Native American Heritage feature: Referee Na Humma shares his Native heritage & wrestling journey
by Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling
Na Humma has a unique perspective when discussing his Native American heritage. While growing up, he lived in both the highly-populated Los Angeles area which has a wide diversity of citizens, as well as on a reservation in rural southern Arizona, where he was immersed in his Native American culture.
“I was born in California. My parents were living out there in Los Angeles. I lived there the first half of my childhood. In the late 1990’s, we moved back to Arizona at my dad’s reservation. I am Tohono O'odham, out of Southern Arizona and New Mexico. On my mom’s side is Band Choctaw and Lindsey Clan Scottish. My father’s reservation is between Tucson and Ajo and extends into Mexico. I lived there until I graduated from high school,” he said.
When his family made the move to Arizona, Na Humma experienced what he calls a “wild shock.”
“It was wildly different, complete culture shock. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles until I was about 12, then moved out to the res. My village had a little less than 500 people in it, which was all that there was for miles around. The closest village was 10 miles down the road, with another 150 people. It was 45 minutes one-way to get groceries or gas. Going to school was an ordeal, 45 minutes each way. Middle school was a solid half-hour ride each way.”
Na Humma was destined to be involved in wrestling thanks to his father, Rupert Lopez. who was a competitive athlete and a wrestling coach for much of his life. It all started for Na Humma when he was very young in California.
“The fun part was that my dad was still actively competing when I was growing up. He was training for the North American Indigenous Games when they first came around in 1990. I was four years old and he would take me along. He trained in freestyle at Cal-State Fullerton, UCLA and Cal-State Bakerfield in their wrestling rooms. My best memories were that my father would be doing something, and the college guys would have the best time throwing me around on the crash pad. I got a great experience right off the bat,” he said.
His access to wrestling was much more challenging when the family moved to the reservation in Arizona. Yet his father created the opportunity, not only for his son and but also for many others on the reservation. As Na Humma remembers, “there was no wrestling at all.”
His father had to get creative to provide the support for the young wrestlers that many may take for granted.
“We trained in a lot of unique and interesting areas. He got a second-hand mat from Phoenix Indian School, where he went to high school. It was an old foam mats in the square sections and the tie-offs in the corners. It had the old FILA-style canvas cover. That is where we learned to wrestle,” he said.
“Our first practice area was an abandoned building in our village. There was nothing big enough that they would let us use. It was me and a bunch of my cousins the first time around, maybe eight of us who learned to wrestle. He’d take us to tournaments. We would all pile in the back of the pickup, drive two hours to Phoenix, or two hours to Tucson for some tournaments. He kept that going until he retired a couple of years ago. He ran a high school program there also.”
Outside of a lack of opportunity, Na Humma became aware of many other barriers to Native Americans in wrestling. Location was a barrier because they were very isolated, often hours away from sports competition and other activities. Finances were also an issue for many on the reservation, who struggled at times to find jobs that would allow them to support their family. Many people he knew had to commute up to two hours to get to their job. His reservation on the American side has about the same square mileage as Connecticut.
His father’s love for wrestling and its impact on his life inspired him to share the sport with his family and others.
“My dad said multiple times that wrestling saved his life. He had a tough upbringing. He ran cross country and was a wrestler. He didn’t get into wrestling until high school. He went to a boarding school in Phoenix, 200 miles away from a place he never left before. He was ripped away from home for the first time. It was a big struggle there. His cousins got him into wrestling. Something about wrestling pulled him in. It gave him camaraderie and gave him a way to get out frustrations in a safe way. That is what drove him through high school and college,” he remembers.
Not only did his father support his wrestling career, but also helped him find his cultural identity.
“I am extremely proud of all of my heritages. My parents were integral in making sure I knew about who I was and what I came from. My dad grew up on a reservation and went to an Indian boarding school. He made sure to me early on that Tohono O'odham culture was introduced to me early on and on a regular basis,” he said.
“When I moved to the reservation, being surrounded by it every day was definitely different. It was interesting to be surrounded by people who knew what they were talking about. I could use the language on a regular basis. It was fun to be ingrained with it.”
Na Humma’s enjoyed his career as an athlete, ultimately qualifying for the state championships in Arizona in high school. He developed a passion for the international styles, in which his father competed in and coached to his wrestlers. Na Humma was able to compete internationally in Canada and was even able to wrestle in the North American Indigenous Games held in Denver, by accident.
“I went there as a referee. They combined Seniors and Juniors. One of the organizers heard I might considering competing. He said, ‘If you have your stuff and can make weight, we are taking people today.’ I was three pounds over, so I made the weight and competed. I got my butt kicked in that tournament. It was a weird experience. I just happened to have my stuff with me to work out with the team and they threw me on the mat. I competed while I was refereeing,” he recalls
His wrestling career was extended when he took servant-leader roles as both a coach and a referee. He advanced from a volunteer coach at a high school to an assistant coach, and later as a head high school coach for a decade.
It was in officiating where Na Humma was able to extend his wrestling family across the nation and around the world, and truly make an impact on the lives of others. His love for officiating began when he was young and tried to better use his time during long competitions.
“In order to stave off boredom and not sleep between matches, I was drawn to the referees. I liked what they were doing. I was a thorn in Jim Toyota’s side for weeks, asking him to be a referee. He kept telling me I was too young. I was 12 and they were only taking 14U kids. Finally, one of the other referees came over to Toyota and said, ‘This kid keeps asking. We can use the help. What can you do?’ They ended up finally relenting half way through the season. I had a lot of fun with it. They gave me a little cash, and I got free entry into the tournament, so my dad was all about it,” he said.
It was through the Western Regionals in Pocatello, Idaho, where his desire to referee extended beyond the local and state level. Na Humma agreed to work the clocks on the day his age group did not compete, and he got to know some other volunteers working the tournament.
“They invited my dad and I to attend the referee social. I heard about their international trips to Russia, Iran, Hungary and some legendary matches they worked as a referee, judge or chairman. They talked about how they have friends in New York, Canada, Florida, all over. It sounded like a ton of fun. I wanted to have the opportunities those guys have,” he said.
As he expanded his officiating involvement, he did not find many others from the Native American community participating on the national scene.
“There are very few, which is unfortunate. There is a wrestling population in Indian country, but a lot of times, they don’t get the exposure into the international styles. There is not as much participation, which breaks my heart as a hard-core international style junkie,” he said.
However, he was able to find a Native American role model who made a difference early in his officiating journey
“There were two that are really active on the national scene – a father and son duo, which is cool – Alan and Daniel Merrill out of Oregon. Alan had been doing it a long time. He took me under his wing. He said he had never seen another Native trying to referee, especially one who was 16 years old at the time. He was a great resource coming in,” he said.
Na Humma became a leader in developing opportunities for another growing wrestling segment, girls and women. He grew up in an environment where girls were welcome on the club ran by his father. He became an advocate for girls wrestling when he was coaching a high school team in Arizona.
As a referee, he took his commitment to another level. When USWOA Vice-President Tim Pearson asked him to chair a USWOA committee for women’s college referee development, he agreed to step up and lead. He is now involved in helping organize the referees that work the NAIA, NJCAA and NCAA college women’s competitions across the nation.
“It has been awesome. This has been the greatest blessings in my life, to be involved in a meaningful and impactful way in women’s wrestling growth at the college level,” he said.
When it comes to the Native American community, Na Humma is a huge advocate for creating wrestling opportunities for young people.
“Sport in general is a huge thing for a lot of Native communities. Wrestling, I think, is special. To have that safe form of combat that has mutual respect I think is a great thing. There is a lot of gang violence and drug violence that happens on reservations throughout the country. It is not a great situation for people to grow up in. To have a positive outlet, surrounded by people who are driven for similar goals is great. I have never met a wrestling coach who is not fully committed to their team. It takes a special kind of love to commit to coaching a program. That kind of unconditional love, some kids just don’t experience that. It is intense and meaningful in wrestling,” he said.
The health benefits from participating in wrestling can also play an important role for Native American wrestlers.
“There is a big health crisis in Indian country. My tribe alone, we are the No. 1 per-capita diagnosis for diabetes in the world. There is a big focus on trying to maintain health, diet and exercise. In wrestling, we have to have the best nutrition in a meaningful way while maintaining a weight class. When the end result is a focus on the healthy aspects of wrestling, it can help save kids lives,” he said.