Thirty years make a difference–Rez Ball 3

A year ago, I wrote a blog post I called “Rez Ball.” I gave a little Indian sports background, then a nod to Larry Colton’s book about a Native basketball player he’d followed through the 1992-93 season in Montana, Counting Coup, and I celebrated the 2021 Lapwai Boys Idaho State Championship team. I made another Rez Ball post this week, celebrating the Lapwai Boys and Girls 2022 State Championship teams.

Colton’s book, published in 2000, followed one girl, Sharon LaForge, through a season, with the author stepping into the book and trying to help the talented LaForge find a place in college ball. It talked teenage sex and alcohol and racism, lauded and applauded Sharon when it could, but pulled no punches—and landed Colton on the outside of much of her Montana Crow Tribal community. Years later, there was a reunion, and Colton could tell Sharon that while the book might have landed hard on the rez, it had stirred hearts and made her a hero to fans across the country. She did not end up playing college ball, and tragedy, including loss of a son, has followed her these thirty years, but she had recently been in touch with Colton and was happy for the reunion.

Abe Streep’s new book, Brothers on Three, about the Arlee Warriors from the Flathead Reservation in Montana was published last year, in 2021. The Warriors had won the Montana small schools championship in 2017, and Streep talked the New York Times and the team into allowing him to live with them during the 2017-18 season.

Streep took his time sinking into the town, school, and reservation. He met players and coaches—and parents, aunties, and grandparents. He too found issues of broken families, alcoholism, and racism, personal situations that the Arlee boys and girls dealt with continuously, and institutional racism nestled into the Montana higher education system.

Streep followed Colton by almost 30 years, and times have changed. The stories of boarding school abuses, new histories of Indian Removal of the 1830s, of the Osage Murders, of Lakota and Comanche nations and other tribes, of Code-talkers and Carlisle football, and books by an increasing number of Native authors—are everywhere. There is a growing awareness too that Indians know things about land, fire, and water that we—the majority culture—have long ignored. Native ways of dealing with the “natural” world are creeping into agency hires and policy. Indians head up agencies once part of their oppression. The last year alone has seen Deb Haaland of Navajo Nation at Interior, Chuck Sams of the Umatilla Reservation as Director of National Parks, and Shelley Lowe, also Navajo, at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Native voices are in the mainstream.

On the rez, Streep steeped himself in the culture as he met the players and families and learned about rez ball. He explains from the beginning of his book that he will use Native spellings for Salish and Kootenai words, explores the complicated family relationships and mixed tribal roots of the players and parents, and highlights the importance of land and place to the adolescent boys who are his primary subjects. There is deep background: he refers to boarding school treatment, Allotment and Termination, and tells us that the powwow is held on the Fourth of July because it was a Native way of celebrating culture when the government was doing everything it could to suppress it.

The biggest differences between the Colton and Streep years have been openness and self-confidence. Whereas many on the Crow Reservation were upset or embarrassed by Larry Colton’s depiction of 1992 reservation problems, the Arlee Warriors themselves, the young basketball players, committed their 2017-18 state tournament play to suicide prevention. They discussed it openly, including personal bouts with depression and family stories of suicide, in a tournament time video that went viral.

But at the end of Streep’s book, players from the championship teams are still struggling to find places on college basketball teams. Is it their fast team play and shared scoring that turns up a different high point man each game? Their pressure defenses that take the place of set offensive plays? Or is it players’ comfort in extended families on the reservation, their love of open spaces and hunting buffalo and elk and powwow dancing?

Or is it the lingering institutional racism that dismisses Indian athletes as candidates for college ball and college life?

Momentum is important, and so is cultural comfort. As Native cultures earn respect, as more Indians end up on college faculties and coaching positions and athletes come to schools in twos and threes instead of one by one, the next book on rez ball might be from a college town near you.

Maybe Moscow, Idaho, where Lapwai star Titus Yearout has signed to play college ball at Division I University of Idaho.

# # #

Leave a Reply