I recently had a fascinating discussion with Steven Branting, Institutional Historian at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. As a result, he sent this wonderful photo of Lillian Bounds Disney as a member of the Ft. Lapwai Rural High School basketball team. He says the following:
“Date: 1916-1917 is listed in some credits, but the ball seems to say “1914, when Lillian was a sophomore. Two other girls in the photo graduated in the class of 1917 with Lillian, who is standing on the far left.”
One can go in several different directions with this. Women playing basketball in 1914 or 1917? Women’s sports in general—from hoops to bareback riding and Title 9 and international soccer—and how we seemed to have forgotten that women once did these things as we watch them gain power and prestige as athletes again.
Or we could go with the “tradition” of basketball at Lapwai that carries on today, with boys’ and girls’ teams winning state championships regularly—almost routinely. Or, for that matter, we could look at the growth and power of basketball in Indian country across the nation. At “Rez Ball.”
But what about the legacy of Lillian Bounds! She was not Nez Perce, but her father worked as a blacksmith on the reservation, and when he died, she and her mother moved to nearby Lewiston, where she did a year in business school before moving to California, to be near a sister and find her fortune. She became an “inker” of celluloid frames at a small film studio, where she met a young man named Walt Disney. They married in Lewiston in 1925, and enjoyed over 40 years of marriage before Walt died at the young age of 65.
Lillian did not forget her old school or the Indian Reservation that it was part of. In the 1980s, she donated $20,000 worth of playground equipment after a local school burned; and another $200,000 to build locker rooms, rest rooms and a concession stand for the Lapwai school’s new track. She also gave money to the University of Idaho to fund college scholarships for Indian students. And, through her California foundation, she sent $100,000 to the Nez Perce Tribe to help with the purchase of valuable artifacts that Missionary Henry Spalding had sent to an Ohio friend named Allen in the 1840s. The collection had gone from the Allen family to Oberlin College to the Ohio Historical Society.
According to the Nez Perce Tribal web page, “in June 2021, the Nez Perce Tribe renamed the collection Wetxuuwíitin’ meaning “returned after period of captivity.” According to Nakia Williamson-Cloud, ‘The re-naming of this collection is a significant step to reclaiming ownership of one of the most significant ethnographic collections in existence.’”
The Ohio History Connection eventually returned the $600,000 it had asked of the tribe for the collection in 1993. The collection is currently on loan to the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho.
Special thanks to Steven Branting, who told me this wonderful story, and who says that I should credit Dan Wilson for the photo.
And Hurrah for Lillian Bounds Disney, who played hoops in Lapwai in 1914, and didn’t forget her roots.
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