Zaaga’Igan Buffalo: Leading Duluth East HS Greyhound basketball team

Zaaga’Igan Buffalo is the 6-5, senior point guard for the Duluth East High School Greyhounds basketball team. (Photo by Brenda Vatthauer.)

By Dan Ninham

Zaaga’Igan Buffalo is representing his people in every step he is taking. His people are not only the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. His people also include the Duluth East HS Greyhounds boys’ basketball team.

Zaaga’Igan is a grass dancer and was the Brave for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa between 2013 and 2015. He traveled as far as the Denver (CO) March Powwow to represent his tribe and his Loon Clan.

Zaaga’Igan is also a direct descendant of Chief Buffalo, recognized as an Ojibwe leader that had a treaty relationship with the US Government. Chief Buffalo resisted efforts to remove the Ojibwe to western areas and secured permanent Ojibwe reservations in the lower Lake Superior region in Wisconsin.

“My spirit name is Ozaawaainini and means ‘He who sees beauty in things’,” said Zaa, his shortened name that he is called. “I am 17 years old and I live in Duluth, MN with my parents Kurt and Angela Buffalo. I have two sisters and one brother.”
Zaa is the 6-5, senior point guard for the Duluth East High School Greyhounds basketball team.

The Duluth East HS Greyhounds defeated Coon Rapids 74-60 on March 25th to win the Minnesota Class AAAA Section 7 boys basketball championship.

“My tribal core values as an Anishinaabe Oshki-inini (Ojibwe young man) and athlete are knowing my clan and holding the knowledge of our ancestors in the way I carry myself on and off the court,” said Zaa. “My focus and determination continues to keep me moving despite any challenges that I may run into.”

“We are often told how much people love watching Zaa play and he is so selfless,” said mom Angela also speaking for dad Kurt.

“What I love about Zaa is his curiosity,” said Rhett McDonald, head boys’ basketball coach at Duluth East HS. “His understanding of ‘culture’ and his constant want to learn about others always impressed me most about him. He has a way of immediately caring about people.”

“First of all, he is one of the kindest, most thoughtful kids I have coached,” said Damien Paulson, assistant varsity boys’ basketball coach at Duluth East HS. “He truly cares about his teammates and his team.”

Damien is the father to Duluth East HS senior basketball player Noah, another star player who happens to be Ojibwe. Noah is a finalist for the Mr. Basketball honor for the state of Minnesota. He is the first Ojibwe boys’ player to be a finalist since 1996 when Randy Holthusen of the Red Lake HS Warriors was in the top three.

Noah Paulson was featured in a story last March of 2020*. “I look up to my older brother Niikan Buffalo,” said Zaa. “He has been a tremendous mentor to me and really taught me a lot of valuable things when it comes to on the court and more importantly, off the court.”
Beth McClimek, Zaa’s Civics, US History, and International Studies teacher at Duluth East HS talked about her student: “You realize how special Zaa is from the moment you meet him. He is someone who absolutely lights up the room with his smile and positive energy, yet he has this intense drive about him.”

“He had a natural gift to see what was going on in the game and what needed to be done,” said Marlon Grant, Integration Specialist. “Zaa has the ability to lead, and he is a point guard who wants to help his teammates.”

“I prepare myself by making sure I’m bringing energy to practice but more so in the games because there is less fans to bring the juice, and you have to create that energy for the team,” said Zaa.

“Before away games I like to smudge myself with sage for good luck on the game and with the travels,” he said.

Zaaga’Igan Buffalo is leading his fellow Greyhound basketball leaders to the gichi-niimi’idiwin, the big dance. The powwow circuit will be later. The Minnesota State Class AAA State Basketball Tournament is coming quick. This is another step for Zaa to continue on his journey.

* To see the article on Noah Paulson, go to: