Kyrie Irving is a wizard with the basketball in his hands. (If only he was a Wizard. He’s actually a member—sigh—of the Boston Celtics.) Off the court, Kyrie Irving is most known for starring in the summer kid’s flick Uncle Drew and saying with the world’s finest poker face—or perhaps true sincerity—that he believes the earth is flat. This has masked a more weighty, consequential side to Irving, for example his being one of the first athletes to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt after the police killing of Eric Garner.
That serious side showed itself this week as Kyrie Irving became one with his Native American heritage. As Irving has discussed for years. His mother Elizabeth Ann Larson—who passed away when he was 4—was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation until adopted (more on this later). Now Kyrie and his sister have participated in a naming ceremony with the Dakota Sioux at Standing Rock, formally reentering the community. In front of 1,000 members of the Nation, he was given his Sioux name, now Little Mountain—“Hela” in the Lakota language.
Kyrie has made his ancestral connection known for years. He tweeted support for the Indigenous people and environmental activists of Standing Rock and offered solidarity in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipe Line. He also has a tattoo of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal logo on the back of his neck. In addition, he gave the tribe $100,000 last year.
Irving also comes about the name Little Mountain—“Hela” in a profound way. In a statement from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, they said, “The family connection of Kyrie Irving comes from the White Mountain family (also known as Mountain) of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe…. Kyrie’s grandmother is the late, Meredith Marie Mountain, who is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Kyrie’s greatgrandfather is Moses Mountain and great-grandmother is Edith Morisette-Mountain.”
This has been a story both moving and widely covered. But two issues shine out from this issue beyond Kyrie’s personal, political and spiritual journey. The first is, in a sports world that still leans on Native American racist mascots and slurs, including a billion-dollar NFL brand in Washington, DC, here is a very different kind of collision between Native American life and professional sports.
I turned to Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon, and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (creators of the hashtag #NotYourMascot) for her thoughts on this angle of the story. She said, “This is what our traditional kinship is all about and truly represents Lakota culture. More so than any appropriation of our regalia and image by those that do not know us and seek to use our culture for mere entertainment and profit, I feel this shows the difference between real relationships and mascotry.”
The second issue highlighted by Irving’s story is the light this shines on Native Americans who were systematically adopted like Elizabeth Larson and the efforts by future generations to find their way home.
I reached out to Brian Ward, a journalist who focuses on Indigenous issues. He said, “As the ripping of Indigenous children from their families and sending them to boarding schools fell out of favor, the US turned to the adoption system. In 1968, a year after Elizabeth Larson, Kyrie’s mother, was born, the Association of American Indian Affairs found that throughout Indian Country 25-35 percent of children were removed from their families and were adopted at [rates] 16 times higher than the national average and most Indigenous children were adopted by white parents.”
At this time, it was common for Native American children to be removed from their birth families. That only changed, as Ward explains, with “the strides made by the Red Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s forced the government to pass the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, which gives Indigenous families priority in the adoption of Indigenous children.”
Yet as Ward notes, “Recently, in 2013, the Supreme Court chipped away at this policy in their decision Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. With Kyrie embracing his Hunkpapa Lakota heritage, he is running against the intention the US government had with their adoptive practices, which is both courageous, inspiring and gives an example to so many adopted Indigenous children around this country.”
Kyrie Irving has a brand, involving films, signature sneakers, and a unique on-court style. He also now has a political platform to speak about Indigenous issues and struggle. He and his family seem more than ready to take this weight. As Irving said at the ceremony, “This is me finally meeting my mom’s family. Now I’m with you guys forever. I hope you guys don’t mind that because I don’t mind it either.”