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Kolby KickingWoman 
Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS — “Put on a show.”

That was one of many messages over the course of the week to the Native athletes who played in the 2021 Indigenous Bowl. And put on a show they did.

Traveling from near and far, 54 Native athletes representing more than 30 tribes across Indian Country took the field Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings.

However, the event was about more than the game.

Over the course of the week, the student-athletes were exposed to leadership training and heard from speakers and coaches that touched on topics from maintaining personal finances to applying for college scholarships to how to refine their skills as football players.

Easton Laster, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said the trip was probably the longest he had been away from his family but he was soaking in every moment.

“We’ve had all these speakers come talk to us, I've loved every single story. I’ve paid attention to every single story, I really relish this opportunity,” Laster said. “My favorite moment is just being with the team.”

Easton Laster all smiles postgame (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

Nicknamed “Big E,” the offensive lineman said he was “mind blown” when he found out he was selected to play in the game.

“I thought my season ended with my last year, my senior year, but I got the opportunity to play [in this game]. I almost broke down when my dad told me,” Laster said. “I was shaking, I was like ‘Yes, I get to hit somebody again!” I get to throw on pads and throw some people around. It’s awesome.”

Bringing together a large group of young men, as was done for the Indigenous Bowl, you never know how well everyone will mesh. Although, any worries with this group promptly went out the window.

Between the practice sessions and a luncheon Saturday at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, the camaraderie among the players could easily be seen.

Dominic Tiger-Cortes, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is an ambassador for the 7G Foundation, the organization that puts on the game. He said bringing together such a diverse group of Native athletes is one of the things that make the event so special.

“This is one of the coolest events because it's so diverse because these kids come from so many different backgrounds they carry with them,” Tiger-Cortes said. “They carry their culture with them, they carry their tribe, their clan. You know, the specifics of our people.”

In addition to learning from coaches and speakers, it was evident the players were learning from each other. Despite coming from different areas of the countries and different circumstances, many had more in common than they originally thought.

Creating a new community and new friends was something Lennox Lasley, Ho-Chunk, welcomed. The defensive back from just outside of Minneapolis said everyone was connecting really well.

“We all like bread and butter. Regardless of the tribe, where we're from, what area we're from, everybody's been connecting, embracing each other, embracing everybody's struggles, embracing everybody's background and that's something to see just within itself,” Lasley said. “Cause you know, not everybody is able to make connections like that. Not everybody's able to talk to new people and get to know where they're from and you know, what their story is.”

He went on to joke that he might have even found a couple people he could be related to on the team.

The exposure taught Laster, the Oneida offensive lineman from Green Bay, Wisconsin, about tribes from California. He also took notice of the unique last names of his teammates.

“It is eye opening. I didn’t even know California had so many tribes. I did not know that. When I think of tribes from the Midwest, from Wisconsin, I just think of the big five that we’re part of: the Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga and the Seneca and the mystery sixth, the Tuscarora,” Laster said. “That’s all I thought was out there and seeing Catches Enemy? Such unique names and it’s nice.”

It had been a difficult year for Kazden Henry, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The senior from Philadelphia, Mississippi, lost his father and his grandmother, and said he was playing the game for his family and to inspire other Native youth that want to eventually play in the game too.

Bonding with his teammates just added to the experience on top of playing in the game.

“Being around each and everybody right now, it creates a great aura and makes me feel like I'm at home,” Henry said. “It's just amazing.”

Outside of the game itself, the highlight for most of the young men was the all-access tour of U.S. Bank Stadium.

Players walk onto the field at U.S. Bank Stadium during their all access tour (Photo by Dominic Tiger-Cortes, 7G Foundation)

As a Vikings fan, it’s an experience Beau Big Crow Jr., Oglala Lakota, will likely never forget.

“Seeing Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson’s locker room, like where they sit, that’s just inspirational,” he said. “Shows you, you can be there one day.”

Indigenous Bowl players inside the Minnesota Vikings locker room (Photo by Dominic Tiger-Cortes, 7G Foundation)

Those sentiments were shared by many others.

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“I was like a fanboy, like, oh my gosh,” Henry said. “Being in their locker rooms to being on the field, the actual field, it brought so much, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm actually here playing on this field, the next stage to show my skills to everybody around the world.’”

For Laster, it was more humbling than one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

“That was the most amazing moment of my life right there, I’m not going to lie,” Laster said. “I’ve seen the Niagara Falls and that was beautiful too but that was, it was humbling. I looked at the empty stands and I got anxiety just looking at that and imagining a football player’s view of fans cheering, or booing.”

As it is in most youth sports, as rewarding as it is for those participating, it’s also just as rewarding for the parents.

Dotted throughout the stands, family and friends could be heard cheering on the players on the field.

Donald Decora, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, was in attendance to support his son Lucian, a defensive lineman and tight end. Donald said he was proud to see his son playing in a game like the Indigenous Bowl and it just so happened Lucian scored the first touchdown for the “Purple War Chiefs.”

“When he scored his first touchdown I had to turn away cause my eyes started getting teary-eyed so I was staring at my little boy right here,” Donald said. “I was waiting for them to go away but they wouldn’t, soon as I closed my eyes, tears came down my face.”

Traveling from northern California, Leeann Delgado, Mechoopda Indian Tribe, was also excited to see her son score for the “Golden Boyz.” Delgado said it was her son Makoa Brown’s, Elem Indian Colony, dream to play in a game like the Indigenous Bowl.

She hopes any Native youth inspired by the game know with hard work they can reach the highest levels and maybe one day play in the Indigenous Bowl also.

“Just to keep up the good work and keep your grades up so you can play,” Delgado said. “Get your higher education and get us into the NFL, put our foot through the door.”

Lest not forget the coaches as well. Throughout the week, they made it abundantly clear to all the players that they will always be available as a resource. One of the “Purple War Chiefs” coaches, Jerry Racine, Gros Ventre/Blackfeet, said games like the Indigenous Bowl are important because it highlights the talent Indian Country has.

“We do have athletes out there and for us to be able help all these kids, you know, and help fulfill their dreams and their goals and help give them the answers and the tools and the resources,” Racine said. “So they can, they too can go off and play college football or basketball or baseball or whatever it may be. And that's a huge part of it is just creating a resource for them so they can be successful.”

As for the game itself, as previously mentioned, it is put on by 7G Foundation and billed as the organization’s premier event. More than 350 Native athletes applied to play in the game, the most since the game’s inception, according to 7G executive director, Bennae Calac, Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians.

With last year’s game being cancelled due to COVID, the buildup for the game had been brewing, Calac said.

“The hype for 7G and this Indigenous Bowl started back in 2018 and it has just grown and it's crazy,” she said.

The teams named themselves, the “Golden Boyz” and “Purple War Chiefs.”

The game started a bit slow but both teams traded touchdowns on back-to-back drives to end the first quarter tied at six.

The “Golden Boyz” extended their lead to 12 after scoring twice in the second quarter. Once on a 2-yard rush by Makoa Brown and the second on a touchdown pass from quarterback Tanner Monette, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, to running back Favian Sanchez, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Things tightened up in the second half when the “Purple War Chiefs” cut the lead to four after a touchdown run by quarterback Zaiden Bernie, Yankton Sioux, and successful 2-point conversion by running back Blue Kellogg, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

The “Purple War Chiefs” defense held their own, holding the “Golden Boyz” scoreless in the third and fourth quarters but their offense was unable to get rolling itself.

An interception by “Purple War Chiefs” defensive back Devin Long Crow, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, gave his team the ball back with a chance to take a lead with 9 minutes and 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter. 

On the "Purple War Chiefs" final drive, Bernie was stopped 1 yard shy of a first down on a fourth-and-6 situation resulting in a turnover-on-downs. The "Golden Boyz" then ran out the clock to end the game.

A coach from each team selected two Most Valuable Players — Andre Corn, Menominee, and Long Crow for the “Purple War Chiefs” and Tanner Monette and Channing Jimmie, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, for the “Golden Boyz.”

Jimmie was also the overall defensive MVP.

The overall offensive MVP was Dysean Allen, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. He said the game was pretty surreal and throughout he would look up and soak in the moment.

When asked what went through his mind when his name was called as overall MVP, Allen said it was an honor.

“I was smiling ear to ear,” he said. “It was awesome to be able to get MVP and noticed for my talents for this game.”

For a lot of these Native athletes, the grind never stops, as noted by Allen who said basketball season starts when he gets home.

Ultimately, the “Golden Boyz” won by the score of 18-14.

Yet, between the relationships and bonds created, all the players can call themselves winners and each made memories that will last a lifetime. 

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*Correction was made to properly identify "Purple War Chiefs" defensive back Devin Long Crow as the player who made the interception in the fourth quarter and the result of the team's final drive. Also identifying Channing Jimmie as one of the "Golden Boyz" MVP selections