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March Madness in Indian Country

Wyoming Indian High School dominates the basketball court

 

"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.


Redman, now in his 70s, was at the tournament in Casper. This time, however, he was there as a spectator; he retired five years ago.

He was replaced by the tallest player he ever coached, a six-foot-sixer named Craig Ferris. As a swirling snowstorm enveloped Casper, Ferris, 32, sat at Perkins Restaurant, finishing a large plateful of deep-fried chicken strips. He reflected on his involvement with the team: "When I was young and saw my first Chiefs game, I knew I wanted to play," he said. "Every other kid did, too -- the large crowds, the atmosphere, especially when you're winning. Everyone wants something to root for -- a positive light that people gravitate towards, want to be part of."

Across the aisle, a 60-ish waitress with an elaborate blonde hairdo rested her arm on the top of a nearby booth and smiled at four of the Chiefs: "Are you the ones the TV says is gonna take it all?"

"Yeah," murmured team star Slade Spoonhunter, as well as Santee Moss, Orlando Underwood and John Soundingsides. They started playing together in the fifth or sixth grade, in the Tiny Tots League.

"I always knew I wanted to play," said Soundingsides, a sophomore. "My brothers Ben and Brian did already. And my sisters Diana and Claire. Diana has a record in a game; she made Sports Illustrated."

Ferris outlined the strategy against their final opponent, the Cyclones. Ferris drew heavily on the fact that the Chiefs, while averaging only 5-foot-10 in height, had almost all run cross-country before the basketball season began. "We're going to pressure them," he said. "We're going to make them play the full length of the court and see what kind of endurance they've got."

"You mean run them to death?"

He smiled. "We're gonna try."

The two teams hadn't met all season. One Chief characterized the Cyclones, who are based in the tiny flatland town of Yoder, as a "big, slow, half-court team." But as the championship game got under way, the Cyclones didn't seem all that slow. They held a solid lead for more than three quarters of the game. And they were committed -- one Southeast player went flying into a bank of computers, sending a monitor soaring. But slowly, Ferris' strategy bore fruit. By the second half of the last quarter, the teams were leapfrogging each other for a 1-point lead, and the yells of the fans were deafening. When the buzzer signaled the end of the game, the Chiefs were ahead 52-51. An eye-blink later, a clean Cyclones shot landed in the net. The refs signaled it no good. The crowd went wild.

The next day -- one of those March days that can't decide if it's cold or warm -- the Chiefs held a victory parade. They started in the parking lot of the Riverton Kmart. Seated on a fire truck, the team rolled through town, followed by dozens of decorated carloads of honking fans. The parade continued beyond town to the Wind River Casino, then embarked on a 20-mile drive through the reservation. Kids looked up from the dirt-court basketball games they were playing, and people waved from the front doors of mobile homes with sweat lodges alongside them.

Over the years, some Chiefs have received college scholarships and left the reservation, but they often get homesick and come home. "A lot of these kids have hardly been off the rez," said Ferris. "It's a hard thing to get used to." He attended Casper College and then, with a basketball scholarship, Eastern New Mexico University, 13 hours away. "My mom cried when she looked on a map and saw how far away New Mexico was. Family ties run deep around here." Five of this year's Chiefs already have children, all being raised by their respective extended families.

The victory procession ended in front of Wyoming Indian High School, which houses 180 students in its classrooms and, unsurprisingly, 3,200 seats in its gymnasium. They stood in a line facing the crowd while Sandra and Pat Ironcloud sang a Lakota honoring song. Chico Her Many Horses -- the cross-country coach -- punched his friend Marty Chavez softly on the arm and said, "If it ain't hard, it ain't worth winning.

" Voted "Fan of the Year" by the team, Chavez was planning to attend a sweat lodge that afternoon. He needed to calm down, he explained: "I've been real emotional all day."
Her Many Horses, an Oglala Sioux, moved here in 1990. The picture he painted of the local community defied the grim statistics that are often the only thing outsiders know about Indian reservations. "These kids have got family support like crazy," he said. "Aunties, grandmas, grandpas." He has seven sons, one of whom is in graduate school at Dartmouth. "Me and my wife are both teachers here," he said. "If we didn't think this place was good, I wouldn't be here and my sons wouldn't be here." One of his sons, Caleb, a starting basketball player who also holds the state title in cross-country, will go to the University of Wyoming on a running scholarship in the fall. Spoonhunter has also been offered a running scholarship, but he wants to play basketball, so Ferris is calling around to rustle up some aid.

As for Caleb Her Many Horses, he's planning to return home after college to teach math here on the reservation. "I want to serve as a role model to these kids, to show they can leave the rez and come back," he said.

About 10 years ago, a representative from a professional football team visited the high school and in a passionate address to the students compared their reservation to the ghetto he grew up in.

"He had them in the palm of his hand," recalled a teacher. "And then he got to the part where he said, 'The only way you can to deal with that is use your talent to get out, and never look back' -- right there he lost them. He had them, and then he lost them completely. This place is their home."

Former HCN staffer Lisa Jones is the author of Broken: A Love Story, the story of her friendship with Stanford Addison, a Northern Arapaho horse gentler and healer who lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Her Web site is www.lisajoneswrites.com.