A single storyline about Native Americans and sports dominates general media coverage: The shameful and continued use of racist logos, mascots and gestures in professional football and baseball. Of course this remains an urgent issue. But the unexpected rise of Louisville’s women’s basketball team–and sister Cardinals Jude and Shoni Schimmel–in this year’s NCAA tournament provides a long-awaited chance to highlight another story.
Jude Schimmel, left, and older sister Shoni attend the University of Louisville. (Mark D Smith/USA Today)
According to the NCAA, the Schimmels are among about two dozen self-identified American Indian athletes competing in Division I sports. They belong to the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla. During their team’s run-up to the Final Four, Native American fans from several reservations came out to support the sisters, holding up signs that read "Rez Girls Rock" and "Native Pride."
The sisters, who grew up on the Umatilla Reservation in the eastern part of what the U.S. government calls Oregon, are indeed proud of their home–and themselves for "making it out."
"It’s almost sickening how much talent is [on the reservation]," Shoni, the older sister, told Louisville’s Courier-Journal in 2011. "I am very proud of who I am and where I came from, but I wanted to be one of the ones that made it out. My job is to play basketball, and I love doing it." Tonight, the sisters and their University of Louisville teammates will compete with the University of Connecticut for the national title. Here, we offer a 6-point glimpse into the role basketball plays in many Native communities.
1. "Rezball" is a big thing.
Students at the Quileute Tribal School in La Push, Wash., hoop it up just yards away from the Pacific Ocean in August 2011. (Tony Overman/The Olympian/MCT via Getty Images)
Basketball is such a huge deal on many Native American reservations that it has its own name: rezball. The slang term describes either the game itself or an uptempo style of play. To nurture young rezballers, the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI) holds annual tournaments throughout the Southwest. "People come out in droves — the old, the young," Dave Archambault, former head coach of the Lakota Regulators club team in South Dakota, told ESPN in 2009. "When there’s a little rivalry, everybody just loves it."
2. Like the history of reservations, the beginnings of basketball in Native American communities isn’t pretty.
Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania produced one of the first major Native American basketball teams in the country. Founded in 1879, about two decades before the invention of the sport, Carlisle, like subsequent federal boarding schools, had a blantantly racist mission: to "civilize" Native Americans by extracting their sons and daughters from their households and keeping the children on a campus where they were punished for speaking their native languages or using their names. Carlisle is best known for its football team coached by Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, but it was a basketball powerhouse as well. The school closed in 1918.
3. Native American basketball is the stuff of fine literature.
Left: Student on the Navajo Reservation in Monument Valley, Utah, plays basketball in 1995. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images) Right: Cover of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (Little Brown & Co.)
Award-winning Native American novelist and poet Sherman Alexie writes beautifully about basketball. Among his most celebrated work is the young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," which follows a basketball-loving Native boy’s first year at a rich, white private high school as he deals with his family’s struggles on the reservation. The author had this to say about his love of the game: "My father was a basketball player, so I loved basketball because he did," Alexie told PBS. "It was a direct transference. But, more than that, basketball, in the United States at least, plays the same function that soccer does everywhere else in the world. It’s the sport of poverty. It’s the sport born of poverty. It’s the cheapest sport."
4. Nike designed a basketball shoe specifically for Native American players. Yeah, you read that correctly.
Tahnee Robinson, the second American Indian to reach the highest professional league level for female basketball players, wears Nike N7s. She is proudly enrolled with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana and is Eastern Shoshone, Pawnee and Sioux as well. (Nike)
A few years ago Nike released the Nike N7, also dubbed "Air Native," which featured white leather with pinstripe detailing alongside blue, orange, and black accents. The shoe is just one part of Nike’s larger campaign to market its products to Native American communities directly. It lists St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford as a campaign ambassador along with Oregon State University basketball coach Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother. So, why the campaign? According to Nike’s website, "N7 is our committment to bring the sport and all of its benefits to Native American and Aboriginal communities in the USA and Canada."
5. Ryneldi Becenti is a trailblazer.
Ryneldi Becenti was a star point guard at Arizona State in the 1990s. She eventually played professionally in Europe and in the WNBA, and in 1996 she became the first and only woman inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. Becenti, who grew up watching both of her parents play in basketball tournaments, now works as a teacher and a coach in Ganado, Ariz. When The New York Times recently caught up with her, she detailed how the Schimmels are making history. "It’s a very rare position they’re in to excel at this level," Becenti said. "I don’t think I’ve heard of any Native American women getting to the Final Four, especially being the biggest part of the team." (Photo: Arizona State)
6. There’s a riveting documentary about rezball out in the world.
Shoni Schimmel is Louisville’s leading scorer, but back when she was 16 she was the subject of a riveting documentary called "Off the Rez." The film follows Schimmel during her junior season in high school as she tries to become the first person from Umatilla to earn an athletic scholarship to college.