FORT YATES, N.D. – Standing on a bison pelt, Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving was smudged with sacred grasses, presented with traditional quilts and eagle feathers and given a Lakota name that means "Little Mountain" as he was welcomed Thursday into his mother's Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
The All-Star guard and his sister, model Asia Irving, visited the tribe's reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border for a daylong celebration recognizing their tribal heritage and support for the tribe's long battle against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
In front of a packed auditorium, they were honored with Lakota names during a ritual that tribal spokeswoman Danielle Finn said "is a very special rite of passage for a Lakota person."
Kyrie Irving's Lakota name, Hela, is roughly pronounced (HAY'-law) and means "Little Mountain." Asia Irving's name, Tatanka Winyan, (tuh-TONG'-kuh WEE'-yun) means "Buffalo Woman." Both are associated with their White Mountain family.
The Irvings' late mother, Elizabeth Ann Larson, was a member of the tribe and lived on the reservation until her adoption at a young age. Their late grandmother and great-grandparents also have ties to the reservation.
The siblings were greeted by hordes of fans, many wearing green T-shirts with the Standing Rock Sioux seal, Kyrie Irving's uniform number, 11, and the words "Welcome Home Kyrie Irving."
"It truly is a good day for Standing Rock," tribal Chairman Mike Faith said, turning to the Irvings. "For you two, welcome home."
Many in the crowd, including Char White Mountain, consider the siblings part of their family.
"We want him to know who his relatives are," she said. "We definitely don't want him to think we're people using him for his money. He's family."
Jewel Felix, who considers Kyrie Irving her nephew, said she became emotional when she heard he was coming.
"I started crying," she said. "I can't believe it's happening."
The feeling was apparently mutual.
"This is finally meeting my mom's family in their home. ... This is family for me now," Kyrie Irving said, calling it "a very special day."
Todd Giroux, a 14-year-old high school junior and point guard for the Standing Rock basketball team, said Irving became his hero when the star gave him an autograph at a Celtics game against the Timberwolves in Minneapolis. Giroux came to Thursday's event wearing an Irving jersey.
"It's amazing," he said, adding "it makes it even cooler" that Irving in late 2016 expressed support on Twitter for tribal efforts to lead the battle against the pipeline, which opponents believe threatens the tribe's Missouri River water supply. Thousands of people traveled to the reservation area in 2016 and 2017 to protest, with hundreds being arrested. The pipeline began operating in June 2017, but the Standing Rock tribe is leading a court battle to try to shut it down.
Kyrie Irving discussed his Sioux heritage during a January 2017 interview with ESPN, saying "there's a home connection" with the tribe's pipeline struggles and that he wanted to have a legacy outside of basketball. Irving this year asked Nike to put Standing Rock's seal on a new sneaker. He also has a tattoo of the Standing Rock logo on his neck. Thursday's visit left him with an even greater appreciation of his roots.
"I had no idea how inclusive this group is and what it means to be part of Standing Rock, be part of the united Sioux nation," he said.
Irving, who won an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, was born in Australia and grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. He played one season at Duke before joining the Cavaliers as the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft.