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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Rep your rez’: Native Americans from across the nation playing for tribe pride in Eastern Washington

A procession of 64 Native basketball teams enters the Spokane Live venue at the Spokane Tribe Resort and Casino on the opening night ceremonies for The Battle of the Nations five-on-five Native basketball tournament Thursday, April 4, 2024. The competition runs Friday through Sunday at Spokane’s The Warehouse and at The HUB Sports Center in Liberty Lake.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

More than 60 teams from Native American tribes across the country will battle on the hardwood for tribe pride and cash this weekend in Spokane and Liberty Lake.

The fifth annual five-on-five, full-court men’s basketball tournament, dubbed Battle of the Nations, started Friday and runs through Sunday.

“When you grow up on the reservation, basketball’s pretty much life,” said Jerry Ford Redbone, tournament director. “We grow up on outside hoops and we got our heroes (and) whatnot.”

The Comanche tribe of Oklahoma looks to defend its title after beating Yakama last year in the championship game.

Ronnie Battle, of Comanche, said his team has a target on its back but looks forward to representing his tribe again and trying to repeat as champions.

“It’s going to be tougher this year, but I think we have the team to do it,” Battle said Thursday night after opening ceremonies at the Spokane Tribe Casino.

That night, 63 teams, holding their Indian nation’s flag, were announced and then welcomed into the casino’s Spokane Live concert venue. The banging of drums, singing and traditional Native American dancing accompanied the ceremony festivities.

Former Native American basketball greats and the Wellpinit High School boys basketball team, which recently won its second straight state championship, were honored. The team names were then drawn from a hat to determine opening-round matchups.

Redbone said there are other native basketball tournaments, but this is the only one that puts tribe against tribe. Other tournaments, like Spring Fever, which Redbone hosted for 25 years before retiring it, allow tribes to join forces for the best possible team.

“I just made a simple rule – play for your tribe,” he said.

Putting tribe against tribe also allows for a more fair tournament, Redbone said, as teams can’t stack the best players .

“Rep your rez,” he said.

Redbone, a 51-year-old from Wellpinit, said the first Battle of the Nations tournament had about 18 teams and has grown ever since, including to 45 teams last year.

He said teams traveled from as far away as Florida and as close as Eastern Washington, like the Spokane, Kalispel and Colville tribes, to compete in the tournament.

Teams played Friday at The Warehouse in Spokane and HUB Sports Center in Liberty Lake. The remaining games this weekend will be played at the HUB, where the tournament has never been held before.

The top four teams will get money and painted buffalo skulls.

Last year, the champion got $10,000, but Redbone wasn’t yet sure of the amount this year. The winning team will also receive Pendleton jackets, Redbone said.

The Quinault Indian Nation, from the Washington coast, was one of the champion hopefuls.

Isiah Strom, who played basketball at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, said he’s playing for the competition and his tribe.

“I grew up on a different reservation (Yakama) and I feel like this is a way I can show respect and pay back to my people,” Strom said of the Quinault tribe.

Strom’s teammate, Jesse Purdy, also wants to play for his tribe.

“I just want to win it for my people,” Purdy said.