Hinkeys doing their heritage proud
BY MIKE HOUSER
The tendrils of smoke carry Derek and Tyler Hinkey’s prayers toward the heavens.
Burning cedar is a Native American ritual the brothers perform each time before they step into the boxing ring, where they seek to tap into the warrior spirit that has been passed down through the many proud generations of the Paiute-Shoshone tribes to which they belong.
The prayers they recite before their matches do not revolve around their hopes of winning their fights, but are a humble supplication for the safety and success of all the competitors.
Derek, 23, and Tyler, 20, who grew up in McDermott and are now fighting out of Reno, took a big step toward realizing their dream of fighting in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, when they won the USA Boxing state tournament on Nov. 15, in Las Vegas in their respective weight divisions.
Derek stopped Omar Zalzibar in the second round and Tyler took a four-round decision over Jose Soto, to advance to this weekend’s USA Boxing regional tournament in Los Angeles.
It is a long journey to Greece. If the brothers both win, they will move on to the USA Boxing Western Trials in Bakersfield, Calif., to be held Feb. 3-7. The winners from this tournament will advance to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials (Feb. 16-21), in Tunica, Miss.
From there it’s on to the U.S. Olympic Team Box-offs (in February) in Cleveland, Ohio, and finally on to the Olympic Games, which will be held Aug. 13-29, in Athens.
It’s a long road, but the brothers have come a long way since they first began boxing each other as kids, when they’d fashion a makeshift ring by pushing together their beds near the McDermott Indian Reservation.
Their father, David, taught them to box, and they brawled their way through a string of tough bouts with mixed results.
“My dad was old school,” Derek said with a grin. “I never really fought in my own weight class. It was like a street fight. You didn’t choose your opponents. He put us in there with whoever. When we were younger, we got smoked quite a bit.”
Both are graduates of McDermott High School. Derek also went to Haskell University in Lawrence, Kan., in 1999, where he studied Fire Science before returning to Northern Nevada.
While the brothers are nearly identical in height (Tyler is 6-foot-1, an inch taller than Derek), they are different in many ways, with the most obvious being their weight. Tyler grows his hair long, in the traditional Native American custom, while Derek keeps his tight to the scalp in a buzz cut. And it’s Derek who has delved the deepest in Native American spirituality, going to sweat lodges, searching for life’s deeper meaning and leading his younger brother by example.
“There’s a lot of alcohol and violence on the reservation,” Tyler said. “Drugs are a big part of life (for many Native Americans). It seems like it’s the only thing for them to do. I’ve seen many people wounded by it. I tried drinking when I was younger, but I knew I’d only get in trouble. (Derek) told me what would happen. He taught me a lot. He’s walked me through the stages of my life. We were going to be an unstoppable force together. He motivates me.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I don’t want to go anywhere without him,” Derek said of Tyler. “Ever since we were young and we put the gloves on and we began our journey in boxing, he’s been there for me.
“It’s funny, but for a big guy (Tyler’s 275 pounds), he’s athletic. He played in the state tournament in basketball. I looked up to him. When I was in Kansas, I wrote him a letter and told him he had a lot of heart.”
Tyler has had 54 fights, but in 2002 proved how tough he was both in and out of the ring.
Just before the tournament, he drove down to look at some cows that had trespassed on his parents’ property, and was driving a truck with a trailer of horses behind it. He lost control of the truck and drove off the road, rolling the truck several times before climbing out. Then he walked 10 miles back to his house, where he proceeded to load 500-600 bales of hay, each weighing 100-125 pounds, before going on to competing in the 2002 National PAL Championships, where he won a bronze medal.
“Tyler, I feel, is going to get real serious now,” said the brothers’ manager and trainer, Bobby Lee. “He hasn’t been, but this victory in Las Vegas gave him (confidence) that he can do it.”
For his part, Derek used to have some doubts about his future before two occurrences made up his mind. One happened on Sept.11, 2001, when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers rebelled against the terrorists that had hijacked the plane. Derek was to board the plane when it landed on the West Coast.
The other was when an Indian medicine man interpreted a dream Derek had been having, one in which a grizzly bear was chasing him.
“I know that I’m here for a reason,” said Derek, who has had “between 60 and 70” fights and has also won a Nevada state Golden Gloves title. “The medicine man told me the dream meant I was at a crossroads in life. It meant I wasn’t pursuing something I should’ve been. When I grew up, I didn’t have a Native American hero. My brother and I can be Native American heroes to the younger generation.
“I want to represent Native Americans as being something other than alcoholics. I love going to Ken Austin’s amateur boxing shows in Schurz. If I don’t become a world champion, they will. We can do something positive with our lives.”
And they are off to a great start.
Derek and Tyler are the first Native American brothers to advance this far in the USA Boxing tournament. If they both win this weekend, they will be the first brothers since Leon and Michael Spinks to make it to the USA Boxing Western Finals. The Spinks brothers accomplished the feat in 1976, with Michael winning the gold medal in the middleweight division and Leon winning the gold in the light heavyweight division in the 1976 Olympics.
Lee said the pair has a bright future as professionals and that they have already garnered the attention of a big-time promoter who has worked with several Olympic gold medalists and world champions.
“Lou Duva has been looking at them,” Lee said. “Duva Boxing is promoting a lot of fights in Indian casinos. He wants two Native Americans who would be proud to dress up in headdresses and who are proud of their Native American heritage.”
Maybe the burnt cedar smoke has reached a Higher Place after all.