Reading My Way Across America: Basketball Under the Big Sky

I haven’t been doing a ton of reading for fun lately, with grading, research, and dissertation-writing taking up most of my time, but I have managed to finish a few books this semester. In addition to being a stellar read, this book gave me a really interesting and fun idea. But I’ll get to that after this review.

Full Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School, Basketball Champions of the World by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith is an in-depth look at an extraordinary situation and group of people who have been almost lost to history and memory. Peavy and Smith navigate the reader through life at Fort Shaw, an Indian boarding school in Montana. Fort Shaw was among the institutions set up by the government in order to “civilize” Native Americans in a movement that was later regarded as a cultural failure. However, during the school’s heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, the new sport of basketball took hold in the heart of Josephine Langley, a Native American herself who had been educated on the East Coast. She brought the game back with her to Montana and added it to the physical education regime of the school. It was popular among the students, especially a group of girls who were exceptionally skilled at it, so much so that in the few years Fort Shaw fielded a team, against high schools and colleges from around Montana, the girls lost only once. In addition to playing basketball, they would also perform their own musical entertainment, read poetry, perform tableaus, and ballroom dance with local boys; all in one night. When word of this amazing team spread, they were sent to St. Louis in 1904, where they became part of the Native American exhibits along with Geronimo and others at the World’s Fair.

Along with all the other innovations of the World’s Fair, national and international athletic competitions emerged, reviving the Olympics. In that same spirit, the Fort Shaw girls supplemented their exhibition games at the Fair with a tournament against local high schools. Emerging undefeated against any team they faced, they were declared World Champions and presented with a silver trophy which they took back with them to their school. This level of interaction between Native Americans and white people was highly uncommon and actually revolutionary for the time, and it succeeded in changing many peoples’ preconceived notions about Indians. Even the mainstream media took notice, referring to the team initially with racially-motivated descriptions which got less and less stereotypical, until they were described in the newspapers just as any other team – evolving from “dusky maidens” to “Indians” to just “talented girl basketball players,” earning respect on small and large stages.

The book goes into detail about the early lives of the players, who came together from different tribes across Montana and Idaho to Fort Shaw, working together as sisters in sport. The initial five, assembled by Josephine Langley in 1903, were Belle Johnson, a Piegan; Emma Sansaver, a Chippewa-Cree; Minnie Burton, a Lower Shoshone; and Genie Butch and Nettie Wirth, both Assiniboine. Accompanying them to St. Louis in 1904 were their classmates Genevieve Healy, a Gros-Venture; Flora Lucero, a Chippewa; Rose LaRose, a Shoshone-Bannock; and Sarah Mitchell and Katie Snell, both Assiniboine. They ranged in age from 15 to 19 years old. Together, these ten were unmatched in ability among other girls their age and even girls older than them. At the Fair, they would play exciting, fast-paced exhibition scrimmages, five-on-five, to huge crowds, just like NBA superstars. After the Fair, they returned to Fort Shaw, and eventually parted ways as the school closed only six years later, in 1910.

What I loved about the book were the descriptions of the intense basketball games, and the girls’ relationships with one another and their own identities. Their journey across Montana through North Dakota and the Midwest to St. Louis, and their eye-opening experiences at the World’s Fair, were definitely the most interesting sections of the book. It was as if they were learning as much about the world as the world was learning about them. Even though we get some insight into the girls’ personalities, the first half of the book gets bogged down in details of the girls’ early lives, pre-Fort Shaw, as well as the lives of the superintendent and creator of the school, who was not Native American. When they start talking about the games, the book really picks up, and despite being non-fiction, keeps an exciting narrative all the way through the girls’ return to Fort Shaw from St. Louis.

What happened to the girls afterwards, though, was mostly disheartening with a few bright spots. Although one of them Nettie Wirth, was honored at the World’s Fair in 1962, and another, Genevieve Healy, lived until the age of 93, dying in 1981 as the last survivor of the team, most of them died in their thirties-fifties, including one under “questionable circumstances” and one who was unable to be tracked down entirely. Even sadder was the life of Minnie Burton, one of the team’s superstars (known for her shooting skills, so much so that spectators would chant “shoot, Minnie, shoot!”), who, although she did live to see many children and grandchildren, never spoke of her experience (imagine their surprise when they found out their grandmother was the LeBron James of the early twentieth century!) Fortunately for us, though, and for the authors, who found out about the girls from a team photo in a Montana archive, Emma Sansaver kept a journal and boxes of memories, which she passed down to her children and grandchildren, keeping the story from fading away into history. The authors did a mind-boggling amount of research for this book, contacting descendants of all ten of the players and people who knew them, ensuring that their legacy would live on.

Overall, I learned a ton about one of American history’s most unlikely and underrated footnotes, from a place I’ve neither been to nor even heard of. What these girls from the middle of nowhere did was groundbreaking, and even though all that’s left of Fort Shaw is an arch and a monument of a basketball – not even a museum – I’d still like to go visit it someday.

The idea that this sparked? Well, I had heard of this book and had it on my list for a little while, and ended up finding it in the Historical Society Library, where books are catalogued by country, region, and state. Finding it in the Montana section led me to want to read more from that section, and the Historical Society Library as a whole, with hopes to find more unusual but fascinating historical footnotes. I’m not sure how long I can keep up with this, but I’m going to try to find one historical hidden gem from each state. Now that Montana’s down, I’ve got 49 states to go, and rather than go in a specific order, I’ll ask Siri to give me a number between 1 and 50, and pick states that way.

As I typed that, I did that, and it gave me 7 – so Maryland, my home state, I guess I’ll be in your section tomorrow afternoon.

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