NAYA Youth Basketball: Turning Passion Into Life Lessons
Native people use sports as an expression of identity and pride, and as a way to stay rooted in community. This is especially true for NAYA, which was founded nearly 50 years ago around youth sports. Today, NAYA recreation and outreach programs continue the tradition of sports, using basketball to teach life lessons that go well beyond the court.
During the winter basketball season, youth from 2nd to 12th grade come to NAYA to participate in league practices. The sounds of squeaking sneakers, bouncing basketballs, and boisterous laughter echo off the gymnasium walls as youth run drills and play high-intensity scrimmage games with their peers. Unique to community-based organizations like NAYA, identity and culture are represented the moment you step foot into the building. The NAYA Gym proudly displays tribal flags gifted by tribal councils from across the nation, and sports activities are led by role models who share similar backgrounds with these aspiring athletes.
Recreation Coordinator Micah Johnson, Umatilla, has worked at NAYA for nearly 19 years, and when asked what keeps him here, he jokingly says, “We have a really nice gym.” For Johnson, this role means much more. “There are a lot of talented kids and great athletes [in the Native community], and they can get overlooked in a big setting. It’s all about making space for kids to play with their community where they are comfortable making a mistake and knowing we’re understanding.” He oversees NAYA youth sports activities, including the teams and tournaments each basketball season, and the program continues to grow. This year, more than 65 youth traveling from as far as Oregon City signed up to play!
For NAYA Basketball parent Caitlin Anderson, Rose Bud Sioux, Lakota, Klamath, and Cree, traveling the distance three times a week is worth it for the sense of community and connection. “NAYA has been a big part of my husband’s and my life since we were teenagers. Now our kids can come to a culturally diverse setting. Living so far away from our homeland, it is nice to have a place to come to.”
Youth recreation programs also convey important life lessons that kids will carry with them for years to come. During practice, Johnson will share NAYA values such as “respect” or “community” when a young person is discouraged, or their teammate is feeling down. His philosophy, “High-fives are free” is an encouragement that promotes interconnection and camaraderie, whether youth win or lose. These moments build their confidence, helping to improve their game and their outlook.
As we near the end of the winter season, youth who initially couldn’t hit the rim or catch the ball are developing into well-rounded players who consistently make baskets and communicate plays with teammates while on the court. According to Johnson, there is no better feeling than seeing a player find their stride, make their first basket, and celebrate with their teammates after a victory. High fives are freeing!
NAYA’s Outreach team spends time on the streets, in parks, and in other areas around Portland to engage youth in motivational change-talk conversations and to connect them with educational, recreational, and employment resources that guide them to healthy decision making. NAYA Open Gym is an important tool for outreach, building community in a safe space away from the streets. Staff kick off each session by gathering everyone in the center of the gym around the NAYA medicine wheel logo to smudge, setting a tone of intention and accountability to one another. Emerging from pandemic isolation, it is evident that youth are happy to be back, and the Outreach staff are thrilled by the 40-50 youth turning out on a weekly basis! Youth from all over Portland arrive with their basketball shoes in hand and the love of the game but leave with something greater.
According to Outreach Manager Rich Hunter, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, his team works to identify each individual youth’s unique needs including food, clothing, school supplies, mentorship, or connection to NAYA’s other wrap-around services. For Hunter, NAYA provides the programming and life skills that youth can take with them to confidently pursue their dreams and goals.
He states, “We can spark the minds of our youth to be more intentional about everything they do, whether it’s walking into a room and presenting themselves in the best way or knowing they possess a certain power and how to use it.”
With final tournaments fast approaching, volleyball, tennis, baseball, and traditional games are on the horizon. NAYA will continue to provide youth with recreational activities that create lasting friendships, foster community-building, and teach life lessons that will enrich their lives for years to come.
As a special treat to our readers, NAYA has invited youth to share their thoughts on this basketball season and how it has impacted them! Read below:
“My favorite thing about basketball is winning and hanging out with my friends. My coach Micah is really outgoing and cool. He makes basketball fun for everyone.”
Qmoni Bybee, 9 Years Old, Nez Perce
“Basketball teaches me to work as a team, be responsible, and have fun. I love coming to NAYA and seeing my friends and hanging out with them. It’s fun learning to dribble, shoot the ball, and work together.”
Shantai Bronson, 8 years old, Umatilla
“I like playing because I have teammates that can help me and great coaches. Plus, I’m really good at basketball. I feel good playing with other Native kids because I belong somewhere.”
Journey Butler, 10 years old, Siletz Tribe