Saturday, March 25

Phoenix Suns Celebrates Native American Culture in Full Colors

PHOENIX – High above the court at the Footprint Center, the scoreboard flashed some uniquely Native  encouragement to the hometown Phoenix Suns basketball team: SKODEN.  

The scoreboard shout out — a bit of popular Native slang for “Let’s Go Then” — was one of the many Indigenous touches on display on Thursday as the Suns paid recognition to Arizona’s 22 Tribal communities in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. It wasn’t the first time this season the organization showcased Arizona’s Indigenous heritage, though, and it won’t be the last, according to the team. 

Thursday’s game was the sixth event this season at the Footprint Center, located in downtown Phoenix. Organizers curated an evening to feature Indigenous culture, music, food, dance and leaders in the community throughout the entirety of the game. Attendees of Thursday’s game were welcomed at the main entrance of the arena by the music of Navajo deejay Mike Sixkiller and a display of all the flags of all 22 tribal nations in Arizona. 

“We want Native people to be comfortable in this space,” Phoenix Suns (NBA) and Phoenix Mercury (WNBA) Senior Director of Live Presentation Shawn Martinez told Native News Online. “Nobody in live entertainment is celebrating Native culture like we’re doing here in Phoenix.”

That commitment to celebrating Native culture is happening, at least in part, because of Martinez, a Navajo Nation citizen raised in Window Rock, Arizona. He’s been working in professional sports for more than 20 years, including 12 years with the Denver Nuggets and six years with the Detroit Pistons. Martinez was hired by the Suns in 2020, during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is his third season. He very well may be the only enrolled Tribal citizen that is the director of entertainment for a professional sports organization, too. 

And it shows. 

From banners touting Skoden and Stoodis to the National Anthem sung by Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Citizen Brooke Simpson, and an intertribal song sung by the Wild Medicine Drum Group to the Gila River Basket Dancers performing on the court, the organization rolled out the red carpet for attendees to learn about the local Indigenous communities and cultures. 

“It’s because I’m from the Rez,” said Martinez, who was also instrumental in collaborating the Suns’ Nike City Edition Uniforms with Cahokia SocialTech + ArtSpace, an Indigenous creative collaborative headquartered in the Roosevelt Row Arts District in Phoenix. 

The uniforms were years in the making and feature turquoise as the base color, the names of each Tribal Nation in Arizona, colors of the medicine wheel (white, black, yellow and red), and much more. 

 (Photo:  Roshan)“We want Native people to be comfortable in this space,” says Phoenix Suns’ Senior Director of Live Entertainment Shawn Martinez, a Navajo Nation citizen. Photo by Roshan, a Navajo Nation photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona.

In addition to the many collaborations Martinez has been able to facilitate, he’s also in charge of live entertainment during the game. Thursday’s game featured music from the world champion drum group Northern Cree, Crow music sensation Christian “Supaman” Parrish Takes the Gun, Halluci-Nation (widely known as a “Tribe Called Red”), and many others. 

“For an evening, attendees of the games are introduced to the amazing talents our people have,” said Martinez of his music selection. He’s also a DJ, known for 25 years as DJ Tribal Touch, where he recently performed at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. last November. 

There are 10 total ORIGINATIV events — the word the Suns are using to describe their Native-themed entertainment — during the 2022-2023 season. The remaining events are scheduled for February 24 (vs. Oklahoma City Thunder), March 14 (vs. Milwaukee Bucks), March 16 (vs. Orlando Magic, and April 4 (vs. San Antonio Spurs). 

Each night has different Indigenous performers from Tribes that are Arizona based, and they will also include food vendors (outside the stadium), music, dance, and other recognitions for leaders in the Arizona Native community.

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About The Author

Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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