How a basketball jersey can open pathways for Native opportunities

The jersey features a combination of loom and beadwork designs reflecting both Dakota and Ojibwe heritage.

Byron Ninham (Red Lake Ojibwe and Oneida) emceed the Gophers women’s basketball team's Native American Heritage Game alongside his 5-year-old son, Miles, on Nov. 20.
Feven Gerezgiher / MPR News
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MINNEAPOLIS -- “Honored to play on Native land.”

Those are the words imprinted on the black and gold warmup jerseys that debuted at the University of Minnesota women’s basketball game against Presbyterian College last Sunday.

The jersey features a combination of loom and beadwork designs reflecting both Dakota and Ojibwe heritage, said Anishinaabe designer Sarah Agaton Howes, who runs a contemporary Ojibwe design brand called Heart Berry. Flowers are framed by geometric shapes representing the “step, step, slide” of an otter track, a culturally significant motion appearing across Ojibwe traditions, including in the movement of jingle dress dancers.

Howes had pitched the suggestion of a new jersey design when the team reached out about doing something for their “Native American Heritage Game.”

“The opportunity to play always means more when it comes attached to something greater than ourselves,” read a statement from the Minnesota women’s basketball program. Days prior, student athletes had met with and learned from Indigenous community leaders.


Sarah Agaton Howes holds the warm-up jersey she designed with Ojibwe and Dakota styles for the University of Minnesota women's basketball team on Nov. 20 in Minneapolis.
Robyn Katona / MPR News

By honoring Native heritage, the team aims to pass the learning forward. The new design, breaks for land acknowledgments, a Tribal Nations Plaza on campus — these all serve “as an opportunity to educate all visitors to our campus about the unique, historic and ongoing contributions made to the state of Minnesota by the sovereign tribal nations who call Minnesota home," the statement reads.

The game also featured a halftime exhibition of drummers and jingle dress dancers.

“They called us up to do the things that those old Indians did,” smiled emcee Byron Ninham, dressed in a black vest embroidered with bright-colored flowers.

Ninham, Red Lake Ojibwe and an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said the old popular media depiction of American Indians “needs to just be thrown away.” At the same time, he hopes these “quick exposures” to his heritage will spark conversations for non-Native audiences.

“Maybe people will have some questions after the fact and we can provide some more context and more information and history. But it gets the conversation started, like where you're at and the people that are still here,” he said.

This was not his first time on a basketball court. Earlier this year, Howes, who is also a jingle dress dancer, and former WNBA player Jessie Stomski Seim had coordinated a similar exhibition for an NCAA Final Four match. Beyond expanding familiarity with Native culture, they hope such initiatives will increase opportunities for young Native people on college campuses.

“Although there is a wealth of talent in Indian Country, less than half a percent of all NCAA student athletes are Native American,” said Stomski Seim (Muscogee (Creek) Nation), an attorney who is general counsel for the Prairie Island Indian Community and member of the Indigenous Athletics Advancement Council.

Stomski Seim said there are several reasons Native high school athletes are underrepresented — distance from cities where recruitment-track teams, youth programs and resources are based, for example. But she said “the biggest is that Native people in this country are still invisible. For hundreds of years, for generations, the point was to eradicate Native people and/or make them invisible or assimilated. That's not that long ago. Our grandmothers were raised in boarding school. That's not ancient history. So we're still dealing with that. It was purposeful that there's invisibility.”


To address that, Stomski Seim plans to take college scouts on a tour of Indian Country next summer.

For her part, Howes hopes the new jersey design has a part in making both non-Native and Native students feel welcome on campus.

Howes brought her 12- and 15-year-old children along to the game to watch as she performed in full regalia.

"For both of my kids to come to this university, see Native people invited in, see Native people honored and thanked and clapped for, it is going to transform the way that they think about how they belong in a higher education setting," she said.

Jerseys for social change

The Minnesota Wild debuted their own custom hockey jerseys during a pre-game warmup on Friday to commemorate Native American Heritage Day. Designed in partnership with the Prairie Island Indian Community, the jerseys pay tribute to Minnesota Native American communities with a star-quilt pattern and the Dakota phrase from which Minnesota gets its name — “Mni Sota Makoce.”

“Our tribe is proud to be active and engaged in Minnesota, and giving back is at the core of who we are as Dakota people,” wrote Johnny Johnson, Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council President, in a press release. “Our partnership with the Wild gives us a platform to share our story and celebrate our culture with the community, which we are honored to do on this national holiday.”

The warmup jerseys will be auctioned through Dec. 5 with proceeds going to the Minnesota Wild Foundation and Dream of Wild Health, an intertribal nonprofit working to recover “knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways,” according to Minnesota Wild.


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