The Phoenix Suns celebrate Native American culture in full color

PHOENIX – High above the Footprint Center court, the scoreboard flashed some unique local encouragement for the Phoenix Suns’ hometown basketball team: SKODEN.

The scoreboard chant — a bit of local slang for “Let’s go then” — was one of many local touches on display Thursday as the Suns recognized Arizona’s 22 tribal communities in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. However, it wasn’t the first time this season the organization showcased Arizona’s local heritage, 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 organized an evening to showcase local culture, music, food, dance and community leaders throughout the game. Those attending Thursday’s game were greeted at the arena’s main entrance by the music of Navajo DJ Mike Sixkiller and a display of all the flags of all 22 Arizona tribal nations.

“We want Native people to feel comfortable in this space,” Phoenix Suns (NBA) and Phoenix Mercury (WNBA) Senior Director of Live Performance Shawn Martinez told Native News Online. “No one in live entertainment celebrates local culture like we do here in Phoenix.”

This commitment to celebrating Native culture comes about, at least in part, thanks to Martinez, a Navajo native who grew up in Window Rock, Arizona. He worked 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 COVID-19 pandemic, and this is his third season. He may be the only enrolled citizen of the tribe who is also the director of entertainment for a professional sports organization.

And it shows.

From banners promoting 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 local indigenous communities and cultures.

“It’s because I’m from the Rez,” said Martinez, who was also instrumental in the Suns’ Nike City Edition Uniforms collaboration with Cahokia SocialTech + ArtSpace, a local creative co-op based in Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row Arts District.

The uniforms have been years in the making and include turquoise as the primary color, the names of each tribal nation in Arizona, the colors of the medicine wheel (white, black, yellow and red) and much more.

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

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

“For one evening, game-goers are introduced to the incredible talents that our people possess,” Martinez said of his musical selection. He is 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, DC last November.

There are a total of 10 ORIGINATIV events — the word the Suns use to describe their local-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 features different local performers from tribes that are based in Arizona, and will also include food vendors (outside the stadium), music, dancing, and other recognition of local Arizona community leaders.

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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, which 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, Washington Post, and Voice of America on a variety of indigenous issues in international conversation. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology and law from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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