Basketball court to pow-wow: the multifaceted life of Killdeer's ‘Starr’ athlete
Meet the Killdeer High School senior athlete and tribal dancer with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
KILLDEER, N.D. – What does it really mean to be a multifaceted person? Just ask graduating senior RedSky Starr, who not only was a standout athlete on the basketball court for the Killdeer Cowboys the last two years, but also is a regionally recognized Tribal Dancer for the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations here in southwestern North Dakota. He also played in numerous Native American basketball tournaments in many states around the Midwest.
It’s hard to tell which he excels at more, but it’s easy to see that both hold a special place in his heart by the passion he puts into both endeavors. After polishing off his 2022-23 basketball season with honors as a member of the All-Region-7 Team for Class B at the recent tournament in Hazen, you will soon be able to find Starr – whose birth-name is Hank RedSky Starr, Jr. – at various MHA Nation events throughout the spring and summer.
“It feels awesome to have such a great last year (in high school), as compared to the other three, and I’d say (Killdeer head basketball) Coach Pruitt pushing us and having a great program for us to adapt to made the difference,” RedSky said. “And the younger players stepping up for us in the games was important.”
His parents, Hank Starr, Sr. and Geneva Kazena have such an honest, heart-felt, abundance of pride for him that it’s obviously hard to contain, and Mr. Starr added that RedSky has his own personal song that he dances to that was composed just for him by John Rouse of the Ihanktowan Nation, Yankton Sioux (Dakota) Tribes in South Dakota..
“He’s our only son, and my sister named him RedSky,” Kazena said. “We always knew that he was going to be big, because when he was first born his hands were so big, and we’re just so proud of him since the day he was born, honestly, and we always called him ‘Big Man,’ which was his nickname growing up.”
There are seven clans in the MHA Nations in North Dakota, and RedSky is a member of the Prairie Chicken Clan through his mother, while he also is a child of the Knife Clan through his father. Another interesting fact about RedSky is that he is barely 17, young for a senior in high school, as he heads out into his future efforts.
For his senior season on the basketball court, RedSky finished off with an impressive 13.7 points per game to go along with an average of 4.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game. His 40 blocks and 51 field goals from beyond the 3-point line were among the highest on the team as well. But having an external outlet for his background and creativity also is intriguing for coaches, teammates, fans and opponents alike.
“Growing up, I’ve had lots of Native-American friends, so I knew the traditional side of their experience,” Pruitt said. “It’s just that having coached a player like RedSky, it was just an awesome experience to see how he brought his heritage into the game of basketball.
“It was cool to see just how much pride he takes in his Traditional Dancing and all the effort and hard work that goes into it.”
And while his exploits on the basketball court were a thrill for Cowboys fans, his tribal-dance acumen is gaining a massive following from his people as well. In fact, he has been featured numerous times in pow-wows across the Midwest and the region. He was given the Native-American name Sacred Bear by a Hidatsa grandmother and the words to his personal song translate to, “I dance for my relatives and my people.”
The translation of the song is:
"We are powwowing and having a good time at the ceremonial gatherings.
They come dancing accordingly with all the protocols and respect to that drum.
I Am Sacred Bear, My Dakota ways are encouraging me!"
RedSky was born in Dickinson, but he was raised in the Twin Buttes segment of Fort Berthold Reservation, where he still resides with his family. From Kindergarten through eighth-grade he went to school in Twin Buttes, and then moved on to Killdeer for his prep education and athletic career.
“Even when he played seventh- and eighth-grade basketball, he had to go to school in Twin Buttes and practice in Killdeer during the morning and evening practices and get home late,” Hank, Sr. said. “He left at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t get home until 7:30 at night after practices, and those are like 12-hour days he’s been putting in ever since he was a seventh-grader.”
He was given encouragement to begin dancing by his grandfather, a longtime Dickinson resident named Aaron Abbey, Sr. – who also was a firm believer in holding onto his Native-American heritage as a member of the Coushatta Tribe of the Louisiana/Texas area– and he wanted Hank, Sr. to get RedSky involved at an early age. He started out as a Junior Boys Traditional dancer when he was 5, and is now dances in the teen boys Traditional category.
“‘You should get RedSky to dance,’ he said, and I didn’t know where to get feathers and things like that, but (Abbey) said he would make him a bustle, and he made him one and his Mom did all the other things that he needed for the regalia and then he just got started from there,” Hank, Sr. said. “He was 5 years old or 6 years old or something like that.”
And the people around RedSky are familiar with that level of family devotion. His dancing has taken him throughout North and South Dakota, as well as Montana and other areas around the Midwest.
“Coach Pruitt got to know me this year, and if you know me, I back RedSky and his family backs RedSky 100-percent,” Hank, Sr. said. “When he was a young kid like that and they got into the junior categories (of Tribal Dancing) sometimes they would get dressed at around noon or 1 o’clock and wouldn’t get undressed sometimes until 10 or 11 at night because he had to wait for his contest and on 90-degree days, sometimes, that’s hard.”
Between his discipline on the basketball court and the efforts involved with his Tribal Dancing, it’s clearly been a challenge, but being part of tribal events was “just how I grew up,” RedSky said.
The Cowboys nearly upended top-ranked Bowman County in the second round of the Region 7 Tournament on March 6, 2023, and RedSky played a major role in that 88-82 game, although Killdeer came up short. But it was just that kind of game that made his senior season so thrilling and satisfying.
“That was a great game to end on,” he said. “The community means everything to me, and it’s awesome because when I was younger I would watch people around me play basketball and that’s what made me want to do it.”
He also works with young people in his community, who have looked up to him and his talents for many years. He tries to mentor them in sports and life experience as much as possible. “I try to lead by example, more than anything,” he said.
He is considering a number of colleges that have expressed interest in him, but has made no concrete decisions yet. His father added that no matter what he decides, they will stand behind him.
“He’s always been good at what he did, whether it was football or basketball or whatever he did he was pretty natural at it,” Hank, Sr. said. “But this was an awesome year, because they kind of put the scare into a lot of teams, and just sitting there talking to other teams’ fans, they would say, ‘Well, we’ve got to play Killdeer and the main guy we’ve got to watch is RedSky Starr.’”
RedSky also has five sisters, Aliyah Gwin, 26, AyannaRae Gwin, 23, Linda Starr, 21, Lexi Starr, 19 and younger sister Jennie Starr, 13. He is the only son in the family and he has two nieces and five nephews, Zakiyah, Lunah, Zander, Ason, Wylex, Dracen and Hoksina. His family means a great deal to him and he spends a lot of time with them when he is not busy with his many other activities.
“We all support him,” Hank, Sr. said. “And his family has been a big support system for him.”
RedSky agreed with those sentiments, and added that two years ago he lost his brother – Malachi James Appel – which motivated him to live honorably and live properly in his memory.
“He passed away when he was 17, and my Dad was his godfather, so we were really close,” RedSky said. “Now that basketball is done – and even when it was going on – if I’m not at home I’m at his (Malachi’s) Mom’s house, my auntie, hanging out with her family and he had two brothers around my age and I’m with them all the time.”
"Malachi was RedSky’s big brother," said Kazena, who also was Malachi's godmother. "In our culture, my sister's children are all like my own. So our kids, instead of being brought up like they are cousins, are brought up like they are siblings. That is how RedSky grew so close to my sister's boys, they are all his brothers.
"I am the eldest of my siblings and Charlotte is the second oldest. There were eight of us growing up so we have always been pretty close to one another in our family. Auntie Charlotte (Kazena) Smith is her name … and Auntie Blanche HuntsAlong (Geneva's sister) is the one who named RedSky."
That level of brotherhood and family involvement has always been a major part of his life, RedSky dedicated one of this-season’s games to Malachi – with Coach Pruitt’s approval and help – and RedSky’s sisters all danced and he’s been motivated by having so many friends who participate in the tradition, as well.
“We were a Pow-Wow family, and we would go to the Pow-Wows in the summertime and we would tease him a lot too, because he was a cowboy in the winter and an Indian in the summertime,” Kazena said with a laugh. “We don’t have too many dancers in our community, it’s really small, so everyone from town knew him and all the kids who dance and they’re proud of him.”
And it’s that family atmosphere that stands out for RedSky and all his experiences.
“For me, I feel like (having a large family) helped me understand people more,” RedSky said. “And all my friends were dancers, too, at the time and even after dancing we would go have fun at the Pow-Wow and walk around, talk to people … and eat.”
For more information about the Three Affiliated Tribes, please visit https://www.mhanation.com/ and for an upcoming schedule of events, see https://www.mhanation.com/events?view=calendar&month=03-2023 .