Red Mountain Creations performs O’odham and Piipaash dances and songs all around the Valley. (Photo by Dylan DeVlieger)

Eighth annual basketball game celebrates Native American culture at MCC

The eighth annual American Indian Recognition game showcased the diversity of Mesa Community college campus Wednesday night.

The matchup between MCC and Chandler-Gilbert Community College (CGCC) seemed to be like any normal one to the casual basketball fan. The MCC women took control of their game early and didn’t let go, hitting timely shots and making defensive stops to secure the 93-74 win. The men fought hard in a defensive slugfest against CGCC, but in the end the T-Birds lost their second straight overtime contest with a score of 70-72.

Guard BJ Burries matches up defensively against Chandler-Gilbert Community College. (Photo by Dylan DeVlieger)

The difference between this night and any other where the MCC basketball program does battle on the hardwood is what the night represents: displaying the Native American culture that makes MCC such a diverse campus to those who rarely experience it. 

Much of MCC’s history is interwoven with local Native American history. The school itself is built on the lands of the O’odham, Piipaash and Yavapai people. In 1964 the athletic teams were nicknamed the “Hokams” to pay homage to the tribe that lived in the Salt River Valley.

Typically, between 1,000-1,200 Native American students representing all 22 tribes in the state attend MCC every year. The college is one of only three in the district that has either a program or department which helps Native students attend, succeed at and graduate from their respective college. 

MCC has the American Indian Institute (AII), Scottsdale Community College has the American Indian Program and South Mountain Community College has the American Indian Intercultural Center.

To display Native American culture on campus, Sam Stevens, AII advisor and women’s basketball team assistant coach, created the American Indian Recognition game. 

“I had seen all across the country that colleges and universities were doing these recognition games for native kids and thought, well why can’t we do it? We work with native kids directly in our centers, so why not?” Stevens, who is half Navajo, said.

The game caught a lot of traction statewide in 2018 when the women’s team had 5 Native American players. The program also became the first junior college to be a part of Nike’s N7 program, which recognizes American Indian Heritage month across the country at college programs.

“We were the first junior college in the country to be recognized by Nike N7 as having a jersey for this specific game,” said Stevens “We’ve worn that jersey every year for this game in particular.”

The jersey’s turquoise color represents harmony, fellowship and friendship.

Halftime events not only entertain attendees but also expose them to Native American culture. In 2019, MCC Hall of Fame member Garrison Tahmahkera and Audri Mitchell who at the time was Miss Indian Arizona were recognized during halftime.

This year’s halftime entertainment was the Red Mountain Creations, a family group that performs traditional O’odham and Piipaash dances and songs. Before each game, Sweetie Cody of the Navajo Nation sang the National Anthem in her native language.

Red Mountain Creations performing traditional dance during halftime (Photo by Dylan DeVlieger)

Stevens said they recruit a lot of Native kids to join the program at MCC. One charasteristic that is commonly found in Native basketball players is their love for the game of basketball.

“I think passion is a big part of Native kids participating in sports,” said Stevens. “I’ve played countless pickup games growing up with kids that just play it for the love of the game.”

This year between the men’s and women’s programs there are five Native American players: Taylor Tiulana (Tanana Chiefs Conference – Huslia Tribe from Alaska), Myka Taliman (Navajo Nation), Stacey Begay (Navajo Nation), Jana Solee (Navajo Nation) and Robert ‘BJ’ Buries (San Carlos Apache Nation). 

Burries is happy to be a part of a game that recognizes his culture.  

“I think it’s very big. We have a lot of college hoopers who are Native American, but people don’t really recognize them a lot,” Buries said.