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President Begaye Wants Cultural Sensitivity Training for Refs

Rick Johnson Photography

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye wants referees who officiate high school sporting events in northern Arizona to take cultural sensitivity training. That’s because this week Navajo female basketball players on the Flagstaff High School team were told to change a traditional hairstyle before a game. Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports.

Many women on the court wear ponytails or headbands to keep their hair back. During a recent game, Navajo members of the Flag High Lady Eagles wore the tsiiyee? – a hair tie with several hanging strands of yarn – to celebrate Native American Culture night. The referee, who’s also a medical doctor, was concerned about other players’ fingers getting caught in the hair buns on rebounds.

Credit Rick Johnson Photography
A member of the Flagstaff High School Lady Eagles basketball team wears the traditional tsiiyee? hair bun before a game Tuesday night.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association regulates high school sports. Gary Whelchel manages the referees for the organization. He says the referee for the Flag High game was being overly cautious.

“He didn’t see it from a cultural perspective or did he see it from a religious perspective, he saw it from a safety and hazard. But from a rulebook perspective they were legal,” he says.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye wants referees to understand the nuances of Navajo culture, and what the traditional hair bun represents.

“It provides distinction to the person, it’s a source of strength, it depicts their womanhood. It is very much a part of culture, it’s a source of pride for our people,” he says.

Whelchel says AIA officials will discuss a cultural sensitivity course for referees next month. They plan to reach out to tribal officials to help with its design.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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