The Washington Redskins. The Atlanta Braves. The Kansas City Chiefs. Chief Wahoo -- the now-retired cartoonish mascot of the Cleveland Indians. Professional sports have often used offensive Native American terms or imagery for their team names or mascots. The NBA made an important step to amend those wrongs with an event this weekend in San Antonio.
The San Antonio Spurs hosted Indigenous Night Sunday. It paid homage to San Antonio’s indigenous cultures and native people from around the world.
The Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation are descendants of the early peoples of what is today northern Mexico and South Texas.
Ramón Vásquez, executive officer for Tāp Pīlam, said the Spurs are taking a positive first step to heal wounds and start a conversation.
“I think if we had more professional sports organizations that could take the lead where they’re from to provide the education,” Vásquez said, “this is a good opportunity, a good venue to begin to have those conversations. This is a great opportunity to reach a vast amount of people. And it’s a good example of how to do things right.”
The idea for Indigenous Night blossomed a year ago when Spurs guard Patty Mills approached Vásquez and the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation.
Mills is a native of Australia. His father is a Torres Strait Islander, and his indigenous mother was a victim of the infamous Stolen Generations. That’s when indigenous children were taken from their parents and placed in non-indigenous households, from 1905 to 1967.
Members of Tāp Pīlam took Mills on a journey through their indigenous history, with a visit to the 300-year-old Mission San José. Mills said they had barbecue, enjoyed native food & drink and engaged in a smoke ceremony.
“All of those things (were) just so...I could relate to on so many different levels because it’s what we do back home,” Mills said. “I apologize that it’s taken this many years to connect (with Tāp Pīlam), but I was very grateful for the time that they were able to share with me.”
The collaboration between Mills and Tāp Pīlam also resulted in an apparel line that contains imagery important to the creation story of the region’s first settlers, the Payaya. T-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps feature images of a waterbird, a spirit panther, imagery from area rock art, and the words “People of the Earth” - the translation of “Tāp Pīlam” in the pajalat language. The apparel had almost sold out by game tip off.
Spurs fan Angela Robinson appreciated what Patty Mills tried to do with Indigenous Night.
“I love Patty Mills, and I saw that he’d offer his support to the indigenous people of San Antonio,” Robinson said, “and I was interested to see this part of the culture of San Antonio that I’m really not aware of.”
Julian Reyes is a member of Tāp Pīlam and performs with the Tāp Pīlam Riversingers. He said events like Indigenous Night move him because it offers him a chance to educate people like Robinson about Yanaguana — what native peoples called the San Antonio area before European colonization.
“I’ve had a few people come up to me,” Reyes said. “I get excited sharing and educating and teaching about the indigenous people of Yanaguana.”
Also sharing her heritage was Aztec dancer Amelia Romo Olivas. She represented the Mexica chichimeca traditions. She was decked out in beautiful regalia - atuendo - including an elaborate feathered headpiece and ankle bells made of dried seeds and seed pods known as ayoyotes on her legs.
“Our brother Patty Mills made sure that indigenous people of this land are being honored,” Olivas said. “That’s what we’re doing out here. We’ve got people from the Mexica chichimeca traditions, people from the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan nation, the original peoples of this land which is called Yanaguana. So we’re just here celebrating our culture and celebrating indigenous resistance as well.”
A rousing “Go Spurs Go” was delivered in the native pajalat language before the game. It must’ve worked — the Spurs went on to defeat the Miami Heat Sunday 107 to 102.
The indigenous-themed apparel line is available online for only a limited time.