By D. Vienneau 

Kali “KO” Mequinonoag Reis is the first mixed Native American boxer to compete in the high-profile, challenging world of professional boxing. After a short amateur career, Reis turned pro at 21. She is the former WBC World Middleweight Champion and UBF World Champion, and the first Native American to win the International Boxing Association middleweight title. Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, USA, Reis is the youngest of five children, and a self-proclaimed tomboy and family wild child who has always taken the road less travelled.

Reis was raised by her mother Patricia “Gentle Rain”, who gave Reis her Native American name, Mequinonoag, meaning “Many Feathers, Many Talents”—a name fitting of the warrior woman she has become. Reis’ mixed background includes lineage from the Wampanoag Nation and Seaconke Tribe, and Nipmuc and Cherokee tribes (on her mother’s side) and ancestry from the Cape Verde Islands (her father’s side).

Reis grew up in a very musical family and strongly connected to her Native roots, thriving and competing at pow wows frequently. She has always been very athletic, playing softball and basketball at a young age, and always wanted to do what her two big brothers were doing. She is strongly inspired by the matriarchs in her family, but her real life superhero is her older brother Drew, who she lost recently to a 12-year battle with brain cancer.

Although Reis had a fairly stable family life and was very close with her siblings, she has endured her fair share of hardships over her 33 years, with a father who was in and out of her life and having experienced personal trauma as a young teenager. And in 2012, Reis was involved in a serious motorcycle accident which halted her boxing career for over a year.

Always feeling like she had something to prove, she found her calling in the sport of boxing which has allowed her a platform to excel, speak up, heal and love herself. Keep reading to find out more about Reis’ journey in and out of the ring in our exclusive interview.

Photo credit: Leonardo Tillet, Tillet Studios

SAY: Why boxing? How did you get into the sport?
Reis: The solo part of boxing really intrigued me. Growing up, I had a lot of anger issues and trust issues, so being able to count on just myself was important to me. As a kid, I was always interested in boxing but I’d never heard of anyone boxing in Rhode Island, so it wasn’t until I was about 12 or 13 that I really started to express my interest and talked about it with my mom. A friend of hers, Domingo Tall Dog, used to be a boxer, and he would come by and teach me a few things. We even hung a bag in one of our closets. About a year later, when my father came back into the picture, he took me to Manfredo’s gym in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The head coach actually tried to discourage me from training, but I kept showing back up and just fell in love with the sport.

As chaotic and violent as it may seem from the outside, boxing is really a calm dance, “the sweet science”, the art of hitting without getting hit. I love that I can always learn something new from any fight I watch. It’s beautiful to watch a fighter who has really honed in on their game and who is really passionate about it. I just love it!

SAY: What do you do to unwind outside of boxing?
Reis: Painting. My grandmother taught me how to paint at a very young age. It’s another form of expression for me. I can lose myself in painting and drawing, and express myself without being judged. If I ever need to get something out, I can get it out on the canvas. I love that about painting. I can lose myself in boxing as well, hours of hitting the bag or watching fights.

SAY: What is your “day” job?
Reis: I am a residential counsellor where I take care of girls (ages 12-18) in a group home facility, which I have been doing for about 12 years now. It’s my full-time job (outside of boxing) and I love it. I didn’t have experience in this line of work, but someone gave me a chance and it just clicked. As a kid, I was the one helping out the special needs kids that no one wanted to talk about or sticking up for those who couldn’t stick up for themselves. When I was a teen and going through the difficult things I was going through, I wished I had someone to talk to, who wouldn’t judge me and who cared—I’ve always wanted to be that person for other young people. To have a young person tell you “I chose not to commit suicide” or “I chose to finish school and go to college” because of something you said…that’s worth more to me than any paycheck.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Ashe Meyer

SAY: You are also a motivational speaker—what kind of topics do you typically speak about?
Reis: Trust, self-confidence, self-love and resiliency are some of things I talk about a lot lately, especially because I have been opening up more about my personal life. I find public speaking healing for me too. We don’t realize how resilient we are, and sometimes we need to be reminded. Everybody is looking for significance, to feel loved and wanted. It starts with you—put the phone down and love yourself. People project back to you what you project out to the world. This is me speaking from experience: the more you love yourself and the more you tell yourself you are worthy of love, and the more you work on yourself from the inside, you can project and put out the energy that you want to attract. It took me a long time to learn and accept that. I am a work in progress, but I’ve really been pushing that message, especially when speaking to young people.

SAY: How does it feel to be a role model for young people?
Reis: I am honoured, especially coming a long way from not thinking much of myself to where I am now. I try to be vulnerable and open about every aspect of my life, and I think that makes it easier for people to relate to me. I’m fortunate to get messages from people all across the world, especially from Indigenous and mixed-race youth. I get emotional about it because I love seeing someone realize their worthiness, how much love they have and how much they deserve to be here. Boxing is the platform that I’ve built from, and that’s what I am most recognized for. Sometimes I have to pinch myself—I’m KO Reis and that’s pretty cool.

SAY: You spoke about some of the challenges you faced as a mixed-race youth. How do you feel in your skin now?
Reis: I love me now—I don’t think there’s anyone that is more proud. You can’t tell what race I am just by looking at me, and sadly, most of the discrimination I faced as a child was from other Natives. Because I’m mixed, I always felt that I wasn’t Native enough or Cape Verdean enough. When I was young, it all started with my hair. Everyone has this stigma of what a Native American is supposed to look like. I have crazy long, thick curly hair. There was a point in time when I would go to pow wows and beg my mom to braid my hair tight so that not one curl popped out. It was such a battle. I wasn’t proud of my hair as a kid, but I am so proud of it now! I have come a long, long way, even just in the last four years.

SAY: How did you get past those challenges?
Reis: Knowing who and where I’ve come from has made the difference. When people question who you are or how Native you are, you start to question yourself. You start wondering, “Am I really Native? Am I sitting here pretending?” No. I know exactly where I come from—the history of my tribe, my lineage, my chief. I feel proud of who I am, and I like to educate others who question it.

Photo credit: Stanley Hot

SAY: How is your culture interwoven with your will to fight?
Reis: The reason I fight is based on who I am as an Indigenous woman. I have a specific purpose and a reason to do what I do. The Indigenous youth I speak to are the reason I fight. My entrance [into the stadium/ring] is like my own ceremony before a fight. No matter where I am [in the US], I try to engage the people from that territory. I always ask permission first, out of respect for those from that land. If I am fighting locally, I usually have local drummers from around my way. If my mom is around, she will dance me out.I’ve been very blessed to have jingle dress dancers, traditional men and women, and kids dance me out. It’s very powerful! I’ve gotten some backlash from others, but this is how I pray, this is my ceremony, this is my medicine.

SAY: Can you tell us more about “Fight 4 All Nations”?
Reis: Since starting boxing, I’ve always been known as KO, but I didn’t really have a slogan or a motto. In 2015, a good friend of mine, my warrior sister, who works in PR and marketing challenged me and asked me what my brand was. She said, “What do you fight for?” My response was I fight for my people. I don’t fight for just my tribe. I fight for all nations—for the four directions. That’s where my “Fight 4 All Nations” slogan and logo came from. It’s what I do in and outside the ring—I fight for all nations of Indigenous People.

SAY: What are your future goals, fight-related or otherwise?
Reis: I recently signed with a new promotions company—I actually didn’t have a manager or promoter for most of my career, until 2016—so I feel like my career is just now beginning. I feel like I’m at my prime, so I plan to continue to fight, win a few more world titles and work to get female pros more exposure and better pay.

Aside from boxing, I would like to get into acting and film. I already tell a story with my fists, so I figure why not try it with acting, writing and storytelling? My other big dream is to start a Fight 4 All Nations Rez Tour, so that I can visit reservations from East to West two to three months out of the year. My goal is to promote boxing, health and wellness, and leave each community with a curriculum and equipment they can use once I leave. My vision also includes the creation of a Fight 4 All Nations foundation that allows youth to participate in camps and programs. Ultimately, I hope to see gyms built and see more health and wellness programs in the communities that don’t have them.