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BSU's Native Nations Night to extend to basketball

BEMIDJI—An annual Bemidji State University sports promotion designed to recognize American Indians—and pique interest in the school—is set to expand into basketball.

University staff are working to organize "Native Nations Night" at a Beaver basketball doubleheader next month. It would be the basketball equivalent of the yearly event of the same name at BSU hockey games.

The hockey promotion has featured drum songs, presentations of the American flag by an honor guard from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, ceremonial puck drops by tribal leaders, and, last year and the one before, a chance to meet star defenseman Zach Whitecloud, a member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation who has since gone pro. This year's hockey night will feature a "Skate with the Beavers," an open skating session with hockey players after the game. Tickets are also lower priced than normal.

The inaugural basketball promotion is set to feature a lot of the same ceremonies as the hockey one—and free tickets—but organizers plan to add a pair of halftime exhibition games between youth basketball teams from surrounding tribal communities, which are among the largest in Minnesota and are home to several highly competitive and popular basketball teams.

Both nights intend to help American Indian students feel more comfortable at the university and, maybe, nudge them to attend it when they're older.

"A lot of times we go naturally to...the recruitment piece, but really the retention and persistence side is really important," said Bill Blackwell, Jr., one of the promotions' organizers and executive director of the university's American Indian Resource Center, which features programming designed to make it easier for American Indian students to stay at the university once they're there and is at the core of its long-range efforts to bump American Indian enrollment. "That students are feeling like they belong on campus, that students are feeling like the culture is kind of being showcased."

The promotions, which Blackwell characterized as "holistic," are also designed to help recruit American Indian athletes, he said.

"Students feel more apart of the university when there's someone they can relate to, when there's someone they grew up with or playing against," Blackwell said. "But also, one of the things I think is so important is it gives the communities a chance to go cheer for someone from their community...When Zach Whitecloud was here, even though he wasn't local, my gosh, we had people coming to games that had never gone to games before because they identified with him."

Anecdotally, Native Nations Night has been well-received and well-attended. Last year's promotion drew about 3,200 people to a February hockey game against Lake Superior State. It was the fifth-highest attended Beaver men's hockey home game of the season.

If you go:

What: Native Nations Night (hockey)

When: Doors open at 4 p.m Saturday, Jan. 12. Puck drops at 5:07 p.m., against Alaska-Fairbanks.

Where: The Sanford Center, 1111 Event Center Dr NE, Bemidji

What: Native Nations Night (basketball)

When: Doors open at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9. Women's tip off is 3:30 p.m. and men's is 5:30 p.m.

Where: BSU Gymnasium

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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