Classic hopes to raise awareness


The second annual Tohono O’odham Community College Native American Classic basketball tournament, held at Pima Community College, offered a deeper message than competition.

The tournament represents a blend of culture, athletics and community collaborations. In addition to basketball, the three-day event featured cultural dancers, singers and food vendors.

Matt Vargas, head coach for Tohono O’Odaham men’s basketball team, said bringing in top area teams helps shine a spotlight on Native issues.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions and a lot of stereotypes,” he said. “It’s a beautiful culture. It’s a land that’s filled with a lot of good young minds, filled with a lot of potential. It’s not just poverty and casinos.”

Vargas worked with Tony Johnson, group leader of the Nolic Traditional Basket Dancers and Singers, to showcase Tohono O’Odaham culture.

“A lot of our family members are basket weavers so we’re trying to carry on that tradition,” Johnson said. “It’s a dying art these days. A lot of the language and a lot of the culture is dissipating.”

Johnson also wants to shed light on problems he sees plaguing other tribes.

He cited problems like a scarcity of capital institutions. Since the government owns the land, it becomes nigh impossible to get loans needed to start a business.

Other problems include poor water conditions and negative stereotyping, Johnson said.

Vargas and Johnson also love to see student-athletes play and connect through basketball.

Todd Holthaus, head coach for Pima’s women’s basketball team, welcomes the chance to participate.

“It’s very enlightening,” Holthaus said. “It’s always cool to be a part of something like this. It’s very cool to know that you can use basketball to bring together very different cultures.”

Vargas credited Pima athletic director Edgar Soto, men’s basketball head coach Brian Peabody and Holthaus with helping to ensure the tournament’s success.

“In reality, without Brian Peabody, without Todd Holthaus, without Edgar Soto, this doesn’t happen,” he said.

Before the Classic kicked off, Johnson and his group performed a blessing asking for the players to have safe competition.

“It’s a traditional blessing,” Johnson said. “This song we were thinking about is a warrior song, in honor of Veterans Day.”

During the tournament, Johnson’s group offered a blessing before each game. Dancers also performed during each halftime break, and invited everyone in the stands to join in.

Tony Johnson gives a blessing to Todd Holthaus, Matt Vargas and the court for the Native American Classic. Nick Trujillo / Aztec Press
Tony Johnson gives a blessing to Todd Holthaus, Matt Vargas and the court for the Native American Classic.
Nick Trujillo / Aztec Press

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