"Some days it's a good day to die, some days it's a good day to play basketball."
--Victor Joseph in the movie Smoke Signals
The five towering basketball players from the wheat country near the Nebraska border looked dazed, as if they were being harried by avenging angels, or diving hawks. But these weren't angels harassing them: just five skinny players from Indian Country. The Chiefs had saved their worst shooting game all season for this, the championship game. Still, they whirled and jumped and soared, confounding the previously undefeated Cyclones, who led the game but remained stubbornly earthbound. As the score narrowed, the stadium inched towards pandemonium, and some 5,000 fans -- including perhaps one out of every eight Native Americans in the state -- screamed and pounded the bleachers with their feet.
This wasn't the Olympics. It wasn't even college ball. It was the Southeast Cyclones vs. the Wyoming Indian High School Chiefs, the two best teams in the state's 2A league, comprised of schools with between 95 and 215 students. The vast majority of high schools in Wyoming are this size or even smaller, and the two schools that had sent teams to this game lay 308 miles apart. Here in the least populous state in the nation, 2A basketball is not a lunchroom scrap, it's a prizefight.
"Growing up down by the river, there wasn't much to do except play basketball," said a Chiefs fan, who kept having to leave the stadium to calm his nerves with a cigarette.
The Chiefs are from the Wind River Indian Reservation, an undulating swath of high desert and glaciated mountains in the middle of the state. It is home to about 9,000 Northern Arapahos and 4,000 Eastern Shoshones, many of whom make an annual pilgrimage to see the state tournament. Relatives fly in from out of state, families make the two-hour drive to Casper for the weekend -- taking their kids swimming in hotel pools, going to one of Wyoming's three bona fide shopping malls, and converging on the Casper Events Center for the final games.
"It's the one vacation we take the kids on every year," said Arilda Chavez, who came down with her husband, niece, and four grandchildren.
"Vacation?" snorted her 14-year-old granddaughter, Laticia. "It's life or death."
Basketball is a bright spot in reservation life. The average life expectancy here hovers at 49.5 years, about 25 percent below the world's average, with drug and alcohol use contributing to half of the deaths in 2008. Death rates among teenagers are disproportionately high. But ever since a 2002 PBS documentary showed the Chiefs partying nearly as hard as they played, the team has been subject to random drug and alcohol tests. They have developed a reputation for clean living.
Bringing the game to the reservation was arguably the best thing the Christian-run schools ever did for their students. In the early '50s, a young boy named Alfred Redman played basketball at St. Michael's Mission School here on the reservation, under the guidance of Coach Wilson, an Episcopal priest.
"Everybody liked it," said Redman.
After stints in college and the Air Force, Redman came home to coach basketball, driving high school players to South Dakota and Montana to play other Native teams. Around 1980, the high school joined the 2A division and started playing Wyoming's non-Indian teams.
They encountered racism "all the time," said Redman. "People would war whoop, give us the finger, throw beer bottles. ... I was glad no one ever got hurt." Once, during an away game, the team found a dead deer inside their school bus. But the Chiefs went to the state tournament 28 out of 29 years and brought home seven victory trophies -- the last one in 2009.