Chief Gary Batton and the new Southeastern Oklahoma State University basketball jerseys Photo by Christian Toews

Chief Gary Batton and SOSU president Dr. Thomas Newsom hold up the alternate SOSU basketball jersey with Choctaw language incorporated into the design.

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Southeastern Oklahoma State University team up

By Christian Toews
November 1, 2022

Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU) recently invited Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO), to the university to unveil their new basketball jerseys.

SOSU Athletics Partnership

The SOSU men’s and women’s basketball teams will represent Choctaw culture by wearing alternate jerseys with the words “kucha okpulo” displayed on the front of the jersey. This phrase means Savage Storm in the Choctaw language.

“It is so exciting that my alma mater is honoring our heritage and culture and our people by the design on their jerseys. It makes me so proud to have attended SOSU and for the great education I received there,” said Chief Batton.

According to Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Keith Baxter, the inception of the jerseys came from the Women’s basketball program.

“Coach Grover and his staff came up with the idea, and then we expanded it to the men’s program, but full credit goes to Coach Grover and his staff,” said Baxter.

Darin Grover has been the Head Basketball coach at SOSU for 18 years. According to Grover, Choctaw language and culture have been a part of the women’s basketball program for almost the entire time he has been at the university.

The words “niyimmi” and “tahali” are proudly displayed above the lockers in the women’s locker room. These words are the team’s motto, “believe” and “finish,” in the Choctaw language.

Grover said the students are very familiar with the words and their meanings because they use the Choctaw words every day in practice. Grover said they also printed the Choctaw words on their practice shirts and other items used by the team. He commented that many people ask the team about the phrase because they have never heard the Choctaw language before.

The partnership between SOSU and CNO has existed for many years and has only grown. “The partnership has existed as long as I’ve been here, and it started at a grassroots level but has grown tremendously. I remember when they (CNO) allowed us to use their busses as early as 2002 or 2003,” said Keith Baxter.

Baxter said that the ripples of this partnership reach far beyond athletics and profoundly affect the lives of students and the surrounding area.

“The big picture is that, yeah, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Choctaw Casinos are our title sponsors, but that’s kind of superficial. To me, it gets a lot deeper than that. The opportunity that our students have within the nation and the potential that it brings to change lives to change careers, to change their family’s future. That’s beyond signage; that’s beyond jerseys. I mean, it affects lives, and it affects them on a daily basis,” Grover said.

When speaking about the partnership, Chief Gary Batton said, “Their (SOSU) partnership with Choctaw Nation, to me, is extremely important so that we can still advance our tribal members and the people who reside in our communities.”

Baxter said that he hopes these alternate jerseys and partnerships with CNO not only grow student-athlete opportunities at the school but also raise a more profound awareness around the Choctaw Culture and the people represented.

“If you are a visitor from out of town, you might see the casino resort and think that’s all the Choctaw Nation offers. This has allowed us to showcase the culture, education, and other opportunities for the surrounding community,” said Grover.

The newly unveiled basketball jerseys represent a much more significant connection to the Choctaw Nation and a partnership cultivated over many years to provide opportunities to SOSU students, potential students, and future generations of Choctaw tribal members and associates. Seth Dutton is the Associate Athletic Director/ External Operations with SOSU.

Dutton said that being an alumnus of SOSU and seeing this partnership, and the opportunity it provides the student-athletes, makes him very proud of his alma mater.

“When you look at our partnership, this is a partnership and not simply a transactional deal. As an alum, I love being able to brag about some of the things that we can do because of this relationship we have. It’s awesome that we are able to do stuff like the jerseys. It really highlights our student-athletes and enhances their experience here,” Dutton said.

To stay up to date on SOSU Athletics.

Photo by Christian Toews

Brian Danker and Kara Bacon meet with SOSU students to share their experiences and explain opportunities with Choctaw Nation's legal department.

CNO and SOSU’s Educational Partnership

In September, CNO hosted a large group of SOSU students from various degree paths at the CNO Headquarters. During their visit, these college students connected with CNO associates who were alumni of SOSU and talked to them about their experience working at CNO and the opportunities within CNO, from internships to full-time positions after graduation.

“What an excellent opportunity for those students to come and be involved in that. You have what I consider the greats of the Choctaw Nation, the Chief, the SEOs, and the EOs who are willing to share their time and give back,” said Johnson. “How cool is it that so many of those people in those positions are actually graduates of Southeastern? You know, they say you can go anywhere from here; you really can. We had pilots, lawyers, marketing, social media, our drone program, just about anything you are interested in at the event.”

For more information on SOSU.

CNO Higher Education Mission

CNO places a high priority on providing opportunities for their tribal members and employees to seek higher education.

One of the many higher education programs offered by CNO is the College Freshman Year Initiative (FYI). The College FYI aims to create a community among Choctaw students, their college campus and staff wherein freshman students are empowered to make informed decisions and develop academic and life skills to become confident, proactive and accountable participants in their college education.
“Through the College FYI Initiative, we’ve placed a First Year Experience Coordinator at SOSU to closely assist Choctaw students throughout their freshman year and foster success through graduation,” said Amanda Johnson, the Executive Director of Education at the Choctaw Nation.

Kelsi Rainwater is the College Counselor on the SOSU campus.

According to Rainwater, the program has grown while working there, but its mission has remained the same.

“I think that we stay very true to who we are in helping Choctaw Freshman. Each year we have a different group of freshmen who have different needs, so we try to meet them where they are,” said Rainwater. “Some students are trending toward virtual hours or part-time, and we help them with those decisions and how that will impact their college success.”

Rainwater stated that the program has been highly successful in helping students to achieve their higher education goals.

According to Rainwater, 86% of students who participated in College FYI completed a degree or certificate program and started their careers following their participation in the program.
The program has a 90% retention rate from freshman to sophomore year with the 2021-2022 class.
“College can be very confusing, and most of the time, it’s the first time you’ve encountered a lot of these things, so my job is to help these students navigate this process,” said Rainwater.
CNO offers its employees a robust benefits package that includes the Employee Education Assistance Program (EEAP).

The EEAP will provide financial assistance to an accredited college or university for associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degrees with a specific concentration in disciplines that could reasonably be expected to lead to job advancement within CNO.

This program provides up to $5,000 per calendar year to reimburse approved educational expenses, such as tuition, administrative fees, required textbooks and materials and programs designed to give credit for work experience.

According to Johnson, many employees attend SOSU on the EEAP because it is close to their place of employment. There are many more opportunities for tribal members, employees and the local community, from Choctaw language classes to scholarships, sponsorships and incentive programs.

For more information on CNO’s higher education programs.