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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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Heard It Through The Laptop

Today, I heard some voices through my laptop.

No, it wasn’t Marvin Gaye. Nor was it Gladys Knight and the Pips. Nor did it tell me to plow under my corn and build a baseball field.

My dad sent me a link to an mp3 tonight, and with him and my sister in the room, I opened it.

And what I heard amazed me.

The crackle of the static and the whistle of the feedback yielded to the first voice, accented by the chirp of a parakeet in the background.

“Stanley? Stanley…Stanley?”

It sounded like a sweet old lady, but not at all who I thought it was. But as she began her recitation, it became clear exactly who it was.

“Dear children, and grandchildren, and the children who will come after we are gone…”

It was my grandmother. She identified herself, and announced the date as November 17, 1972, and began to tell the story of how she, along with my grandfather, great-uncle, great-grandmother, and aunt (a baby at the time) escaped Nazi Germany in 1938.

I’ve heard this story many times, from my grandmother before she passed away in 2005 at age 94, and then from my father. Even I have retold the story, a few times. First, shortly after my grandmother’s death, to a group of students from my college, and then one day to my friend Stacey over lunch at Franklin Dining Commons, during my junior year at UMass, who listened with wide eyes and a spoonful of cereal that never made it to her mouth. My grandmother openly told the story at school assemblies, in synagogue, and even on camera for the Steven Spielberg Holocaust Archives at Yale University.

But this was the first time I heard it through the voice that my father knew, that my aunt knew, before age deepened and roughened it slightly. She spoke slowly, with grace and dignity, adding dramatic pauses for effect and choosing her words very carefully.

After a few minutes, another voice emerged from the background.

It was not a familiar voice, but it was one that I felt like I had known forever.

My grandfather.

My grandfather, whose name is in mine, who died in 1973.

I had never heard his voice…until now.

For the next twenty or so minutes, we listened to the story that we all knew, now told by my grandfather. His voice was slightly more accented than my grandmother’s was, but it wasn’t hard to match the voice with the photos I’ve seen of him, notwithstanding the fact that I always imagined him speaking in a deep voice with a German accent, which is exactly what I heard.

But listening to him, it was like hearing the story told for the first time.

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I will finish this paper tonight, dammit.

I am done procrastinating.

…Okay, no I’m not.

But for weeks now, I’ve had FIVE PAPERS FIVE PAPERS FIVE PAPERS looming over my head like a black cloud, wherever I go.

And it needs to end.

This coming week, I’ve got two presentations to do one in theatre and one in history. Both are only ten minutes, but I can’t just sit there, or stand there, as the case may be, and convert oxygen into carbon dioxide.

Bad news first: I haven’t started my history presentation yet, but that’s Wednesday, and I have a table full of sources, plus my own prior knowledge.

Now the good news: I am almost finished my theatre paper. Not the presentation, but the paper. The whole thing. As in, I returned most of my source materials to the library. Meaning they are no longer taking up space in my mind or my apartment. It’s been like chipping away at a big hunk of marble, but I actually sort of have a paper. In terms of length, I’ve got 3,986 words out of a minimum of 4,500, and I still have a few paragraphs left to write plus an introduction and a conclusion, so I’m not worried about that; it’s just getting my ideas out coherently and in an acceptable order is the taxing part, especially for a constant second-guessing editor like me. The end is in sight.

So here’s the deal. I am going to stay up until I finish this paper. 

I am so serious.

I am going to finish this paper, press save, close it, put all the books aside, read something for fun, check it in the morning for errors, and send it in. And I will not worry about the ten-minute presentation until ten minutes before class on Tuesday. Or something like that.

I’m not playing around this time; this ends tonight. How determined am I? I swear on Mean Girls.

In other news, I just found out that I got a small acting gig in the fall that pays, so, yay for me! Also, though my stats have been (unsurprisingly) flagging over the last few days, I still got hits from new countries Belize and Mauritius, so welcome to you!

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Six Things I Learned About History From Friends

As I was sitting in my Irish drama class, something happened that made me think about Friends. It was something about something from history that I learned from Friends that I’ll never forget. And of course, I forgot it. So, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for quotes from the show to trigger my memory. But I did realize that Friends taught me a lot of things that if I hadn’t watched it, I wouldn’t know. It sounded like a good blog post, but then I went on the Internets and found a bunch of other people beat me to that idea.

One of the topics we discussed today was historiography, and the interstices/lacunae between previous scholars’ work, so to that effect, here are the top six things that I learned about history from Friends.

(oh, and bem-vindo to my first guests from Brazil, and tere tulemast to my first guests from ESTONIA!!! 🙂 happy dance)

6. World War I was also known as The Great War.

And we fought against Mexico…wait…that can’t be right.

5. Where Dutch people come from.

Well, the Pennsylvania Dutch come from Pennsylvania, and on that note…

4. The Netherlands? Real country.

Not to be confused with Never-Never Land. Thank you Amsterdam, good night.

3. When the dinosaurs died.

2. Joseph Stalin is not a good stage name.

Turns out he’s a real person.

1. This.

The more you know!

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26 Years Ago Today…

1:35 PM EST. Baltimore, Maryland.

I don’t remember it, but I was there.

Happy birthday to me.

I woke up this morning, not feeling much different than I normally do, only rushed, because I had to get my checkbook (which I couldn’t find) and hightail it to the hotel to rendezvous with Mom and Dad to go to the bank, because my credit card got cut off through no means of our own, so basically, I have no credit card until next week. We then went to Starbucks, where my parents gave me a card and a 25 dollar gift card to Starbucks, which was really nice 🙂 and then I took them back to the hotel, they checked out, and we parted ways as I headed to kabuki class. It was fun, as always, and afterwards I grabbed a tuna sandwich at Walgreens and treated myself to a French Press at Starbucks on State Street – though actually, getting a French Press is not a bad deal, given the fact that it’s about two grande cups of coffee for $3.69. I shared it with Vincent, then went to find an awesome geocache at the top of a parking garage, then back home to eat cupcakes with Vincent again. Then I headed off to rehearsal, during the middle of which I jetted across the street for the APO meeting to which about fifty or so people showed up, and I gave out mass quantities of candy and then hustled back to rehearsal. Then, at 9, I went BACK to APO – not to the meeting, but the fellowship afterward at Forever Yogurt, where a LOT of brothers showed up, and then home, where I am right now, and I should be working on my presentation for tomorrow, but I’m not at the moment because it’s time to blog.

I feel like I should tell a story, so I’ll talk about how I got my name.

My full name is very very long and I almost never use it. It’s so long that it takes up my whole driver’s license. In fact, I once bet a Bulgarian women at the airport in Hartford that my name had more letters than hers, and I won. I used to hate my name, the fact that it was too common, easily confused with Jason/Jared/Jonathan/Johnny/Justin (and once, Judith, in a returned phone call, which is kind of ironic in a creepy way), and just too damn long to write on any form. But here, for the first time ever, I’ll break it down for you:

Jacob is my first name. I was named after my mother’s father, Jack, who died in 1971, long before I was born. He was born in Bryansk, Russian Empire (today: Belarus) and came to Baltimore at a very young age. He was obsessed with photography, video, and all things technological, which explains why we have so many strange and random home movies of my mom as a child in the 1950s. He worked for a uniform company in downtown Baltimore. My mother’s brothers both look a lot like him; he was very tall, and fortunately I got enough to the tall genes to make me the height of a normal human. Oddly enough, in my teenage years, we found his birth certificate, and we learned that his name was not, in fact, Jack; it was actually Jacob the whole time, with Jack as a nickname. Funny how that one turned out.

Richard is my first middle name. It’s the one I usually use. It’s also my paternal grandfather’s name. He was born in Gunzenhausen, Germany, and along with my grandmother, took the family out of Europe after Kristallnacht occurred in November 1938. He also died long before I was born, in the 1970s as well, I think.  Before the war, he was a viehhandler, or cattle dealer, and in America, he also worked in clothing, just like my other grandfather. He and my grandmother loved each other very very much, and he was very treasured and well-liked in the family, and also, reportedly, a good dancer. I have not seen many pictures of him, but when he was young, he was very, very good looking – unfortunately, I didn’t inherit all of his good looks, taking after my own dad, who looks like…who knows, someone in the family.

Aaron is my second middle name. It was a last-minute addition, due to the death of my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Anne Gelb Feingold aka “Gigi.” She died shortly before I was born, either in late 1986 or early 1987. She was a tough lady, and reigned supreme as the queen of her family. She was born in Bystra, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and immigrated to New York City via Ellis Island. I never knew too much about her, and my sister doesn’t even really remember her. Before I went to Slovakia in January 2012, my dad told me that he thought that my grandmother had possibly come from Slovakia, and once there, he did some investigating, and emailed me that the town she was from was, indeed, in Slovakia, effectively making me one-eighth Slovak. Ironically, I was sitting at a bar in Levoca, Slovakia – about 60 miles away from Bystra. She spoke English and Yiddish, and once she got to America, told everyone that she had come from Austria – even the customs agents at Ellis Island – but she had in fact come from what was, at the time of her departure, Poland. I guess she didn’t want to endure the Polish stereotyping. She was a homemaker, and raised my grandmother and great-uncle. She was a very religious lady. I dislike the name Aaron, but the more I learn about my grandmother, the more interested I become in why she was the way she was.

Hellman is my last name. I am not related to Lillian Hellman (sigh), Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, or most likely any Hellman (or Hellmann) you know. It comes from the German word holle (her-la), meaning “the intersection of three streets,” specifically, the intersection of three streets in Gunzenhausen, the town where my grandparents fled from as a married couple, and the area where my family had lived since the 16th century. My dad and his father always were at loggerheads about how to actually spell the name. My grandparents always used “Hellmann” with two n’s, and my dad insisted on only one, because at one point in his life he saw my great-great-great-grandfather’s voting registration card from the 1850s, and he used only one. This is disputed, however, because we have not been able to locate said voting card, neither in Baltimore nor in the archives in Gunzenhausen. But, then again, my grandfather always spelled my dad’s name wrong, on everything, so maybe my dad has a point.

With that said, I should probably go back to working on my presentation for tomorrow, but before I do, I’d like to wish a happy birthday to: Benyamin Netanyahu (former Prime Minister of Israel), actresses Patti Davis and Carrie Fisher, richest woman in the world Liliane Bettencourt (owner of L’Oreal), Kim Kardashian (who wishes she was Liliane Bettencourt), and Judge Judy. 

Also, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), the Battle of Aachen (1944), and the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC (1959).

Oh, and apparently it’s also International Day of the Nacho in Mexico and the USA. Olé!