Shayna Powless is a member of the 2022 North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of fame class, but it may not be for cycling—she's much more than that.
Professional cyclist and member of L39ion of Los Angeles Shayna Powless grew up in an athletic home. She is the daughter of Olympic marathoner Jen Allred and the sister of fellow cyclist Neilson Powless. “With both my parents being elite athletes, it was natural that my brother and I got into sports at a very young age,” she notes. There was a lot of opportunity for Shayna.
Shayna’s father, an Ironman triathlete and 20-year Air Force veteran, often took Shayna and her brother to visit his family on the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin. “Connecting with my culture as a child played a big role in instilling a sense of pride in calling myself a member of the Oneida Nation,” she states.
It was also when Shayna realized that many Native American children growing up on reservations didn’t have the same opportunities. “Kids from rural reservations have limited access to and limited funding for things like sports clubs and equipment,” she recalls its impact on her. “I wasn’t raised on the reservation, so I didn’t experience a lot of the hardships that Native people face by being on reservation land,” says Shayna.
Native American Children Experience Undue Hardship
Many Native American Children experience impoverishment and the negative effect of high unemployment rates found on reservations—some of the highest in the country. Native youth face the challenge of fewer educational opportunities and inadequate health and mental care.
Racial abuse, societal discrimination, and inaccurate depiction in the media and arts lead to mental, spiritual, and physical violence against native youth. Youth are stripped of their identity as their native language becomes extinct. Proper representation, acknowledgment, and societal understanding are slipping away, and Native Americans succumb to the physical and mental challenges that take their place.
Most troubling, there is an extractive industry crisis in and around reservations in this country. Oil drilling, mining, hydrofracking, and other extractive industry sites on or near reservation land directly adversely impact agriculture and drinking water.
The red handprint symbolizes the silenced voices of Indigenous women.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Kreisle!
The MMIWG Crisis is a Tragic Epidemic
“Extractive industries also play a role in fueling the MMIWG crisis,” explains Shayna, and “statistics show a high correlation between where Native women go missing/are murdered and the location of these extractive sites.” The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) crisis is an epidemic on the reservations across the US.
Over 5,700 Native American women and girls across America are known to be missing or murdered. Native American Women are ten times more likely to be murdered. 84-percent are victims of physical violence in their lifetime.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a Native person,” Shayna says, “is not having as strong a connection with my culture as I would like.” Shayna has used her platform as a professional cyclist to reconnect with the traditions and way of life of her native ancestors.
The Dreamcatcher Foundation
Shayna met her fiance Eli Ankou during their freshman year of college at UCLA, where she raced for the school cycling team. Eli is a professional defensive tackle for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and a member of the Dokis First Nation (Ojibwe) in Canada. “We both have a strong inclination to give back to the Native American community in any way we can,” asserts Shayna, and “it is what inspired us to start our foundation and use our platforms to give back to our communities.”
The two started a non-profit called the Dreamcatcher Foundation. The charitable organization empowers Native youth through sports—cycling and football—and to raise awareness of the MMIWG crisis in North America. The aim is to host cycling and football camps that are free of charge and easily accessible to the reservation’s youth.
In January 2022, Shayna and Eli’s Dreamcatcher Foundation raised about $10,000 for bikes and equipment for the Seneca Nation of NY children. They launched the Dreamcatcher Ride Campaign that will run through the end of the year. Shayna hopes to receive pledges for each mile she rides—she anticipates around 8,000—and the campaign’s funds will combat the MMIWG crisis and put more Native youth on bikes.
Cycling and Esports as a Platform for Change and Awareness
Shayna had a strong showing in the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships on Zwift representing the US and plans to use virtual cycling as a platform to spread her message. She launched a monthly Dreamcatcher group ride on Zwift to raise awareness of her foundation and its causes.
Using her platform as a professional cyclist, Shayna plans to host an MMIWG Awareness Day group ride on Zwift, which will take place on May 5th, the National day of awareness for MMIWG. The ride will be a 1-hour easy ride at 10 am EST, where we will talk about MMIWG and what we can do to help combat the crisis.
“I also hope to wear a red handprint on my face at a cycling event in the future to help raise awareness of MMIWG amongst the cycling community,” declares Shayna. The red handprint symbolizes the silenced voices of Indigenous women.
Cycling Achievements Are Secondary to Purpose
“My most significant victories as a cyclist have been amazing and all,” she concedes, “but they don’t equate to the feeling of purpose and fulfillment of what we’ve accomplished through our foundation.” Shayna finds it special and meaningful to empower the next generation and raise awareness of the relatively unknown MMIWG issue.
Ideally, for Shayna, the next generation will see more Native representation in media and sports, especially in the cycling and football community. “As a Native person in a society and workplace where others are few to none, it’s been a challenge not having other Native people to connect with face-to-face,” she admits.
Conclusion—The Future Means Breaking Barriers
Shayna hopes that more Natives will become involved in the cycling world through her efforts, especially at the professional level. “I’d also love to see Native communities have easier access to things like sports clubs, activities, stores, and bike shops,” she shares, “all of which would help alleviate the barriers to participation in sports.”
A barrier that has given Shayna an appreciation for how her life as the daughter of a member of the Oneida Nation could have been. “Being a professional cyclist has gifted me a solid platform to garner support for our foundation’s initiatives,” she affirms, “and the opportunity to serve as an inspiration for other Native people across North America to follow their dreams and pursue healthier, more active lifestyles.”
Shayna Powless is much more than a fine American Pro Cyclist. She is a fine Native American Pro Cyclist, which is just the beginning!
Are you a Native American Athlete?
Share your experience. Your fellow cyclists are interested in hearing your story.
Strong Hearts Native Helpline 1-844-762-8483
National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 1-855-649-7299
Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women 1-505-243-9199
Connect with Shayna
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Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!