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Know the West

Shooting a double victory


Full-Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School: Basketball Champions of the World
Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith
479 pages,
hardcover: $29.95.
University of
Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Sixteen years before women in the U.S. gained the right to vote and long before women's public sporting events were considered decent, a team of American Indian girls from Montana traveled to St. Louis and became the basketball champions of the world. Then they were forgotten -- almost.

A photograph initiated their return to fame's spotlight. In 1997, independent scholars Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith found an image of "eight Indian girls dressed in buckskins and standing in a semi-circle" in the archives of the Montana Historical Society. After a decade of research and writing, Peavy and Smith have produced 479 pages of highly readable Western history that adds a new storyline to Montana's narrative.

American Indian girls born near the end of the 19th century had few choices. But even as the federal government was busy trying "to break tribal loyalties (and) eradicate cultural traditions," the girls from Fort Shaw drew strength from their tribal legacies -- including a sport called "double ball" that was played by their female ancestors -- to become a formidable basketball team.

It was more than athletic ability, however, that propelled them to their title at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. It was timing and marketing. The team was in its prime when the Fair "focused attention not only on the forward march of ‘civilization' but also on the indigenous peoples who were ‘acquired' along with the rest of the vast western wilderness" by the Louisiana Purchase. Fort Shaw's team traveled to St. Louis to do more than play basketball. They lived in the Fair's "Model Indian School" for five months, on display for visitors, proof of the successful acculturation that was the federal government's goal.

Although Full-Court Quest is sprinkled with passive and cliched prose, the story is strong and supported by meticulous research. Maps, drawings and photographs illuminate the narrative.

It took near-flawless teamwork for the Fort Shaw Indian School girls to win their championship title. A century later, it required collaboration between writers, editors, historians, archivists, librarians and family members to tell this extraordinary story. Ultimately, both teams succeeded.