BROWNING — Frank Kipp hated this town.
He says this while sitting on a milk crate inside the warehouse-turned-boxing gym he willed into existence 18 years ago, sharing 59 years’ worth of stories and wisdom, and apologizing when his tales venture off course. The traumatic brain injury he suffered decades earlier, he explains, has been giving him fits lately.
An enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, Kipp was a tough kid. He was a boxer, a martial artist and a street fighter. He spent most of his childhood in Seattle — an “urban Indian,” as he called himself — but would live for periods in Browning when his father, Donald, fruitlessly looked for work as a welder. Frank, the oldest of seven children, said his family grew up poor and that he was bullied, if not by his non-Native classmates in Seattle than by the boys in Browning who were either jealous of his athletic prowess or resentful of his outsider status, or both.
Kipp and his brothers are third-generation boxers and were all immersed in the so-called sweet science from a young age. Donald coached the boys, and his eldest son had success in the ring until, one day, he was walking in Browning and an older boy came up behind him and slammed a rock into the back of his head. The scar behind his ear and the TBI that drains his short-term memory arrived that day.
It is 2020, though, and Kipp is still here. He has been for the last 27 years. The boy who hated Browning moved here at 32 years old, found work and started to put a life together. Within a few years, his parents and many of his siblings would join him in the largest town on the Blackfeet Reservation.
By the turn of the century, the Kipps made it a goal to pass on the family trade. Frank spearheaded efforts to acquire a facility for a boxing gym and was offered the lease on a dilapidated Tribal-owned warehouse next to the town’s oldest cemetery. (“We’re a very spiritual people,” he would explain when sharing that his German shepherd used to growl at him whenever they walked the grounds.)
With their bare hands, a truck full of whatever equipment they could get donated, and the help of charitable friends and neighbors, the Kipps converted the warehouse into a gym and opened the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club in 2002. Eighteen years later, the building isn’t in much better shape, but the town where it sits has a different place in Frank Kipp’s heart. This is his home, now and forever, he says, and he has discovered his life’s calling within these walls.
“It means I did something,” Kipp says. “It means that I accomplished something. I made a difference.”
Dr. Vernon Grant is, at first, a little reluctant when reached by phone at his ranch in Arlee.
“All this stuff, I’m completely comfortable speaking about it,” he says. “I just don’t want to frame it in a way that perpetuates stereotypes.”
Grant, 38, was born and raised in Browning, and the stereotype he’s reticent to reinforce is something like the life he was living, for a while at least, as a young man.
“I probably became a full-blown alcoholic by the time I was 16,” he says. “That gym literally saved my life. I could have sobered up, but then there was nothing in place for me to occupy myself at that time when I really needed it. Coming into that gym and having Frank there as a father figure, that’s what it was for me. It saved my life.”
There are no drugs and no alcohol at the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club — it says so right on the sign outside the building — and that includes the coaches. Grant is a recovering alcoholic, but so is Kipp, as is his brother, Tom, who was there when the gym opened. And from the very first days when Frank, Emmett, Tom and Glen Kipp, along with their dad, opened the doors, the mission of the club was more than training champions.
“What (kids) see on the Blackfeet Reservation is a lot of negative things. Drunkenness, poverty, they see all that,” Tom, who works with addicts in Missoula and is accumulating the hours needed to become a certified counselor, says. “There’s a lot of these young people that see that and they think it’s normal. It’s not.”
Addiction, though, isn’t the only thing that can sidetrack young people in Browning or any other impoverished area. Frank Kipp knows most of those struggles well. He leans on his personal story, the stories his boxers have shared, and the eye-opening six years he spent as a probation officer.
“I’ve had to see kids killed. I’ve had to see kids die. I’ve seen too much,” Kipp said. “I was waking up having nightmares, hearing kids cry in my mind.”
Kipp stepped away as a probation officer in 2010 and poured himself more fully into the gym. By almost everyone’s account, Kipp has devoted his life to teaching, training and mentoring each one of the gym’s young fighters over the years. He’s known for his tireless advocacy throughout the community, and his gym is a safe harbor for those who want to train to become champions, to learn how to protect themselves, or are just looking for a safe place to spend a few hours.
When Kipp saw that some of his fighters were coming to the gym hungry, he and his then-wife started serving huge meals after training sessions and opened a food bank out of the back of the gym. When kids were underdressed, he found them clothes.
Grant was one of the first fighters to train with the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club and became one of its most successful pupils, winning a Montana State Golden Gloves title and several other major tournaments around the Pacific Northwest. He’s gone on to earn a PhD in community health from the University of Montana and is now a part-time professor at Montana State University. Before college, Grant worked with Kipp to train younger fighters in the gym, and one day, after riding a few boxers extra hard for slacking off during a workout, his boss pulled him aside.
“He told me, ‘I want to give these kids a place to go no matter if they’re in here training or not,’” Grant said. “He said, ‘I’d rather have them here than out on the streets.’”
“It’s just a reflection of his heart,” he continued. “If he was a rich man he would be feeding that entire neighborhood.”
One of Frank Kipp’s other rules at the gym is a strict no-bullying policy. Driven from his days as a bullied kid and inspired by what he’s seen young boys and girls go through, he says the goal is to give bullied children the confidence and skills to fight back.
“I wanted to try something different, not just teaching boxing,” Kipp said. “Half the kids that come into this boxing club are being bullied.”
“Bullying is a bad deal because if a kid’s self-esteem isn’t strong enough …” he added before starting to trail off. “I’ve lost count. I’ve lost 20-some kids to suicide.”
Kipp and his wife, Ember, have been married for 10 years. Their first date, she said, was a trip to give away school supplies to kids in need. She’s seen the difference sparring in the gym can make in children, including her own son, Talon, who started training last year.
“You see a lot of these kids come in and you see a difference in their demeanor once they’ve been here for a while,” Ember Kipp said. “It really helps them build up that confidence in themselves … It’s inspiring to watch. That’s one of the reasons I love this man, is because of what he does here.”
Emmett Kipp is three years younger than his brother Frank and was the best athlete of the brood. Emmett won more than 200 amateur fights and a bevy of titles, and then went on to an outstanding college career as a distance runner, placing high enough at the national meet to be named an All-American at the University of Puget Sound in 1989. He returned recently to the gym to work as a coach alongside his brother and two other brothers, Rod and Vance Sellars.
“People took time for me as a kid and I’m going to spend my life, now, doing the same thing,” Emmett said.
Emmett and the Sellars brothers will be stepping in to lead the gym next year, Frank says, as he takes a step back in part to focus on his health. The bulk of the actual coaching will fall more on others, although he will still have some involvement, but Ember isn’t convinced her husband will be able to take even a small step back.
“Not to contradict him, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said. “It’s too much in his blood.”
The Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club needs a new home. The ceiling is caving in, the electricity is too erratic to dare and try the treadmills, and behind one door, instead of a room, there is a pile of rubble topped by a collapsed roof that succumbed to a heavy snowpack last year.
There are some who cherish the gym’s “gritty, grimy, scrappy” character, like Vernon Grant, but for practical purposes the gym is in need of a dramatic facelift at the very least. Frank and Ember Kipp have an even larger vision.
The gym has always been run on donations and never been flush with cash. The club was scrambling to repair a rundown van in order to travel to a recent tournament, and Frank says there have been more than a few times he wasn’t sure how they would pay the bills in a given month. He and his fellow coaches are all volunteers, and while the Tribe has provided a small budget in recent years, most of the money is cobbled together through a handful of fundraisers.
One thing that could help the gym is achieving nonprofit status, but the club is not a registered 501(c)3, a designation that would allow them to apply for grants that could, among other things, help construct a multi-purpose activity center to host sports, music, dance, art and more. Ember has a financial background and is drawing up the necessary paperwork but says the group is still short the money necessary to file it.
This summer could provide a major push in that direction. A film crew from ESPN has been documenting the gym and, specifically, the role its training of girls plays in combating the scourge of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Their documentary, “Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible,” was screened at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula last month and will be broadcast on ESPN soon, shining needed attention on MMIW and the gym.
Until then, the ramshackle old warehouse next to the even older graveyard will have to do. The current building does, as Grant noted, have quite the scrappy feel. The ring at the center is framed by donated ropes, the bags were hung by volunteers, and the rugged walls are covered with old fight posters, inspirational messages and 18 years’ worth of mementos.
On one wall of the gym, hundreds of faces stare back at the fighters and trainers from a vast tapestry of photographs. Frank Kipp’s face is up there. So are his brothers. His father. And the children on the wall, arms raised in victory or around each other, are smiling. In the gym, the air is filled with the patter of feet bouncing around the ring, the thump of gloves on the heavy bag, and the rhythmic pop-pop-pop-pop of a speed bag taking punishment from two coiled fists.
When the training is done, Kipp is the last one to leave, waiting for every boy and girl to depart, and then another 20 minutes while his brother, Emmett, shuts the building down. Frank Kipp fills the time with his “gift of gab,” talking about the crew from ESPN, about the battles of the past and his hopes for the future. He looks satisfied. He looks happy. He looks at peace.
“You want to know what heaven sounds like?” Kipp had asked earlier that evening. “Heaven sounds like kids laughing. Heaven sounds like kids eating. Like kids being kids.”
“That’s what we’ve got.”
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