CANNON BALL, N.D. -- The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation stretches
across the central Dakotas, a harsh and largely desolate landscape
along a wide section of the Missouri River. It is not an easy place
to live and not an easy place to get to.
But it is a sacred place for the Sioux, they've defended it for
hundreds of years. It is the land of Sitting Bull. They defend it
to this day, the most recent opponent being intruding and, the Sioux
fervently believe, dangerous oil pipelines. And they defend their
way of life, their Lakota traditions and language. This is not a
place for empty gestures or for public-relations stunts. It is authentic
as it gets, in charming and foreboding ways.
Irving came to Standing Rock this week for the first time. He
did not come for charity -- he gave the tribe $100,000 a year ago
-- and he did not come for photo ops. The main event was sternly
off limits to video or photography. He came to honor his mother
and he came to understand his heritage.
Irving didn't know his mother, Elizabeth, well. His parents separated
when he was very young and she moved across the country before she
passed away when Irving was just 4 years old.
He has both mourned her and been inspired by her for much of his
life. As he grew, sometimes he had to fill out paperwork that asked
for her information. He'd get emotional sometimes having to leave
it blank. When he got his signature shoe from Nike, the first model
he wore had his mom's name and the date 9-9-96, the day she died,
stitched into them.
The Standing Rock Sioux
tribe gave Kyrie Irving the Lakota name Little Mountain at
a ceremony in North Dakota on Thursday. (photo by Adam Sings
In The Timber)
For the past few years, Irving has been searching for himself a
little. It's shown in some of his actions and some of his words.
One of the most material ways was reaching and connecting to the
Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe his mother was born into before she
It reached a new depth when he was
honored with a naming ceremony this week, a watershed moment
in any Lakota's life. He was given the name Little Mountain -- "Hela"
in the Lakota language -- as part of his family tradition; his roots
are from the White Mountain family of the South Dakota region of
"There was a certain point in my life where I had come almost at
a crossroads with my dad, my sister, my friends, my grandparents,
and I had no idea kind of what direction to go into because I had
lost the sense of a foundation," Irving said. "Knowing my mom passed
and left me such a powerful, empowering family such as Standing
Rock ... to be a part of it now, this is family for life."
Irving completely embraced the experience, dressing in traditional
clothing and taking part in a more than five-hour ceremony that
included numerous speeches, drumming, chanting, praying and dancing.
"Knowing my mom passed and left me such a
powerful, empowering family such as Standing Rock ... to be
a part of it now, this is family for life."
Irving is one of the most popular athletes in the country. He has
a huge contract and big shoe deal. He just had a reasonably successful
wide-release movie in which he was the star. He did not need to
come to Standing Rock. He didn't need to tweet about their struggle
to stop pipelines two years ago. He didn't need to sign hundreds
of autographs or take selfies or stay past his allotted time to
shake the hands of hundreds in the crowd so they could all leave
saying they met Kyrie Irving.
He did it because he wanted to.
Members of the tribe found it almost unbelievable that any of it
was happening, a basketball superstar like Irving visiting the reservation
alone and then giving the community a collective hug as a returning
"I'm astonished by this," said Hunter Bear Ribs, an 18-year-old
basketball player who lives in the Bear Soldier District of the
reservation in South Dakota, the area where Irving's family is from.
"This is something we're going to be talking about for a long time."
Basketball is the most popular sport on the reservation and has
been for generations. There are deep rivalries between the small
high schools across the vast expanse. They feed an array of small
college teams in the region.
"Run and gun, let's get it going. That's the nature of reservation
basketball," said Russell Young Bird, the athletic director and
girls basketball coach at Standing Rock High School. "When it comes
to basketball here, emotions are high. With this happening with
Kyrie, that has taken everything to another level. It's surreal."
Earlier this year, Nike put out a version of Irving's shoe that
had the Standing Rock logo on the back and tongue. It was part of
a special Nike line of shoes that honor and support Native American
and Aboriginal people across the world. For the kids in Standing
Rock, the concept of them being able to buy a basketball shoe with
their tribal logo was beyond their imagination.
Kyrie Irving met hundreds
of members of the Standing Rock tribe at the naming ceremony.
Adam Sings In The Timber for ESPN
Especially since before Christmas 2016, when Irving revealed in
an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols that he was part Standing
Rock Sioux, few with the tribe had any clue of the relation or Irving's
awareness of it. Nichols' head snapped back in the discussion when
Irving told her, and that emotional reaction was exponential on
the reservation, where the tribal leaders were equally as unaware.
Some of Irving's family were aware of Kyrie and his sister. But
they weren't sure Irving knew of his mother's roots.
"I mean this came out of nowhere, it's crazy to us," said Bear
Ribs, who attends McLaughlin High School, where Irving likely would've
gone had he been born into his family on the reservation. "I ordered
a pair of the shoes like the third day after they came out."
Irving's story hits home for many in the tribe. Not just because
he becomes a role model for those who dream of doing big things,
but also on a more personal level. Many young Sioux can relate to
Irving in a more melancholy manner, because they didn't know their
"We have a lot of drugs and alcohol problems here and there are
a lot of kids who aren't raised by their parents. There's a lot
of grandparents who have taken over," Young Bird said. "This sheds
light on things for kids. And it shows them they can set their goals
high because Kyrie did and he is like them."
Those problems have touched Irving's family and contributed to
the reasons his mother was given up for adoption when she was born
in 1967. Those who follow the Boston
Celtics star know he's a complicated figure, a creative offensive
genius and a free thinker who isn't afraid to show his independent
spirit. His complex family background may help explain it.
"I lost my mom at a very young age and I had no idea, no idea that
I would end up belonging to almost four different families," Irving
said. "I'm finally meeting my mom's family."
His father, Dred, was raised in the Bronx projects and encouraged
Irving to learn how to play on its basketball blacktop. His mother
was half Sioux, adopted out of the tribe and into a family of Lutheran
minsters, George and Norma Larson, who live in Seattle. Irving also
has his own family, a 2-year old daughter named Azurie.
The fourth wing of the family is the one Irving was getting to
know this week. He took a long flight from the West Coast to the
nearest airport in Bismarck, which was 50 miles from the Prairie
Knights Casino, a speck of a place on the Plains that's operated
by the Standing Rock Sioux. There he met dozens of family members
including his aunt, who'd flown in from Florida to see him.
The story of Irving's aunt, Kelly Brinkley, underscores just how
unusual Irving's family situation is. Brinkley learned her late
sister left two children more than a decade ago. She never knew
her sister and didn't know she had children until some paperwork
arrived from the tribe informing her. When she looked at the names,
she was struck that in 1992 her sister had a child and named him
Kyrie. Four months earlier that year, Brinkley had a daughter and
named her ... Kyrie.
She shared the story of when she finally met Irving, years later,
this week in North Dakota.
"It gave me joy knowing that my sister Elizabeth and I apparently
thought a little bit alike," Brinkley said. "I hoped then that someday
that (the cousins) would be part of our big, beautiful culture."
Whether or not Irving's journey this week closed the circle is
to be seen. He smiled throughout his time on the reservation, embracing
distant relatives, posing for photos and accepting gifts ranging
from T-shirts and blankets to a painted bull skull. As the ceremony
wrapped up, Irving asked organizers from the tribe if he could shake
everyone's hand before he left. A massive line formed and Irving
stood, saying hello to the hundreds who had come.
Teenagers wearing Celtics jerseys, Cavs jerseys and traditional
clothing moved through the line with anticipation. Adults laughed
as if they were children. Everyone was happy. None of them could
believe it, none of them would forget it. That included Irving.
"Blood couldn't make us any closer, and our journeys have been
directed in so many different ways, but yet we are still standing
here," Irving told the crowd. "It shows how special and what it
means to be a native of this country, and to be Native American."