By NIKA BARTOO-SMITH
Underscore News + ICT
In a packed stadium, community members showed up to the Blazers versus Thunder game Nov. 19 not only in support of Portland’s NBA team, but also to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.
Fans poured into the Moda Center for the Portland Trail Blazers versus Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game on Sunday night. Blazers Dancers led a parade through the hallways and into the stadium with pop music blaring through a portable speaker. The dancers were followed by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Yakama Nation tribal members dressed in their regalia. In the rear, two Umatilla elders sat in a bike peddled carriage, handing out “Rip City” flags.
The sounds of jingle dress cones and bells blended together with the ruffling of pompoms and pop music as powwow dancers and Blazers Dancers made their rounds through each floor of the Moda Center.
Looking into the crowd at Sunday’s game — a sea of red, black and white — beaded medallions, earrings and ribbon skirts with the Blazers logo were a common sight.
“I think I’m most excited about the fact that community is here,” said Michelle Jalali, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Trail Blazers, who helped plan the event. “The best part of this process was knowing that we gave out over 400 free tickets just specifically to tribes and community.”
Planning for the Native American Heritage Month Blazers celebration began in August when Jalali approached JR Lilly, Navajo, and Anna Allen, Shoshone-Bannock, about helping to plan a Native American heritage night.The National Indian Child Welfare Association served as the nonprofit sponsor for the event.
Together, they organized a night full of celebration.The evening started with a reception and parade before the game, followed by an epic halftime show with song and dance honoring Native community leaders.
During the parade and halftime show, dancers and drummers from local nations, including Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs, among others, showed up in their colorful regalia.
“We wanted to center the tribes who have a historical connection to the area first,” Lilly said.
A group of around a dozen Native youth formed a tunnel as the players ran onto the court to begin warming up, giving them each high fives along the way and welcoming the Blazers players onto the court.
“[Giving the players high fives] felt really amazing because I play basketball,” said 12-year-old Bernadine Jackson, Klamath, Modoc and Paiute. “It’s such an honor to be here.”
Dressed in her pink and yellow fancy dance regalia, Jackson took deep breaths to calm her excited nerves as she awaited the players with a smile on her face. Jackson also danced during the halftime performance.
Before the game began, Native veterans brought out different tribal nations’ flags along with the U.S. flag for the National Anthem. As red and white stars were projected onto the floor of the court, recording artist Rebecca Kirk, Klamath and Ojibwe, walked to the center of the arena. Dressed in a Blazers ribbon skirt with beaded Blazers earrings, Kirk sang the national anthem. Her performance was followed by loud cheers from the crowd.
Kirk has been singing since she was 7 years old and has opened up for, and sang with, well known artists including Chaka Khan and The Temptations.
“A singer’s goal is to be able to sing for an NBA game — that’s a huge thing,” Kirk said. “For me to be able to be the first Native American singer to perform it on the inaugural Native American Heritage Month Celebration for the Blazers, that is a huge deal.”
At the event, an exclusive Eighth Generation new blanket design created by Shirod Younker who is Coquille, Coos and Umpqua was revealed. The red blanket with pops of blue, black and gray, showcases a reworking of a basket design on the letters “Rip City.”
Throughout the night, various Indigenous leaders and community members were honored. Images and biographies of around 20 community leaders were displayed on pillars throughout the ground floor of the stadium. Among those honored were: Se-ah-dom Edmo, James Alan Parker, John “Buzz” Nelson, Tawna Sanchez, Adam Becenti, Tattoo 34 and Shirod Younker.
In a stunning halftime show performance, Wild Rose Drum Group sang a few intertribal songs as dancers took to the floor. Dancers young and old wore their regalia proudly and the stadium filled with the sounds of beating drums, jingles and moccasin-clad feet pounding on the Blazers court.
As Blazers and Thunders players geared up to start the second half of the game, “Master Plan” by local artist Kunu Bearchum, Ho-Chunk and Northern Cheyenne, blared through the arena speakers.
Though the Blazers did not win the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the night was a win for the Portland Native community, celebrating Native American Heritage Month.
“You’re Oregon’s team so you should really focus on connecting with the tribes whose land you are on,” Allen said. “Tonight was a night to feel seen, be seen and be in community.”