MISSOULA – Ever since he was a kid, Lyle Omeasoo has been a doodler. Mostly pencil on paper, and mostly during class.
Omeasoo, from Browning and an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation (Piikani) and Cree tribes, now has his artwork on sweatshirts and T-shirts.
That’s because the Blackfoot artist was selected to create a Native American logo for the University of Montana’s participation in Nike’s 7 program, or N7.
The Nike retail initiative encourages Indigenous youth to participate in sports and recreational activities.
Omeasoo’s logo also will appear on the basketball teams’ shooting shirts at UM’s N7 games in the Adams Center. The Griz and Lady Griz uniforms are custom turquoise, a color of great meaning and significance for many Indigenous cultures.
When asked what it feels like to see his art represent Native culture and basketball in Montana, Omeasoo said, “It feels like a dream. To see young people wearing the design with pride means something.”
Omeasoo, a decedent of artists and medicine people, said that art and culture go hand-in-hand when it comes to the roots of Indian culture. That’s why he said his art has been nurtured over the years by teachers and family members, who spotted his talent early on.
“I had great teachers at every grade level that showed me things,” he said, recounting his teachers by name, like Bill Hannah, Omeasoo’s high school art teacher, who taught him how to work with charcoal, acrylic and oil paints and silk screen printing. Later on, friends like renowned Native artist David Dragonfly mentored Omeasoo in ways to present at Native art shows.
“At the time, I didn’t even have a blanket or a chair for these art shows,” he said.
Omeasoo, now a staple in the Native art market, represents the Blackfeet tribe in acrylic works depicting landscapes and portraits. He has connections to regional museums, including current work like a life-sized acrylic of the late Earl Old Person on display in the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.
When asked to be the N7 artist this year, Omeasoo did what came naturally: doodling.
“I thought about it for a long time,” he said. “It took awhile and I kind of got stuck there, so I kept thinking about it, jotted things on paper and little doodles here and there.”
The result is a circular design that Omeasoo said represents the circle of life. The circle includes four distinct sections, representing the four directions and seasons. The design also resembles a medicine wheel, used in many traditional ceremonies.
The four feathers are significant, too.
“No matter what kind of Indian you are, you’re always going to understand the representation of a feather,” he said. “Feathers were given out after war parties. If you were successful, the elders would honor you with a feather.”
Omeasoo said the porcupine quill in the center of the feather, evident in the logo, is unique to most Plains Indian tribes.
“Many tribes dye them different colors, and they were always present in our bundles and pipes,” he said.
Omeasoo’s reverence for tribal ceremony inspires all of his artwork. His mother was full blood and decedent of the Kickingwoman family, who are medicine people.
“My parents, Molly and George, were our community’s bundle holders for ceremony, so I’ve been around them my whole life,” he said.
His connection to UM and sports might go even deeper. After all, three of his children are UM graduates, the most recent being Mariah Omeasoo, Omeasoo’s daughter. Marcus and Brandon are UM alumni and son Vince recieved his bachelor's degree and MBA from UM, too. His youngest son, LeBron, is in his first year at UM.
“The University has been good to us,” he said. “We’re very proud of our children.”
Omeasoo also understands the deep tradition of basketball across Indian Country – which is at the heart of the N7 mission.
“Basketball on the reservation is crazy,” Omeasoo said. “Everybody looks forward to games in these communities. It doesn’t even matter if teams win, the community is always going to support their youth.”
Every one of Omeasoo’s sons played high school basketball, and he lists a long line of cousins and family members who ran cross-country and played basketball, many of them setting state high school records and earning championships.
“Running and basketball come naturally to the Blackfeet,” Omeasoo said. “So, it’s kind of full circle to me to get to the be the artist for the N7.”
More than 300 prospective students will attend UM’s N7 games, and UM is busing attendees and students from Missoula County Public Schools, Browning, Pablo, Polson and Arlee.
The officially licensed Nike Griz gear featuring Omeasoo’s logo is already for sale. The gear can be found online and in UM’s Go Griz Store (formally the Bookstore), The M Store, Scheels, Universal Athletics and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Licensing proceeds from this year’s Nike N7 products benefit the Chief Earl Old Person Kyiyo Pow Wow fund, which supports the historic Kyiyo Pow Wow Celebration.
UM will host N7 basketball games over the next two years. Upcoming games will be an opportunity for the University to celebrate the contributions of its Native American students, employees and student athletes. The games will feature a display of Montana's tribal flags and a halftime Indigenous dance performance.
Montana’s N7 games will see the Lady Griz take on Sacramento State at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, and the men’s team will play Eastern Washington at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit gogriz.com.