American Indigenous boxer fights to raise awareness of Canada’s residential school scandal

Even after 10 hard-fought rounds, battling with one of the biggest punchers in women’s boxing history, Kali Reis had her greater purpose in mind. 

Reis, a two-spirit Native American and Cape Verdean woman, is regarded by boxing historians as the first Indigenous American women’s world boxing champion. On Aug. 21 at the Sycuan Casino Resort in El Cajon, Calif., Reis defended her World Boxing Association junior welterweight title with a majority decision victory over Diana Prazak. 

After first answering questions about the fight, Reis took the microphone and spoke to the crowd about the horrors of Canada’s residential school system — becoming one of the first American athletes to speak out about the cause. 

“Those of you who know, I’m wearing orange for a reason. All of our children, our (Indigenous) children have now been discovered in unmarked mass graves, over 5,000 children were stolen from us. I fight for not just these,” she said gesturing to her title belt, “but for our children, our rights, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and, Stop Line 3.”

Reis wore a custom-designed orange ring outfit, emblazoned with the insignias of three organizations dedicated to Indigenous causes: Every Child MattersMissing and Murdered Indigenous Women; and the RedSpirit Women’s Motorcycle Riding Club. Stop Line 3 is in reference to a proposed oil pipeline from Alberta to Wisconsin that would pass through the treaty territory of Anishinaabe peoples.

Reis enters the ring in an outfit specially designed to raise awareness of Every Child Matters, an organization dedicated to victims of Canada’s residential school policy. (Felipe Leon)

When her fight against Prazak was formally announced, Reis had a purple outfit, her traditional in-ring colours, set aside for the occasion. But after learning about the discoveries at residential school locations in Canada, Reis started posting on social media about the Every Child Matters movement. Eventually, she decided that she could reach the most people through her work in the ring, and made the call to Double A Boxing, a fight trunks designer in New York City, to make a new orange kit.

Reis was spurred to wear orange as a way to keep the issue front and centre with her fans.

“I have to do orange, so when people ask me why orange, it opens up the space for me to discuss it, people start Googling. I just like to create questions,” Reis said.

Reis’s given name is “Mequinonoag”, which means “Many Feathers, Many Talents” and came from her mother, Patricia “Gentle Rain” Booker. A member of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe in Providence, R.I., the 35-year old Reis has been a committed activist for Indigenous rights, speaking at schools and protests across the U.S.

She has also worked as a residential counsellor working with girls in group home settings, and is a licensed motorcycle mechanic. Recently, her profile skyrocketed with a critically acclaimed performance as a boxer in the film Catch The Fair One, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and won her a Special Jury mention for her performance. Reis collaborated with director Josef Kubota Wladyka on writing, casting and setting the film as well. 

“If there’s something that’s affecting my community, I’m going to post it, I’m going to share it, I’m going to try to bring light to it,” Reis said of the residential school scandal in Canada. “When I first found out about it, it hurt so much, because I had recently for whatever reason had run into a few survivors, and I had actually worked directly with a residential school survivor on this film.” 

Prior to the Prazak bout, Reis also redesigned her logo in the colour orange. The logo includes sweetgrass, a braid, and the number three, an important number in Indigenous mythology representing the vertical picture of the world — heaven, earth and the underworld. Reis designed t-shirts and hoodies with the logo on it and plans on donating all of her proceeds to a residential school survivor organization. She is inviting input from people in Canada as to where she should donate the proceeds, and asks that people reach out to her on social media with suggestions. 

Indigenous boxers underrepresented

Within the boxing world, Reis’ goals are two-fold. On a personal level, she is a step away from entering rare territory as a unified world champion (holding more than one of boxing’s four recognized world titles in her weight category.) Given the competitive nature of her fight against Prazak, a rematch may be in order, but if she were victorious once again, bouts against fellow champions Mary McGee (international Boxing Federation) and Chantelle Cameron (World Boxing Council) could be on the table.

Reis describes boxing as her “ceremony and prayer,” and says she “walks with one pucker-toe Moccasin and one boxing boot every step of the way.” But Indigenous boxers like Reis in the United States and Canada are drastically underrepresented compared to fighters of other backgrounds. 

Reis with her WBA championship belt after successfully defending her junior welterweight title with a win over Diana Prazak. (Felipe Leon)

For much of her childhood, Reis grew up in an urban setting and had access to boxing facilities, but that isn’t the reality for Indigenous children who might have an interest in boxing elsewhere. Canada is home to a handful of Indigenous boxing clubs, including Team 700, an all-Indigenous boxing team in Nanaimo,B.C., and Tribal Boxing, a Mi’kmaw-owned club in Dartmouth, N.S. But more often than not, boxing is staged on Indigenous land in casinos while training facilities go unused.

“I’ve gone to so many reservations that have a beautiful [recreation] centre and it has dust on it because it’s not a focal point of the tribe, and it’s not a focal point of the community either,” Reis said. “They don’t have resources again, to have somebody like me come and start a program. But that’s going to come in the future.”

As the most visible and successful active Indigenous American boxer, Reis feels a responsibility to both help bolster participation within the sport for people of her background and sexual identity, and utilize the ring as a dais from which to speak about meaningful issues. 

“Five years ago, as a fighter I was like, ‘oh, I better be this way, if I’m too open I’m going to lose opportunities.’ Now I’m just like, ‘I don’t care, this is who I am,'” Reis said. “I haven’t done it because I want likes or anything, it’s because it’s helpful. It’s helping me, actually. Somebody needs to say something. I have a voice for the voiceless.

“It’s kind of my duty.” 

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