanging out and traveling every weekend to play." During the weekend tournaments, Willis said, seniors have karaoke evenings and other social events. "They're getting out and seeing each other.

"They're more active than our young people!"

'It's almost like a reunion'

Brian Smith, a member of the Salt River tribal community, heads up the Nyaa Thosh team. "Those are the names of 'sun' in the Pee Posh and Pima languages," said Lewis, 64. "So, we're the Suns."

Smith designs the team T-shirts to reflect the sun and earth. Earlier shirts evoked twilight or basket designs. The current shirt fades from bright red to a soothing blue-green.

Smith, a retired firefighter, said he used to play all sorts of sports including baseball. Chair volleyball wasn't high on his list of games.

Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (4)

"I didn't want to do it at first because you don't want to consider yourself old," he said. But once he saw he could continue with sports even as he ages, he joined a chair volleyball team about two years ago.

After a great experience at a chair volleyball tournament in Pala, California, home to the Pala Band of Mission Indians, Smith said the Salt River seniors wanted their own event. This year's was limited to 24 teams due to construction, he said, but they hope to grow as more space becomes available.

Larger tournaments like the ones at Fort Mojave Indian Tribe's Avi Casino Resort in Laughlin, Nevada, host nearly 70 teams. Smith said he's proud that his relatively new team placed fourth out of 67 teams vying for top honors at the Avi tournament.

Camaraderie ranks high on Smith's goals for his chair volleyball team. He said he began playing with people he knows from the community.

"People come up and say, 'I used to play softball with you,'" he said. "It's almost like a reunion."

Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (5)

Willis said the game helps create social bonds within the senior community beyond the tournaments. "They are spending more time with friends," he said. "They go to dinner and yard sales."

And, Willis said, the people, personalities and characters in Salt River's community of more than 1,000 elders make coming to work a joy.

From social hour pals to competitors

Once the social niceties are out of the way, the seniors play hardball as they strive to move up the brackets. And so it was a few weeks ago at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community's rec center gym.

The Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians had hauled a busload of elders from its Southern California reservation. Other seniors carpooled to the rec center. Players, some of whom were using wheelchairs or motorized scooters, sported colorful T-shirts emblazoned with their team names and logos.

Chair volleyball teams use regulation courts but with lower nets and a regulation beach ball instead of a traditional volleyball. Teams play for the best two out of three matches, each lasting 10 minutes or when one team scores 15 points.

Most of the rules are similar to regular volleyball. Players' chairs must all face forward, and all four legs must remain firmly on the floor. Although some chair volleyball teams allow players to keep just one part of their seat on the seat, the Salt River players must ensure their entire backside remains firmly resting on the chair; violations result in a point to the other team. Wheelchairs or powered scooter wheels must be locked down; there's no rolling play allowed.

After two days of spirited play, one winner made its way up the bracket: Turtle II from Pala. The team, whose homeland is in north San Diego County, sported bright green and yellow shirts featuring the Pala elder logo, a feather-adorned turtle.

Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (6)

Willis said that planning is underway for the third tournament, where they hope to have 40 teams.

"It's great seeing the seniors with more energy," he said. The tribal recreation department serves tribal members from age 3 to 99, and they didn't want to leave the elders out.

Smith said that even though Nyaa Thosh plays to win, they also play to build each other up.

"We developed friendships with different strengths," he said. "I tell my team that we don't have a worst player — we're all in this together."

Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture, and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @debkrol.Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.

Move over pickle ball. A new type of 'rez ball' for seniors is taking Indian Country by storm (2024)


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