T hey moved shoulder-to-shoulder through the entry on a warm November morning, many with eyes of wonder and smiles of bewilderment, minds anointed with thoughts of hope and possibility.
Janine Pease wiped tears from her face as she stepped into the concourse for the opening of Little Big Horn College’s new Health and Wellness Center. Beautiful decorative stone, polished wood and signature tribal artwork encircled her. The founding president of this tribal college in Crow Agency, Mont., Pease started the school three decades ago with 32 students in an abandoned home. Now she saw the opening of this $10.2 million building – a basketball arena and public gym – as a defining moment for the tribe.
Luke Spotted Bear entered with several seniors from nearby Plenty Coups High School in tow. Spotted Bear was one of the few great basketball players from the Crow reservation to take his skills to a college court after leading Plenty Coups to the 1981 Class C state championship – an accomplishment that created legends in Indian country, but too often became their life’s highlight. The young boys looked with wide eyes around the shrine, at the bright blue bleachers and polished basketball court, minds dancing with dreams. Most of the boys had never seen a college arena.
They looked to Spotted Bear full of wonder.
“Would they let us play here?” they asked.
There was power in this moment. How much could have changed if this building had stood years ago when Little Big Horn College was in the early stages of its mission to offer the Crow a bridge to higher education? What might have become of the great Crow players, whose names remain as recognizable on the reservation as the tribe’s great chiefs, like Plenty Coups. Prolific ball handlers and shooters who saw their potential fizzle after high school because they couldn’t negotiate the path beyond. Players too intimidated to cross the sea of rolling hills and buttes of buffalo grass on their own.
Just walk outside and gaze around the frontier town of 1,600 to see what awaited them: Packs of dogs run free around the tired homes, plywood covering their windows and faded paint peeling off their walls – stark reminders of unemployment rates that can reach 80 percent on some Montana reservations. The broken glass of a vodka bottle scattered across a nearby basketball court speaks to the reservation’s plight with alcoholism and drugs, problems that snared promising students and athletes who lingered after high school without direction.
Might their lives have taken a different path if Little Big Horn College’s young basketball program and new arena – beacons of ambition – stood here sooner?
Across Montana, tribes are asking similar questions. Five of the state’s seven tribal colleges have started basketball programs in the past two years, joining the 6-year-old LBHC teams and an established program at Salish Kootenai College in a quest to compel their young people to continue their education. Basketball has always ruled at reservation high schools and lured sellout crowds. Now the tribes believe they can harness that passion to develop a new role model: The American Indian student-athlete, capable of leading on the basketball court and in the classroom.
It’s a powerful magnet: Basketball is woven into the fabric of Montana’s native cultures, as essential for building pride as their summer Sun Dances and sweat lodge prayer sessions are for spiritual communion. Basketball hoops dot their communities – some nailed to utility poles, others standing in streets – where children learn the game and dream of becoming another of the high school heroes who have brought home 14 boys and girls high school state championships to reservation schools since 2000.
But for all those accomplishments, few have carried their talent over to college. During the 2010-11 season, just 40 American Indian men and 86 women of 33,208 basketball players competed at NCAA institutions. Many struggled to stick in junior colleges, if they played in college at all. Retired Montana High School Athletic Association director Jim Haugen regretfully describes that lost talent and potential as “the greatest shame.”
But the game still holds a power over their people – perhaps enough, tribal leaders speculate, to change their society.
The game fits American Indian athletes so snugly that it’s as if the Creator wired their DNA specifically to play it. Basketball favors stamina, the type natives developed over centuries of hunting and fighting on foot and running messages between bands. And it favors teamwork, a virtue embroidered into native cultures that prioritize working for the good of the tribe over individual glory.
The game had barely arrived in the West when American Indian tribes established themselves as some of the region’s best. Reservations had some of the smallest schools in Montana, yet by the mid-1920s they started reaching the state finals of a single-class tournament that was barely a decade old.
The game allowed them to run free and be proud at a time when boarding schools were attempting to shutter their culture. Stepping onto the court felt like returning to the traditional days, when the buttes and valleys of Montana were filled with buffalo and young warriors brought pride to their tribes with successful hunts and war parties. They ran fast breaks for layups with antelope grace, playing at such a frenetic pace that other teams would fall to the side, gassed from the relentless full-court pressure and fast-break layups that the tribes termed Rez Ball. Basketball fit so ideally that it soon became more than just a game. It was part of their culture.
Kids attached iron hoops and plywood backboards to telephone poles and played into the middle of the night. On northern Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation, kids and adults gathered three nights a week under the metal airline-hangar style ceiling of the St. Paul’s Mission gym, even when its heat proved incapable of offsetting temperatures that could drop to minus-40. Their breath fogged; the first two games were played in sweaters. But they had no trouble filling two games of five-on-five.
A new generation of leaders emerged from those courts, rising through the traditional process of winning prestige in battle called counting coup. The process determined the tribes’ chiefs for centuries. In traditional days, young warriors counted coup by striking an enemy in battle, taking his weapon, his horse, or leading a successful war party. Now the modern warriors counted coup by stealing basketballs and driving for layups. Their names became legendary and still spark debates about who might be the best in Montana’s history.
Hardin High School, on the Crow reservation, contributed Larry Pretty Weasel (37.0-point average in four tournament games in the 1950s) and could toss in Jonathan Takes Enemy (41.0-point average in the state tournament) to the debate. Lodge Grass, another Crow school, could trump it with Elvis Old Bull’s three consecutive Class B state titles and MVP awards. Cut Bank’s Don Wetzel, a Blackfeet star, became the first from a Montana reservation to play Division I ball, for Montana in 1967. But many will counter that a long list of great Indian players had the potential to compete at that level.
Their natural feel for the game was so advanced that George Pfeifer, who coached Takes Enemy in the early 1980s, never had to tutor passing or basic fundamentals. He often watched fast breaks develop, instinctively tracking the player he expected to drive to the basket, only to see him flip the ball to a trailer Pfeifer never saw coming.
Reservation communities rallied wildly as their teams marched toward state titles. After years of oppression dampened their spirit and repressed their culture, basketball blended the American Indians’ past with their present. Families prayed for good fortune in their sweat lodges – super-heated spiritual saunas. Players presented clan leaders with gifts before the season, such as blankets and tobacco, to elicit prayers for good fortune. Some players wore their hair long to capture the spirit of the wind, or wore headbands in the vein of the old warriors.
“Our kids are actually portraying authentically who they come from,” said Gerald Stiffarm, Aaniiih Nakoda College athletics director. “That’s why people take it so intense.”
When Joe Burton learned that he was the first American Indian to earn a men’s basketball scholarship from a Pac-12 program since the league expanded in 1978, the Oregon State senior’s reaction fell short of pride. It was hard to be proud when no other native player had received a similar opportunity.
“That really hurt me,” said Burton, a member of the Soboba Tribe near Los Angeles who averaged 6.7 points and 5.4 rebounds in his first three seasons. “There’s a lot of people who have a lot of talent. Native Americans can offer a whole bunch. But me doing it will help others do it.”
Burton’s groundbreaking feat fits the NCAA’s statistics: During his sophomore season, Burton was one of only nine American Indian men among 5,226 NCAA Division I basketball players – a mere 0.2 percent, and the least-represented demographic group in major men’s college sports. Native women were only slightly better represented (21 of 4,820).
So Burton has set out since entering school to set an example other native players can follow and tout their talents. But he has since seen little additional company to crowd his spotlight.
Louisville junior Shoni Schimmel, who grew up on Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, was a freshman All-American and spoke openly about wanting to inspire other American Indian players. Her sister, Jude, came to the Cardinals last fall after joining her Louisville teammates over the summer to run a health and wellness camp for Umatilla kids. But those bright stars remain rare exceptions.
Burton is often reminded of the important example he is setting. American Indians have traveled hundreds of miles to see him play, and parents have written letters to the Soboba chief to share stories of their children who, inspired by Burton, have performed better in school and raised their academic goals.
“On every reservation there’s talent,” Burton said. “It’s just the people need direction. They need someone to tell them, ‘You should be doing this.’ I want to be that person. This can be the first step.”
The intense passion revived communities that had broken down. Elders were once again celebrated, receiving honored seats and warm greetings at games. Communities pumped full of victorious pride became more productive and cheered on their neighboring tribes during state tournaments. Players attended school (though often just enough to avoid athletic suspensions) and dodged trouble, understanding that each time they took the court they were representing their families, clans, tribes, and even the entire American Indian nation.
Tribes followed their young warriors wherever the battles took them. In the late 1950s, they crammed Billings’ 1,400-seat Shrine Auditorium and filled the parking lot outside despite the bitter winter, eager to see if Pretty Weasel could deliver a state title to the Crow. They followed Takes Enemy to the tournament 25 years later, trailing the team bus bumper-to-bumper to Billings. Pfeifer remembers looking back and seeing the caravan continuing over the grassy hills and out of sight.
There is power in that passion. Tribal leaders know it. That power can inspire a depressed culture. It can reverse a history of poverty and social stigmas by providing their people with heroes and role models. Just as their past leaders led them to buffalo herds that kept them fed and clothed, so could these new heroes show them the path to contemporary success.
But the power was always borrowed. Basketball season lasted only five months, and tribal members could feel the energy seep from the community when it ended. High school careers were temporary, as well. When they ended, so did the cheers. The warriors became mortal. There were no new ways to count coup and bring pride to their people.
Some pushed on and found success: Wetzel earned his bachelor’s degree from Montana and later coached Browning High School’s basketball team and started a cross country program that won seven consecutive state titles. Mike Chavez, a Blackfeet star who won three state high school titles, graduated from Montana and was a 2007 first-round draft pick of the Continental Basketball Association’s Great Falls Explorers.
But many faded with a self-esteem crash when the high school cheers died. Old Bull dropped out of school when his senior season ended and revealed that his academics had been a sham – he went to school for practices, not classes. Pretty Weasel attended Rocky Mountain College in Billings but dropped out just as the NAIA revealed he was leading the nation in field-goal percentage. Takes Enemy bounced around several schools but struggled to stick. They are the recognized names, but their company is legion ?— a heartbreaking band of boys and girls driving hard toward success, only to pull up short at the rim.
One by one they left high school as drifters, unsure of the path forward, lacking leaders to show them the way, losing the pride basketball provided in communities where the warm embrace of drugs and alcohol was waiting.
The abrupt end to great careers was troubling enough. But the ripple effects kept spreading over generations. Younger players watched Old Bull and Takes Enemy and aspired to be like them. They approached their heroes on the playgrounds, looking for advice or an approving nod. They watched their great high school careers, and then their decline. And year after year they followed those examples, growing up under the perception that high school basketball was the pinnacle of life, but no more certain of how to carry it forward.
Best anyone can tell, the trend results from a combination of challenges. The high number of first-generation college students on reservations leaves many students uncertain of how to proceed. Basic steps, such as filling out financial forms, are foreign processes.
Many teens are also academically unprepared for college. Reservation schools have ranked among the state’s poorest performers over the past 10 years. Though American Indians made up only 10.9 percent of Montana’s students in grades seven to 12 during the 2009-10 school year, they accounted for 26 percent of its high school dropouts. And of the seven schools that won state titles since 2000, six failed to meet the benchmarks for the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s 2012 Adequate Yearly Progress Report. Four have fallen below the required performance for eight or more consecutive years and have been cited for restructuring.
Coaches say eligibility requirements, such as those required by the NCAA, are not a focus. Most players must first look to junior colleges to bolster their academic profiles.
But there is also a more fundamental explanation. Basketball in other impoverished American communities comes with a dream of escaping social depression by earning scholarships, and perhaps one day a new home or car. But American Indian kids often aren’t looking to escape.
Reservation communities are tight-knit. Families are extensive. An American Indian child can walk unannounced into a half-dozen homes and dig through the fridge without raising eyebrows. They aren’t motivated by scholarships, but rather by the mission of bringing pride to their families and tribes. That comfortable environment creates Jupiter-strength gravity. And when kids meet the adversity of tough practices or challenging classes and need support, they look longingly to the reservation communities that once cheered them fanatically.
So they return to what they know. Those who reach graduation tell of trips home each weekend for at least the first year, even when school was several hours away. Many return for good, accepting that they’ll be looked upon as failures. The cycle is so pervasive that coaches and tribal leaders worry that kids can become convinced that there is no hope.
“I think that’s kind of created its own life form,” says Justin Wetzel, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and an assistant coach at Montana State Billings. “There are kids who have made it. But the problem is these kids keep hearing that (they won’t make it). And when you keep hearing that over and over again, it’s almost like ‘Why try?’”
Tribal leaders looked at the trend with alarm. If teams were winning championships and none of the kids was moving on to college, then the communities were failing them, said Aaniiih Nakoda’s Gerald Stiffarm. They realized a bridge was needed – an intermediary step to build confidence and strengthen academic performances.
The tribal colleges were uniquely positioned to help.
Most of the schools started forming more than 40 years ago to preserve tribal traditions and provide paths to higher education. Some grew into four-year institutions. But most squeeze miracles from meager budgets gathered from tuition and federal land-grant funds. They are often viewed as beacons of hope. And in the past five years the Montana schools started looking to a new ally to light that beacon: basketball.
It started with Little Big Horn College in 2005, when the 400-student school joined the National Junior College Athletic Association’s top tier and fielded its first men’s and women’s basketball teams. Their home court was a public multipurpose building that routinely bumped them from its schedule for conventions or funerals. But the presence of an official school team still enhanced the college’s credibility. From its first tipoff the program started shifting the fortunes of players who admit they would have otherwise struggled for direction.
Elvis Old Bull Jr. – known as E.J. among the Crow – might be the brightest example. Born when his heralded father was only 15, E.J. grew up watching Elvis compete in independent Indian tournaments and eventually had his own career routinely compared to his dad’s stratospheric standard. He could never escape that shadow, whether it was in games on the reservation or tournaments in other states. The shadow only lifted near his father.
Elvis never pushed basketball on his son. He offered few tips for shooting or dribbling, and didn’t compel E.J. to practice. Instead, Elvis pointed to the hard life that followed his basketball career, struggling with health problems while working two jobs as a firefighter and in construction to make ends meet. Elvis urged his son not to repeat his choices.
Today’s tribal colleges were born in the late 1960s out of the American Indian self-determination movement, which sought to restore cultural and political control over their communities and allow for the restoration of their culture.
Before the movement, native communities struggled against the U.S. government’s paternalistic policies that created the reservation system and initiated boarding school programs that forced young American Indians to give up their native languages and practices. Self-determination pushed for the allowance of self-governance and decision-making on issues that affected the tribes, including education, development and cultural renewal.
As the self-determination movement gained strength – and eventually became an official U.S. policy in 1970 – tribal colleges and universities were at the core of American Indian institution building. Tribal leaders recognized the importance of education and believed it could strengthen reservations and tribal culture without assimilation.
Today there are 37 tribal colleges in the U.S. and Canada operating under the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, six of which are four-year universities. They function as a bridge to provide American Indian communities – often located in remote geographic locations – with postsecondary educational opportunities and to open doors for advancement to four-year institutions.
But they also support a civic mission of rebuilding and reinforcing traditional tribal cultures. The colleges generally offer signature programs on their tribe’s history, tradition and language, helping to protect their cultural identity.
The Fort Belknap Reservation’s Aaniiih Nakoda College has accomplished this mission recently by helping to restore the A’aninin tribe’s White Clay language, which was nearing extinction 10 years ago. When the college supported the creation of the White Clay Immersion School in 2003, only three elders spoke the language fluently. But when the first class graduated in 2011, four children were fluent speakers and 23 more were enrolled in the program.
“They’re seen as leaders in our community,” White Clay director Lynette Chandler said. “They’re called upon to lead prayers and feel good about themselves. On a reservation, it’s hard to find these things.”
But E.J. struggled academically in high school. Scholarship offers came, but he couldn’t make the grades. Like so many players before him, E.J. was searching for a path forward when his prep career ended. Just as he hit that crossroad, LBHC started its basketball program.
E.J. set school records for scoring and shooting that continue to stand. But he also set a more important standard: He became the original LBHC student-athlete. E.J. graduated with a 3.7 grade-point average and took his basketball career to Rocky Mountain College. There he finished with a 3.4 GPA and a bachelor’s in managerial accounting. He is back at LBHC now, teaching four classes and forming plans for graduate school at Gonzaga.
Always compared to his legendary father on the court, E.J. became an example of how quickly the cycle can be broken off of it.
“If this wasn’t here, I honestly don’t know what I was going to do,” E.J. said. “It was a good place to get my foundation.”
Other tribal colleges looked at those success stories and found a template to follow. Five more schools started programs in the past three years, bringing together programs serving the Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Chippewa, A’aninin, Nakoda, Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. They banded together to create the Montana Tribal Colleges Athletic Association and set out on a united front to promote academic achievement through athletics.
Few offer scholarships. Even transportation to games can be challenging.
Aaniiih Nakoda College, a small school with roughly 145 students on the Fort Belknap Reservation, started its men’s and women’s programs two years ago on a $45,000 budget. Without a gym at the school, players drove 30 miles to practice in a nearby town. The program shared vans with the college to transport players to road games and contracted with Harlem High School to use its gymnasium. Sometimes tribal programs offered up their vehicles and donated money for fuel. Players pitched in by organizing fundraisers and running raffles at a nearby casino to raise money for shoes, uniforms and travel costs.
Their efforts illustrate the thirst for opportunity. Cole McCabe, who helped Hays Lodgepole High School to the 2007 Class C state title, plans to transfer to a four-year school after finishing his associate’s degree in computer information systems. Darcy Mills, on the women’s team, speaks in empowered tones about earning her law degree.
They are the examples tribal leaders hope others will soon follow.
“It’s an outlet for us to see the good in life, when it’s otherwise nothing but poverty and broken dreams on the rez,” Mills said of the college. “There’s much more to life than I’ve always grown to know. … It’s kind of hard, but I’m still going to make it. Because with my determination and ambition, I can do anything I want.”
A lump caught in Darrin Old Coyote’s throat during Little Big Horn College’s preseason dinner as he watched the players step to a podium. They introduced themselves and casually discussed their educational goals. The list rang in Old Coyote’s ears: pre-med, accounting, business management, natural resource environmental science.
Twenty-one years earlier, Old Coyote teamed with his famed cousin, Elvis Old Bull, to bring Lodge Grass its third consecutive state title. Back then, tribal leaders were preaching wildly the merits of finishing high school. Old Coyote was a rare exception, moving on to earn his degree from Concordia-Moorhead. From that distance he could see the problems plaguing his people: the drugs, the loss of cultural identity, the alcohol. He returned hoping to make a difference, eventually became the tribe’s vice secretary, and joined the group that raised the federal grant money that funded the Health and Wellness Center’s construction.
And now that difference was happening before his eyes. Speaking at the podium was Hardin’s Gary Stevenson, Little Big Horn College's student body president with a 3.7 GPA. He was followed shortly afterward by Athalia Morrison, a 33-year-old mother of five, starter for the LBHC women’s team and a 3.8 GPA student. She’s dreaming of an environmental science degree.
“All of them had goals and dreams,” Old Coyote said, his sturdy face softening with emotion beneath his gray Stetson hat. “Maybe one day some kid that’s running around here will say, ‘Man, my favorite basketball player is one of these players.’ And so it gives our younger generation something to look forward to.”
But important work remains.
As the Little Big Horn College women started their first game in the Health and Wellness Center, three juniors on the Hardin girls basketball team gathered in a park a block away for a pickup game of five-on-five. They laughed and played loose on the warm and sunny fall day, throwing no-look passes without seeming to notice the shattered remains of a vodka bottle scattered at 3-point range. The separation between hope and despair was once again a step away.
Eva Flying doesn’t need that reminder. Growing up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, the LBHC athletics director walked that line for years and teetered on the edge more than once. She spoiled basketball scholarships, prioritized athletic aspirations over her academics and nearly flunked out of school. She was on the brink of fading into the cycle like so many others.
But her family kept encouraging her, and Flying eventually developed confidence and a passion for athletic education. It took 10 years to earn her bachelor’s degree, but she marched straight on to a master’s and developed into a sturdy leader. Now she’s hoping those experiences can help guide future generations.
This won’t be a smooth Cinderella tale, though. The women’s team already had to suspend one of its starters for drinking on the morning of the season opener. It won’t be the last.
“I know the struggles that are going to happen,” Flying said with flat emotion. “Alcohol. Close friends and family members dying because of alcohol. Flunking out of school because of wrong choices. It’s hard to sit by and mentor.”
But there are seeds of hope. Seven members of the 2010-11 women’s team earned NJCAA academic all-region honors, while sophomore Loretta Brown (3.7 GPA) and Tony Redman of the men’s team (3.6 GPA) received national recognition for exemplary achievement. Another five members of the 2011-12 teams graduated with associate’s degrees last spring.
And midway through the women’s season opener, the three Hardin players from the pickup game in the park stepped through the Health and Wellness Center’s doors and took seats at midcourt. This is the power tribal leaders talk about. Basketball brought the girls in, provided a destination. Perhaps it will keep them.
That is the hope. It’s why emotions ran thick as the building opened and founding president Pease stood at the opening ceremony and declared, “This is one of those moments when we’re making our nation.”
It’s why Elvis Old Bull Jr. looked to the warriors on the glossy new court, swelled with pride and flashed a broad smile. “I started going to school here too early,” he joked. “I should’ve waited for all this.”
As the players stood along the sidelines, a new era about to tip off, a group of men concluded the opening ceremony by singing the “Crow Fight Song” – the tribe’s equivalent of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The four men gathered around an animal-hide drum and pounded a hypnotic beat while belting a shrill, empowering cry in the Crow’s native tongue.
You as a man-warrior, took the flag and re-stood upon the ground, you fight on.
And then the warriors took to the court, their jerseys proud banners to their nations. They took up the flag of their tribes’ hopes and dreams and fought on for a brighter future.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.