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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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March Madness

It’s that time of year again.

That time when people go absolutely bonkers over a bunch of lines on a piece of paper that they’ll forget about once April comes.

Yep, March Madness.

I was never a huge college basketball fan growing up, and that didn’t change once I got into college. I mean, it’s one of those things that I can understand other people enjoying, but I just don’t see much in it. And the obsession with brackets; call me old-fashioned, but when I think of brackets, the first thing that comes to mind is dental surgery. It’s all anyone talks about this time of year, and the chances of being even remotely close are quite slim, even if you buy a hundred brackets from ESPN.com.

And of course, one of the perennial hot-button issues regarding college athletic programs waits until this time of year to rear its ugly head.

You guessed it, I’m talking about salaries for college basketball players.

John Oliver did a piece on it last week, and while I agree with his viewpoints, coming from an American college background and seeing the direct effects of the economy on the situation at large, I think that something substantial needs to happen to finally put this problem to bed.

Before we start talking about salaries for college athletes, let’s look at who really benefits from NCAA and March Madness. First, a small circle of executives. Second, a slightly larger circle of merchandisers. Third, a slightly larger circle of coaches of winning teams. Fourth, a slightly larger circle of coaches of lesser teams. And if there’s any money left over, the schools.

Does this seem like a pyramid scheme to you? Because that is what it feels like to me. Honestly. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus said it best in their phenomenal book, Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting our Money and Failing our Kids – And What We Can Do About It (2010): however many teams there are, there can only be one winner. Everyone else is a loser, in more ways than one. Once a team is out, the buck stops there; merchandise is tossed into the furnace, the advertising offers disappear, and the coaches’ checks are written and distributed. Now, we’re not only hurting ourselves, but we’re hurting underpaid apparel factory workers in China who have to scrap their entire stock of Purdue University Final Four sweatshirts, t-shirts, and hoodies when the Boilermakers get knocked out in an Elite Eight upset. For the coaches, life isn’t so bad; they get to peace out with a sweet check and take a cruise to the Bahamas or whatever basketball coaches do the rest of the year. But the players themselves do struggle, and some of them sustain injuries that not only end their careers, but relieve them of their scholarships and possibly leave them with lifelong conditions.

I could really go on and on and on about this, but I guess what I’m getting at can be summed up in a few points:

1. Coaches’ salaries need to be cut. I’m probably preaching to the choir, but did you know that in the majority of states, the highest-paid private employee is a university coach? That’s pretty disheartening for someone whose work is as seasonal as a Macy’s holiday gift-wrapper. Or if not their salaries, then ban them from allowing to benefit from corporate branding and advertising.

2. People just need to calm down about all this. If the media didn’t make such a fuss over March Madness, people would calm down considerably. The closest sporting event that I can think of that is on this scale while remaining amateur is the Summer Olympics, which happens only every four years. Give colleges a break; they’re under enough pressure from people like Scott Walker as it is.

And finally, the million-dollar question: should college athletes get paid?

My opinion is…it depends. I don’t think that college athletes should get a salary just for being on the team. I do think, however, that they should be allowed to benefit in a similar fashion to their coaches, and be allowed access to the same resources and endorsements from companies like Coca-Cola, Wendy’s, Nike, and all the rest, based on their merit, talent, and sportsmanship. I think that regardless of skill level or playing time, they all deserve to have health insurance covered by their university, regardless of how light or severe the injury; without them, there would be no team and no income for anyone, at all, period. (I mean, come on. Could you imagine people paying just to watch a bunch of older white men to stand around in headsets looking constipated?) I don’t think that they should be penalized for being recognized for their skills and talents; it’s what got them there in the first place. And finally, I think that the NCAA needs to crack down on the intensity of their program, both on and off the court. Coaches should be monitored more carefully to see that they are not over-exerting their players in practice/training to the point of exhaustion or physical/mental illness, and in games, rough play should be taken more seriously; after all, if you’re going to call them amateurs, don’t expect them to play like pros. Probably less than five percent of them will ascend to that level anyway, and though it’s nice to dream, I would imagine that most college athletes want to do something else with their lives than turn pro, even if it’s something as simple as living in a comfortable home, or getting married and having children, or having a less dangerous, better-paying job.

As for me, I’ll be casually following Wisconsin, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

Oh, who am I kidding, they’re a #1 seed and up against Coastal Carolina, so beat ’em, Badgers.

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Wisc-ed Off to the Final Four

My day was pretty standard: wake up, do all the things, rush around, be late, watch rehearsal, dance, walk in the wrong direction…

Come home, be depressed, look at the mountain of studying…

And then, Wisconsin and Arizona. I turned on the game with 2 minutes to go, and watched until the game ended – Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63.

It’s the little things that just make the day so exciting.

Off to explore how crazy Madison will be; hope I make it back alive and cogent enough to give you a good report.

Go Badgers!