Remembering the Onigum Nighthawks basketball teams of the 60-80s

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The Onigum Nighthawks. Standing left to right: Fred Jackson, Clyde Monroe, Bill Schaaf, Joe Aitken, Don Day and Roger Aitken. Kneeling left to right: Ron Day and Steve Day. (Photo by tge Walker Pilot Independent.)

By Dan Ninham

The Onigum community is on the southern end of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation. The Walker community is either 14 miles around Leech Lake or in the winter less than a mile long path on the ice.

As one walks into the Onigum Community Center gymnasium, a few pages on the wall share the history of the Onigum Nighthawks, including former players and newspaper team photos from the early 1970s.

The late Roger Aitken said, “A popular 1970s All-Indian Minneapolis basketball tournament director Mr. Everett (Harry) Keezer remarked ‘to have a successful crowd of people at his tournaments in Minneapolis, he needed Red Lake and Onigum in the tournament.’ These two teams drew tremendous, loud and proud crowds from Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations and the Twin Cities.”

On his narrative on the gym wall, Fred Jackson wrote about the team, “When I started playing with the Nighthawks, it was after our basketball season was over at Walker High School in 1965. John Day was the coach at that time. Mr. Day asked if I wanted to go to the Cities and play some basketball with the team from Onigum over the weekend.”

“I had the honor to play with the Nighthawks in the mid 1970s until 1980,” said Steven Day. “It was a wonderful time in my life. I will always remember how the veteran players took me under their wings.”

“In March 1978, the team traveled to Phoenix, Arizona,” said Day. “We made it to the championship game against the Flagstaff Redskins and won the title game. In that game, we were down by 10 points at halftime. I recall we missed several of our shots we normally would make. In the second half, the shots started to fall and we tied the game up going into the fourth quarter.”

The team ended up winning the national tournament by a point.

Bill Schaaf said, “My experience as a Nighthawk was all positive because being active when younger kept us both healthy and safe from many maladies of the day. I experienced a family type atmosphere which was all positive. You could say we were positive role models during that era.”

Joe Aitken played with the Nighthawks between the years of 1968 to 1980. Aitken recalled, “I remember how determined our team members were to win. I remember how our team came together in brotherhood, especially on long road trips. I remember growing up in the small town of Walker and how the superintendent of the school would give us the keys to the school in the middle of the winter allowing us to practice on weekends.”

“I remember Faron Jackson was probably 10 years old, he was one of our main fans and he is now the Chairman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe,” said Aitken. “It is impressive to look back and see the successes these individual basketball players aspired to after our years in basketball.”

“Paul Day currently is the Honorable Chief Judge of the Leech Lake Band,” said Aitken.

“Don Day was past President of the Fond du Lac Tribal Community College, and past president of the Leech Lake Tribal College. Steve Day was a member of the Minneapolis Police Force and decorated officer in the ‘90s. Bill Schaaf worked as the chief cultural and language instructor in the Mille Lacs area. Ron Day was probably the best player on the Onigum Nighthawk basketball team for scoring and leading the fast break and showing determination and will to win.”

Aitken continued to talk about the successes of the Onigum Nighthawk alumni, “Roger Aitken went on to become the Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Leech Lake Band. Jim Lawrence, the elder of the team, was a true leader and a starter for the Onigum Nighthawks. Clyde Monroe was one of the original Onigum Nighthawks and he was always a starter and one of the best shooters we had on the team. Fred Jackson was also the heart of the team and a very good outside shooter and hustler. He became a decorated Vietnam veteran and respected in the Walker and Onigum communities. Myron Ellis was also one of the original Nighthawk developers.”

“It’s unbelievable how much I think of these guys every day … yeah, some of the best memories in my life were those of the Nighthawk basketball practices, tournaments and road trips,” said Aitken.