In a packed stadium, community members showed up to the Blazers versus Thunder game 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.

Keeli Nehani Littleleaf Kotchik, Warm Springs, Wasco and Wyam of the Columbia River territories in Oregon, currently holds the title of Miss Oregon Sweetheart 2023. She is a champion jingle dress dancer and was among more than two dozen dancers to perform during half time. (Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America)

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.

Lindy Waters III, Cherokee Nation and Kiowa, is in his second season with Oklahoma City Thunder. Waters is among the handful of Indigenous players currently in the NBA. The 6 foot 6 inch forward made 12 points in OKC’s 134 - 91 win over the Trail Blazers on Nov. 19, 2023.Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America

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.

On Sunday Nov. 19, Native veterans presented various Native Nation’s flags, the U.S. flag, as well as an eagle feather staff during the singing of the National Anthem to kick off the Portland Trail Blazers versus Oklahoma City Thunder game. (Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America)

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. 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.

Recording artist, Rebecca Kirk, Klamath and Ojibwe, says she was honored to be the first Indigenous person to sing the National Anthem during the inaugural Native American Heritage Month celebration on Nov. 19, 2023. Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America

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.”

This story is co-published by Underscore.news and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

Lead image: The inaugural Native American Heritage Celebration event at the Portland Trail Blazers game was especially significant for Angela Foster and her family. This year’s nonprofit sponsor was the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), which works to protect Native children by keeping them connected to their family, community, and culture. Foster says NICWA is the reason she was adopted by her mother Darlene, who also opened her home to help foster over 100 different Native children over the years. L to R: Zakai, 8, Angela Foster, Darlene Foster, Millie (Katie) Wallulton.(Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...

Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....