As a part of the Thunder organization’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Oklahoma City Blue guard Lindy Waters III shares the depth of his connection to his Kiowa and Cherokee ancestors, and how he honors those traditions to this day.
A collection of eagle feathers, each adorned with a unique pattern of colorful beads, hang on the kitchen wall inside the Waters household in Norman, Oklahoma.
Care and craftmanship reserved for the most esteemed gifts went into the presentation of those sacred eagle feathers – the ones that Lindy Waters III has been presented with over his young lifetime. At graduations, from Norman North High School and then at Oklahoma State, Waters III had those eagle feathers dangling from his cap.
According not only to Native American custom but decreed in federal law by the Fish and Wildlife service, eagle feathers can only be passed down from family or given as gifts from one Native American to another, and never given to non-Natives. Only on rare occasions do those eagle feathers leave their safe locations at home, but when they do, there’s no room for carelessness with them.
“I remember all my friends wanted to touch it, they wanted to feel it,” Waters III said of a white eagle feather he was gifted. “I told them, ‘It's special. It's sacred. You can't do that’.”
Waters III, known in his family as Trey, is 24 years old and out on his own, but returned home to Norman earlier this month by making the 40-minute rush-hour drive from Edmond, where he lives now as he plays guard for the Oklahoma City Blue. As he gravitated towards the kitchen wall where the eagle feathers hung, Trey’s left shirtsleeve slid up, revealing an eagle feather tattoo curling up his forearm.
“I can't really have those eagle feathers around me all the time, so being able to have them on my body just helps remind me who I am,” Waters III said. “It keeps me humble. It helps me realize that there's a lot of other people that look up to me. I have a big responsibility to give those people everything that they need.”
"It makes me work a lot harder, makes me more thankful for the situation and opportunity that I'm given, and makes me want to leave it even better than when I came in."
Next to Trey’s feather tattoo is a buffalo, the symbol of the Kiowa tribe. On Waters’ chest the word Pao – meaning next in line – is emblazoned with his grandfather’s portrait on the opposite pec. With Kiowa and Cherokee blood coursing through his veins, Waters III was born into a tradition of upholding Native American values, honoring relatives and embodying a spirit of giving. That blood allowed him passage into the traditions of the indigenous world, but his attentiveness and intentionality are what has allowed Waters III to derive power from his lineage.
During his career with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Waters III performed a “giveaway”, where he presented those who helped him along the way with sacred gifts. Some of Trey’s coaches, staff and teammates received traditional Native American-designed Pendleton blankets, which are meant to be continuously passed along to others and only rarely kept for oneself.
“Most of the time when we get (a Pendleton blanket) we usually give them back to somebody else,” said Waters III. “It just shows that there's always somebody else that needs help and there's always somebody that comes into your life that you would never expect to help you, in ways that you could never fathom.”
In fact, a Pendleton blanket that remains in the Waters household is one bestowed upon Trey’s father, Lindy Jr., at Trey’s grandmother’s funeral. The grey blanket was first laid on the casket but was then draped around Lindy Jr. as a comforting embrace and a symbol that Lindy Jr’s mother would always be with the family.
Other tokens that Waters III bestowed to others at his giveaway included small statues of The Guardian, replicas of the gigantic work of art Enoch Kelly Haney created that now sits on the top of the dome of the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City. The Guardian is a depiction of a Native American warrior, spear in hand, tip stuck into the ground. Around the wood spear shaft is a rope tied to the warrior’s ankle as he faces East, staring down threats to the indigenous people of the Americas.
The Guardian that sits atop the state capitol is a nameless monument, a stand-in for the people with names like Chief Red Tipi or Satank (Sitting Bear), along with their descendants. The Waters family flows from those two greats, among others, who stood sentinel over their Kiowa lands in the middle of the country. A large portrait of Satank hangs in the Waters’ dining room, presiding over Lindy III, his mother Lisa and sisters Leana, Loren and Lindsey like a proud but watchful grandparent.
“Seeing pictures of my ancestors and stories of them helped shape who I am and helps me strive for those people that came before me,” said Waters III.
“It gave me something to stand by and it gave me a reason to be here,” Waters III added. “It made me realize that I needed to be there for my people in any way I can help them, the same way my ancestors helped everybody.”
While there’s practically a Native American artifact gallery at home, a Waters family tradition brought Trey to an even deeper understanding of his roots. At the age of 10, each of the Waters siblings took a trip to Washington, D.C. with Lindy Jr. to get a history lesson on the United States of America and in Trey’s case in particular, the history of his people. The year that Lindy Jr. and Lindy III trekked to the US capitol was the same year the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian opened up. The same portrait of Satank that hangs in the Waters’ dining room resides on a third-floor wall of the Smithsonian.
Knowing your history is one way to identify with your roots. Hands-on experience matters just as much, which is why the Waters family regularly drove out to the Stokes Stomp Grounds in Tahlequah, Oklahoma to take part in Cherokee stomp dances, which would often last days at a time. As Trey tells it, a dozen men stood guard at the entrance to the stomp grounds, ready to literally pick up cars and turn them around if the passengers didn’t have Native blood.
Once inside the hallowed grounds, it was a full-on festival, with dancers competing and keeping the fire and spirit alive for hours on end, as turtle shells and cans filled with shells and the singing of anthems provided the background music for the occasion.
Each day, a pig would be butchered, and the meat passed out evenly to all the families in attendance. In the morning of the final day of the gathering, the children would let loose and play a game of stickball – a variation of lacrosse where players use lithe wooden sticks capped with a tiny bit of webbing in order to sling a ball at a fish that sits atop a pole, all while avoiding being bumped and tackled.
“There’s no fouls. There’s no free throws,” Waters III said with a grin.
Back in Norman, the Waters family also paid homage to their Kiowa heritage by attending pow wows at the Lloyd Noble Center on the University of Oklahoma campus. As is the case with most families, food is a major source of pride at pow wows. Trey described the Indian tacos that his family makes – fried bread topped with beans, meat and more – as undeniably delicious.
“Nobody cooks fry bread like my grandma and my aunt,” said Waters III.
After he was done roaming the concourse checking out all the vendors at the pow wows, Trey would watch the singing and dancing competitions, which were set to the steady pulse of drumbeats. Pow wows would go all night long, even if Trey was passed out in his seat by 1 a.m.
“All I remember is just listening to the music and falling asleep to them singing their traditional songs and just getting lost and how they danced and how they stuck with their rhythm,” Waters III recalled.
In his college years, Waters III spent more time at Gallagher-Iba Arena than the Lloyd Noble Center, as he committed to play for the Oklahoma State Cowboys up in Stillwater. While there, he got to play in Nike’s N7 game on Nov. 18, 2018 against College of Charleston, where the Cowboys wore special turquoise jerseys to honor Native Americans. That same season, the Thunder unveiled their 2018-19 Native American-themed City Edition jersey, which got Trey’s attention in a major way.
“It was big. It inspired me,” said Waters III. “It helped me be a little bit more at peace that there's still a lot more people that acknowledge Native Americans and our traditions.”
As Trey wrapped up the tour of his family home in early November, which is Native American Heritage month, there was one more heirloom to show off – the moccasins worn by his great-grandfather, who was born in 1893. Next to those brown, understated and very worn-in shoes, were a pristine pair of white moccasins. They have only been worn once, back in 2018, when Lindy III was named Indian of the Year at the American Indian Exposition Celebration down in Anadarko, Okla. – an annual convention of sorts for the Kiowa tribes that headquarters out of nearby Carnegie.
Once known as “the Indian Capitol of America”, Anadarko hosts Kiowas and members of the plains tribes and chooses one person to honor with their most prestigious award each year. Past winners have included Willie Nelson, Roy Rogers and Crystal Gayle, so when Waters III was chosen, let alone nominated for that honor, he was stunned.
“I didn't realize the impact that I had amongst Native people until I was named Indian of the Year. it caught me by surprise,” said Waters III. “My tribes and my people, I just want to be in a position to where I can help them succeed.”
To pay it forward and make good on the recognition from his people, Waters III has hosted basketball camps for youth, particularly Native youth, all-across the southern plains, from Carnegie to Pawhuska and throughout Oklahoma and even up to Lawrence, Kansas. He aims to be a role model for the next tide of Native children, and to give them someone to look up to regardless of whether their dream is to play sports or not.
While playing alongside Trae Young at Norman North or in Bedlam games with Oklahoma State, Waters III has long had a stage to inspire, but now as a professional basketball player there comes even more responsibility. He looks at his surroundings inside the Blue ION, the Thunder’s original practice facility where the first generation of greats put in the work to help build a powerful, sustainable organization.
Trey hopes to do the same for his people – to honor those who came before him for the betterment of those who come after him.
“It just makes me work a lot harder, makes me more thankful for the situation and opportunity that I'm given, and makes me want to leave it even better than when I came in,” said Waters III.
“The platform that I'm on now, being able to play professionally for Oklahoma City Blue is huge,” he added. “I couldn't have scripted any better of a platform to help these Indian kids.”
Watch: A Connection to His People