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Native American Roots

September 6, 2019
man talking to a wrestler
Head wrestling coach Mark Branch coaches Sam Turner during a match against Fresno State in 2017.

UW wrestling coach Mark Branch treasures his Kaw Nation ancestry.

By Milton Ontiveroz

As thumping rhythmic music, heavy on bass, blasts through speakers along one wall of the University of Wyoming wrestling room, athletes who are divided into the age-old schoolground groups of shirts and skins swiftly move up and down the length of the spongey practice mats, throwing all their skills into a wild game of handball. One participant stands out among the teenagers and early 20-somethings. At twice their age, Mark Branch plays some mean defense, leaning his long athletic body into the younger athletes while at the same time talking trash with the best of them.

Branch, UW’s 12-year head wrestling coach who is nearing the all-time winning dual record for a UW head wrestling coach, leads this voluntary workout with his assistants as part of the summer Wyoming Wrestling Regional Training Center program. A couple of Pokes returning starters are here on this particular day, along with redshirt wrestlers hoping to crack the lineup this season and a handful of incoming freshmen. It’s time to get down and dirty on the mat, and Branch shows no mercy working out with returning sophomore Hayden Hastings of Sheridan, Wyo. Hastings admits that his 44-year-old coach—a two-time NCAA national champion wrestler for Oklahoma State University—still has the skills and exclaims, “He’s stronger than heck.”

That surprises some of the newbies, who will probably find out on their own once they have to work out with the coaches this season. And probably more surprising to some is that their head coach has a unique heritage—he is a Native American. Many in the UW Athletics Department are aware of that fact, but Cowboy wrestling fans may not know that Branch’s lineage traces back to the Kansas Territory and Native American origin.

Formerly known as the Kanza (or Kansa) people, the Kaws are a federally recognized Indian tribe officially known as the Kaw Nation. Today, only about 3,500 enrolled members remain—the last remaining full-blooded tribal member died nearly 20 years ago.

Branch is an officially enrolled member of Kaw Nation. His Native American heritage comes from his mother, Mary Patricia Kekahbah Branch. His great-great-great-grandfather—whose name was Kekahbah—settled on land in Washunga, named after Chief Washunga, on the Arkansas River in northern Oklahoma. After the federal government built a dam to flood the valley to create Kaw Lake, Washunga’s Native holdings were moved to Newkirk, Okla., where Branch grew up.

“As kids, my brother Brian and I would go to our family’s old farmhouse to see my mom’s old treehouse that was still standing on Kaw Lake,” he says. “My great-grandmother’s house was relocated to Newkirk. I grew up in the heart of  the community on Native-owned land around the lake.”

His mother was influential in Branch learning about his Native heritage. She was a longtime tribal council member and made sure her two boys were involved in the community.

“My mom has always taught us to be proud of our heritage. She always tried to educate us in our heritage,” Branch says. “I never missed a powwow growing up until I moved to Wyoming. We were always required to dance in the powwow—even my kids, when we lived in Oklahoma, danced. My mom gave my daughter a new shawl for the powwow. It was a rite of passage and was very special.”

That part amuses Branch. His two children, Maggie, 17, and Mason, 14, are both blonde, along with his niece. The Branch children are all enrolled tribal members.

“All three of my mom’s grandkids are towheads. They’d go to the powwows, and they definitely would stick out,” he says, smiling. “I did, too, as a little boy. It was kind of a strange deal. I was involved in what was going on within the Kaw Tribe and, yet, I felt kind of a little bit of an outsider because I did not look like everybody else.”

wrestlers practicing
UW wrestler Montorie Bridges practices with former All-American UW wrestler Bryce Meredith at the 2019 NCAA National Wrestling Championships.

Branch’s mother even taught her grandchildren a few words in the Kaw language, which some tribal members are trying to preserve since all the elders have died.

While growing up in Newkirk, Branch worked as a groundskeeper for tribal housing and even put in hours staffing the local bingo hall. That taught him responsibility but also the value of hard work and giving back to his Native community.

“If my mom ever found out I was ever ashamed of my heritage—or hiding from it—she would have killed me,” he says matter-of-factly.

He also has a strong connection to one of his recruits—All-American Montorie Bridges of Altus, Okla., who is an enrolled member of the Muskogee Tribe. And if any of his student-athletes question his heritage, Branch quickly pulls his tribal card from his wallet.

“It was never an option to hide my heritage. I would never talk about it as a teenager, but it is a lot different now,” he says. “Being part Native American is something that I am so proud of and am grateful to my mother for making it an important part of my life.”


Winning Ways

With 116 dual wins and a 78 percent win rate within the conference ranks, Branch has established the Cowboys as the team to beat year in and year out. Branch has compiled a 55–16 mark against conference foes with four regular-season dual titles.

Under Branch, the Cowboys have sent 58 wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, with 12 returning as All-Americans.

Branch’s Cowboys have finished in the top five at the Big 12 Championships three of the last four years, which includes a fourth-place finish in 2018.

Branch was named 2018 Big 12 Coach of the Year, has won six team conference titles, and has coached 26 individual conference champions.

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