Neilson Powless is the first tribally recognized Native North American to race the Tour de France

Neilson Powless and his sister Shayna discuss their Native American heritage, and the role it played in their upbringing.

Photo: Stephane Mahe - Pool/Getty Images

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*An earlier edition of this story referred to Neilson Powless as the first tribally recognized Native American to race the Tour de France. It has been amended to refer to Powless as the first tribally recognized Native North American to race the Tour de France. 

As children, Neilson Powless and his sister Shayna often traveled during the summers from their home in Roseville, California to Green Bay, Wisconsin. With their parents, Jack and Jeanette, the family visited friends and relatives and absorbed an important part of the Powless family heritage.

Jack Powless is half Oneida, the People of the Upright Stone, and one of five Iroquois Nation tribes. The Oneida originally inhabited what is now central New York. But it’s now prominent in two locations in Ontario, Canada, and on the Oneida Nation near Green Bay.

Neilson and Shayna are 25 percent Oneida, the minimum percentage required for tribal membership. They learned much of what they know about their Native American ancestry from their grandfather, Matthew Powless, who died in 2015 at age 80. Jack Powless’s mother had Cherokee ancestry and his father’s second wife is of Menominee descent.

A longtime resident of the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation near Bowler, Wisconsin, Matthew Powless was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army and worked as a carpenter, pipe-fitter, and welder. He was a military boxing champion who, for many years, owned a gym and trained youth boxers. He was also a skilled smoke dancer, a tribal tradition often showcased at intertribal celebrations.

“I was quite close to my grandpa, although as I got older and had to travel for sport I wasn’t able to visit him in person as much as I would have liked,” Neilson Powless said.  “Whenever I called him he would always tell me how proud he was of me and how much of a warrior I was for pursuing my dreams.”

Shayna Powless races for Team Twenty20. Photo: Zwift

Powless, who made his grand tour debut at the 2019 Vuelta a España where he finished 31st overall, has had a successful Tour de France debut, highlighted by fourth on Stage 6 and a fifth on stage 8.

The Powless family does not flaunt their Native American heritage. Rather, it’s often an understated element of their family history. But Neilson’s surprising Tour de France selection placed his heritage in focus. Dan Ninham, a family friend, Oneida tribesman and journalist, researched and told the Powless family the just-turned age 24 (Sept. 3) rider is the event’s first Native American participant. In truth, riders from South American with native heritage have raced the Tour, but Powless is believed to be the first rider with native North American roots to race the event.

“I have not researched in-depth to the extent of the truth of the statement, but I would be surprised if it were not true,” Neilson Powless said. “I believe that I am the first tribally recognized member of an indigenous people’s nation (competing in the Tour de France). In the eyes of the government, I am not Caucasian. In fact, I am a Native American.”

Jack Powless, a formerly nationally ranked age-group triathlete, met his future wife while they were both serving in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in Guam. He said his son’s team wasn’t aware of the family heritage. Many friends still aren’t aware.

“I sent (team director Jonathan Vaughters) a Twitter message and said, ‘Hey JV, here’s a trivia question for you. Is Neilson the first Native American to do the Tour?” Powless said.

“He responded and said he never knew it was part of our heritage. I responded and said, ‘Welcome to the club, man. Nobody really does.’ I heard he said something to the team that night at dinner.”

Jeanette Powless doesn’t have Native American heritage, but she embraces the family’s background. The Powless’s home in Roseville has its share of turtle art. It’s the symbolic representation of earth beginning on the back of a turtle as well as good health and a long life.

“I was sad I couldn’t deliver Neilson a necklace or bike turtle charm,” said Neilson’s mother, a track coach at American River College in Sacramento and a former marathoner who competed for Guam in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. “But we couldn’t travel to France due to the pandemic. We have been blessed with amazing ancestors to watch over him now.”

While important, the Powless family keeps its heritage in perspective.

Neilson Powless has spent much of the 2020 Tour de France on the attack. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“Jen (Jeanette) kind of always jokingly says, ‘Nobody would ever know that he’s Native American because he gets his pigmentation from his mom,’ ” Jack Powless said. “He gets his lighter color from her.”

When he was younger, Jack Powless tried to become fluent in the Oneida language while conversing with his father, but it was too difficult. He also tried to teach his children Oneida words but to no avail. The family doesn’t have the strong dancing skills of the family patriarch, either.

“It’s such a difficult language to pick up,” Powless said. “It almost feels like you’re talking from the back of your mouth. It’s difficult to get the proper enunciations.”

Neilson Powless remembers listening to his grandfather and father converse in their native language and he watched in admiration when his grandfather practiced native dancing and smudging (the burning of sacred herbs).

“One of the reasons I loved visiting was to watch him crush a smoke dance,” the youngest Powless said. “He was a champion.”

Shayna Powless, 26, who competes for TWENTY-20, lives in Florida and Ohio, with her partner Eli Ankou, a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns who has Ojibwe tribe heritage. Powless conducts clinics on and near reservations about the importance of exercise with a focus on cycling.

With Ankou, she has a non-profit organization called the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Its goal is to empower youth through sports and raise awareness and assist indigenous girls and women in crisis. The Nike N7 program, which supports Native American youth sports, is a sponsor.

“It’s such an honor that he (Neilson) gets to represent Native Americans in such a big event,” said Shayna Powless. “And I am sure he feels the same way about it. I am glad more and more people are starting to find out that he does have this Native American heritage.

“To be Native American is something I am very proud of. If someone asks what my ethnicity is, I usually say Native American first. I always try to highlight the fact that I am native. I think it’s important.”

The Powless family based in California still has relatives living on the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee reservations. Visits are less frequent than when Shayna and Neilson were young. But the connections remain and the heritage reigns.

“My parents made sure my sister and I had a nice relationship with our family living on the reservations,” Neilson Powless said. “It always made me pay attention a little more in history class when we were going through the colonization and Civil War in America because the Oneida people are so ingrained it that history.”

James Raia, a freelance writer in Sacramento, Calif., has reported on cycling since 1980.

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