MISSOULA — The mainstay colors at the University of Montana are well known, from the old copper and gold, to the current maroon and silver.
But on Saturday, the long-anticipated debut of Montana's turquoise basketball jerseys will take place when the Lady Griz host Portland State at 2 p.m. in Dahlberg Arena.
It will be a game where basketball is the spectacle, but the meaning and significance behind the jerseys is much deeper.
"It's definitely monumental from a tribal aspect, just to have that significance and history behind it, and why it was created, but let alone to add on the history of Native athletes here," graphic designer Benji Headswift said. "Native scholars as well too, so to have that rich history and that lineage through the University of Montana, and to create a new chain link that the younger generation can connect with, that's really where it's at."
This will be the first year UM partakes in Nike's N7 program, a cause created to encourage Native American youth and communities to get involved in sports and recreational activities.
Through this initiative, which began in 2009, Nike has partnered with colleges it provides apparel, and programs will wear turquoise uniforms, a color associated with fellowship, good fortune and much more in Native American culture.
For our university. For our state. For our tribes.
— Montana Grizzlies (@UMGRIZZLIES) January 25, 2023
So the Lady Griz will wear theirs on Saturday, and the Griz men will don theirs next Saturday, Feb. 4, against Northern Arizona.
"I think it's important anytime we step out of maybe what our background or what our history is and learn about others, and certainly learning about those who came before us in the land that we reside on right now," UM athletic director Kent Haslam said. "Anytime we have an opportunity to educate ourselves and to shake hands and do things that unify us, I think there's nothing but positives that come from that.
"It really does come down just being interested in doing it, and certainly our culture and our history and the Native American heritage is just so important to our state and to this school, it's a natural fit."
Coupled with the jerseys the basketball teams will wear, UM has also been selling retail gear with a customized Griz logo that was created by Headswift, a UM alum who hails from Lame Deer, is an Army veteran, and is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
"The feathers (on the logo) came to mind with earning different levels of achievement through most tribes in Montana," Headswift said. "I can't speak for all of them but I know in my tribe, Northern Cheyenne, we earn feathers with every achievement and so that came to mind with the levels of education that we have. So an associate's, a bachelor's, a master's and a doctorate so that's kind of where I really went with it, just that significance for it."
Headswift moved with his wife and four kids to Missoula in 2018, and it was then he began pursuing his degree in Native American studies, and he now teaches in the Missoula County Public School system.
For Headswift, it meant the world to be a part of this.
"This is huge, man. For me this is huge," he said. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think about all of the struggles and everything that we've gone through as tribal people and to be able to culminate that through all of this symbolism, it's been amazing, it's been a blessing itself."
The logo and gear have been a hit, with orders higher than expected since the apparel dropped. Headswift requested that a portion of proceeds from sold gear go to UM's Kyiyo Pow Wow, one of the nation's oldest student-run pow wow's.
"Our Native American heritage is strong, and it's here and it's resilient through the University of Montana. Strength, pride and unity is really what I'm hoping for with this," Headswift said. "This life has been challenging, just a of uncertainties, a lot of challenges through earning my degree, and since earning my degree the University of Montana has been life changing for me. It's given me opportunities and it's given me confidence in my knowledge as a Native American and a Northern Cheyenne. Having that educational backing has really given me confidence to go about my life in a better way."
When the games tip off and Headswift sees his work among those in the stands, it'll be a moment of pride for him, both for his personal jersey, and what it means culturally in the state.
"Holding on to our past and creating a future with our present," Headswift said. "And so this is my present, hoping to create a future with somebody else."