The Native Game
Native American Basketball Team in Wyoming Have Hoop Dreams Of Their Own
Facing discrimination from whites and social problems of their own, the Wyoming Indian High School Chiefs make their conditions for victory.
“Don’t open your story with a picture of an abandoned house.”—Chico Her Many Horses
Okay. How about a storm?
Driving from the Denver airport to Wyoming, I encountered an almost-otherworldly whiteout of a blizzard. It appeared out of nowhere, save for a the ominous, foreboding dark clouds not unlike those that preceded the arrival of the alien spacecraft in Independence Day. Within moments, I was pelted by near-horizontal gusts, and upon exiting the vehicle, could barely take more than a few futile, staggering steps or see more than an inch in front of my face. It’s no wonder that the locals refer to that stretch of the highway as “The Snow Chi Minh Trail.”I was making this perilous journey because I needed to see the Wyoming Indian High School Chiefs’ swarming full-court press in person. When they descend on an unsuspecting ball handler, it’s almost as blinding and unstoppable as the snowstorm was. On one sequence early in the first half, they generated a turnover on five consecutive possessions by hounding a portly kid who didn’t have the chops to fend off multiple athletic, snarling defenders.Once the ball is sent skittering away, whichever Chief corrals it drives hard to the rim while three-point shooters rush into position around the arc, hunting for layups and threes like the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Their coach, Craig Ferris, wasn’t exaggerating when he told me their first principle is to push the tempo. They ran on each and every possession, including after made field goals, and so while I kept waiting for chances to dissect their pick-heavy, set offense, they were few and far between, rendered almost invisible amidst an avalanche of turnovers and fast breaks.
They were 20-1 heading into the game I saw, and gearing up for a deep run in the 2-A State Tournament, This isn’t an aberration either; the Chiefs have won 11 titles since the mid-1970’s and four out of the past six. They’ve faced off against the larger 1-A schools in the past, but as Ferris, explained, they’ve won all the recent matchups and suddenly, those schools aren’t as eager to take them on. “You try to play the bigger schools like Rawlins and Riverton. It’s partially because of conference scheduling, but sometimes… I don’t know.”
Wyoming Indian High is located in Ethete, a tiny town of about 1,500 residents, in central Wyoming. The school itself is composed of approximately 200 students, mainly from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes on the Wind River Reservation. Given the hoops mania, though, the gym is the largest in the state, capable of holding 3,000-plus rabid fans. That’s right. A bunch of Native American kids from the rez are the basketball kings of Wyoming.
If you haven’t heard of this dominant team, you might know the area itself—the subject of consistently negative, reductive and often false representation(s) in the media, where life on the reservation is depicted as nothing but a sad, grim blight; and has served to reinforce all of the old prejudices about Native Americans.
When I spoke with Chico Her Many Horses, the father of one of the players, a teacher and coach of the track team, well, I wouldn’t say he was defensive, but there was an implied, unspoken question about why I was here and what I wanted to say about this team and this place. That’s when he uttered the above quote, telling me how this story shouldn’t begin.
He was right, though. The images of sad, broken houses set against the Chiefs’ winning ways, the contrast of such beautiful basketball with the daily struggles of Native Americans, is what brought me here.Of course, save for the fact that the Chiefs were as great as I’d anticipated, I was wrong about pretty much everything else.
Driving through Wyoming the first thing that hits you is the vast, cinematic scope of the land itself. Sheets of bright-but-not-too-bright blue streaked with thin clouds. Wave after wave of muted, flaxen fields, peppered with jet-black, serene cows and dusty horses grazing in the prairie, penned in by wooden fences in the foreground and striated, snow-capped mountains off in the distance,
The thing that jerks you out of this Americana-soaked reverie, that makes you wonder if you’re actually in a very rural, undiscovered part of Brooklyn or a corn-free stretch of Indiana, is that you won’t go more than a minute without passing a backyard rim.
The school itself could easily be mistaken for a warehouse or a big box national retail chain. On the inside is the usual mix of off-white, flecked linoleum tiles and segmented ceiling panels, dull and dimly lit. There’s the usual slew of post-education opportunities for colleges and trade schools, health warnings, and stern, but generally even-handed blandishments to stay drug-, alcohol- and pregnancy-free. There are plaques for members of National Honor Society, and the Student of the Week, and a passel of leftover Valentine’s Day decorations.
If it weren’t for the large-scale murals depicting Native Americans in traditional garb, a cabinet stocked with animal skulls, blankets and headdresses and a huge bison head that’s been stuffed and mounted right below the ceiling, it’d be more or less indistinguishable from any other U.S. school.
As I was waiting in the cafeteria to talk with Coach Ferris, a janitor with a giant ring of jangling keys on his belt ambles by, singing a traditional song under his breath; smiling. I tried to stop and ask him what it was, but he just nodded and kept going down the hallway.
Considering the hours that he puts in with the team while simultaneously working in the elementary school, Ferris defies most of the stereotypes of a coach with four state titles to his name since taking over in 2005. You can’t ever imagine him flinging chairs a la Bobby Knight or walking around with a perpetually sour mug, shooting daggers at the poor player that dared to show up a minute late for practice. He’s downright at ease and affable, though serious and deliberate in how he chooses his words and shrugs slightly when he speaks, as if he’s embarrassed to talk about the dynasty he’s helming. And considering the JV squad has lost only one game over the last three seasons, the Chiefs are poised to keep rolling in the years to come.
He’s busy packing up the gear for that evening’s game against nearby Shoshoni High, so our first, brief conversation mainly centers on the fairly intricate, pro-style offense he’s installed, one that takes liberally from the current pro trend to seek out three point shots, especially corner threes, and layups at the expense of mid range jumpers and post opportunities.
“We like to run and gun, fast break kinda stuff. We press full court, half court, three-quarters court. We like to call it ‘Organized Chaos,’” Ferris said. “Everyone has a green light, and our goal every game is to get 100 points.”
This year, he’s adjusted his schemes to best make use of some legitimate size, as opposed to a roster totally composed of speed demons and track stars, including Joseph Howell, a 6’3” power forward with a bevy of deft low-post moves and Trevor Williamson, a burly 6’4” center that still has range out to the three point line.
“We’ve got a couple of tribal junior colleges looking at Joseph right now,” he said. “The other jucos [junior colleges], we haven’t had a lot of luck, a few of our kids have gone on and played, but the other schools, it’s total culture shock to them.”
I asked Ferris if there was a bias or a hesitancy to recruit Native American kids..
“I think there’s more variables than that. There’s a ton of things that really inhibit it. Wyoming is not heavily recruited for one,” he replied. “They’re not recruiting out of high schools, it’s out of the AAU programs. They’re looking for kids that are playing 300 games a year, not 20. The athleticism and the talent is there. It’s everything else that gets you.”
Heading out, my photographer is snapping photos, and the players that have already boarded the yellow school bus are vying for prime real estate out the window, trying to get in the picture.
“Take photos of me!” one hollered “I’m number 45!” only to hear a teammate snicker, “Yeah, 45. That’s the number of turnovers he’s gonna have,” as the rest of the squad erupted in peals of laughter.
The games are very much a family affair. There are little kids darting up and down the bleachers, being herded by moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers. Even though there is a threadbare concession stand, overflowing picnic baskets abound. They’re here for the entire afternoon, whether or not they’ve got offspring playing in any of the three games.
I barely have a chance to settle in to my seat when the JV team storms out to a 20-2 lead at the end of the first quarter. You can see how the Chiefs dynasty is perpetuated. Organized Chaos is in full effect here too, and the JV Chiefs literally run roughshod over Shoshoni.
I’m sticking out a bit, partially because of my ethnicity and also because I’m the only one scribbling in a notebook. At the half, Joe Armajo, an older gentleman in a faded ball cap and plaid shirt taps on my shoulder and asks what I’m doing here.
I say that I’ve come to write about the team, and for the first time, I notice the reaction to a request to talk. It’s not animosity, but rather a barely-perceptible hardening or guardedness. He tells me he’s an Arapaho tribesman and watches carefully as I write his name down, making sure I spell it correctly. He says with a point of pride that he doesn’t have any kids that are on the team, but he’s at every game and has been attending for decades.
“Oh you should have seen the team that went 50-0 from ’83 to ’86,” he boasts.
All of this was a preamble to the evening’s feature presentation. The Varsity Chiefs are awesome, and the engine for this devastating hardwood machine is point guard Buell Robinson. He’s only a freshman, but he’s averaging over 18 points per game, is leading the Southwest 2-A Conference in assists and you never have any doubt that he’s in absolute control of the offense. Like all great floor generals, he could drop 30 without even really trying, but he’s always thinking pass-first, breaking down the defense by dribble penetration, looking to dish to wide-open shooters or unleash deft pocket passes down low. And if you play off him, hoping to take away his passing lanes, he’ll stone kill you by pulling up for three.
Robinson and his whippet-quick backcourt mate, the 5’6” shooting guard, Noah Valdez are racking up bucket after bucket, draining back-to-back threes. Howell executed a nifty up and under in the post and suddenly it was 14-2. Shoshoni High’s coach was forced to burn a couple of timeouts in a futile attempt to keep the game from getting completely out of hand.
It’s to no avail. Robinson nails another three, as does the bouncy, hyperkinetic, senior forward Tristan Gardner, as the Chiefs steamrolled their way to a 10-0 run.
In the midst of this rampage, I found myself talking with Lucy Big Lake. Her grandson Kane is a freshman and is playing for both the JV and varsity squads. She burst into applause when he checked in during the second quarter, and delighted as the Chiefs built a massive, insurmountable 52-12 halftime lead.
She was so proud of everyone on the team, telling me the hours they put in and the immense sense of responsibility that they felt, not just to live up to the standards set by the dominant, title-winning teams of Wyoming Indian’s past, but to the whole community. She told me about her son who had played for Coach Redman. Giggling, she said, “Cheerleaders called him three-point Charlie. They all loved him.”
Again, I explained why I was here, but unlike the resistance or hesitancy I’d encountered, she was eager to tell her story. “He [Charlie] stayed around to help me.“ He had a chance to get a scholarship, but “certain problems got in the way.” Her voice trailed off. I wanted to ask more, but she just smiled, and turned back to the game. “We’ve got so many kids around here with so much talent but… I tell them, don’t be like me.”
“They won’t be able to make it. They get so lonesome,” Lucy said.
I mentioned the PBS CHIEFS documentary, and asked if she had seen it. She shook her head no, but “she knew what it was about.” The families depicted felt betrayed by the filmmakers, after taking them into their homes and their lives, only to see the final product be radically different than they imagined. She then took me by the arm and said, “Show them that we can do it. That we can do it out here,” her eyes shrink-wrapped with tears, yet still beaming with melancholy-tinged joy.
The PBS/Frontline film CHIEFS premiered in 2002. One of the stars was Tim Robinson, Buell’s older brother. Like Buzz Bissinger’s novel, Friday Night Lights, the team’s success on court is posited against an environment where, as the film’s website describes: “Poverty, alcoholism, racism and youth suicide are just a few of the challenges the cultures face,” and, “Success on the court has not always carried over into other arenas, such as higher education and employment.”
The entire thrust of the film is that an Arapaho or Shoshone kid should be focusing all his energies on getting out and never looking back. And any result other than that should be considered a failure, yet another damning statistic to be flung in the faces of people that live on the Reservation.
This Business Insider column is even worse, boiling down a complex series of issues to a Buzzfeed-style listicle of poverty porn. Of course, not only is it inflammatory, it’s largely inaccurate. This article in wyofile.com details the multiple errors that were made.
In The New York Times, an increased police presence is compared to Bush’s 2007 surge and their life expectancies to that of Iraqis. Similar to the use of Chicago’s “Chiraq” nickname, when you view a part of the world as a war zone, it inevitably leads to military solutions and the assumption that the target is a conquered, alien, ethnic other living within U.S. borders. As Greg Howard wrote at Deadspin, “If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy.”
Later that week, a player on the girls varsity walked up to me and asked if I was a reporter. (Evidently, word had gotten around.) I said yes, and she threw me some serious shade: “Are you with The New York Times?” I told her that I this was for the Daily Beast, but yes, I had worked for the Times in the past.
“Do you know that guy that wrote that article?” (By now, I knew what “that article” meant.) Before I could answer no, she shot me a steely glare and jabbed a finger in my direction,
“Next time you see him,” she said, “punch him in the nose for me.”
The game had gone from a blowout to a laugher, such that the mercy rule was invoked. Wyoming high school hoops rules dictate that once a team takes a forty-point lead, the remainder of the game is played with a running clock. No more stoppages for the ball going out of bounds, made field goals or free throws. It did little to stop this juggernaut, as the Chiefs racked up another 47 points in the second half, despite emptying their bench.
In the final minutes, because it was Senior Night, the Chiefs repeatedly gave the ball back to let a Shoshoni try to throw down a two handed slam. Like Nate Robinson in the dunk contest, he kept missing, and finally ended up giggling on his back while the crowd (or at least, the happier half) began to stomp and chant. “CHIEFS, CHIEFS, CHIEFS, CHIEFS,” rang out throughout the gym as it spread from one family to the next.
The next day, while waiting to talk with Chico Her Many Horses, I ran into Joseph Howell and Tristan Gardner dawdling until the bell rang and, clutching Styrofoam containers. Like seniors everywhere, they’d ditched the subpar fare in the cafeteria for takeout, in this case from the café in the nearby casino. We talk about a possible rematch against Big Piney, a school about 150 miles west of Ethete, and a likely opponent in the regionals coming up next week. They were the only team to beat them so far, and some seriously one-sided, sketchy calls by the referees left many feeling as if the Chiefs had been playing against a stacked deck. Coach Ferris had even been booted after receiving a couple of technical fouls, and there was talk that one or two racist epithets had been slung.
If there’s an ounce of braggadocio or desire for revenge or payback to be found, they’re doing a great job of hiding it. They both shyly state that yes, they’re sure they’re going to beat them next time. These kids know how good they are.
Her Many Horses, a tall, stately Sioux from South Dakota that moved here 24 years ago, hustles Joseph and Trevor to their class, and we duck into in a room to talk. It couldn’t have been more than four feet wide, with a row of gunmetal gray school lockers that seem all the more grim when bathed in that familiar dull, oppressively scholastic, fluorescent light. It’s not clear if it is an actual room or just a passageway that’s been jerry-rigged into a makeshift utility closet, in the time-honored tradition of teachers and administrators Making Do With Less.
I’m in the room’s only chair, and he’s perched on a table. The staging reminds me of my own academic career when I was dragged into some antechamber for a chit-chat with an authority figure, not necessarily to read me the riot act, but because there was something that I just wasn’t getting and he/she gave enough of a crap to tell me about it in an honest, but stern way.
“A lot of our success in track and field has come from these kids wanting to play ball. And they know about the style of basketball that the school plays,” Her Many Horses explained. “And that’s helped us. Ten out of the last eleven years, we’ve won the state title.”
I asked about scholarships, if there are players that he thought might be able to earn one and “make it.” And for the first time, I felt as if I wasn’t asking the right questions.
“We’ve got kids that have come out of the schools that are engineers, but we don’t hear about that out there in public media.”
His voice began to rise. “we’ve got CPAs, we’ve got medical doctors. And some of those people were athletes here too. But we don’t hear about that. Nobody wants to put that out there.”
I asked why, and he paused for a moment, furrowing his brow and exhaling deeply.
“Everybody wants to be a victim. Everybody puts that victim thing out there. I tell my kids, the people who have the right to complain, as Indian people, are that first generation that was put on the reservation.
“I had a college professor ask me one time what can we do to make Indian life better and Indian people better. I said, “We have to do that ourselves. But let me ask you this, do you still have your language? Do you still have your ceremonies?”
“I know people who are driving down the road with two different size tires on their cars, different doors the windshield may be cracked you’ve got plastic over it, going down the road they’re happy. they’ve got their own language and their culture and they’re going to a ceremony.
“And yeah, to us, they’ve made it. they’ve got it. Some of us struggle. Some of us, we’re just comfortable here with our family you know?”
He stopped for a moment, and before I could interject, he continued, “We’re not lazy people. Indian people are not lazy people. They’re hardworking people, but their goals are different than what mainstream America wants us to be.“
“You know, we want to stay close to our language and our ceremonies, basketball’s part of that. we’ve adopted that, and brought it into our system. But as parents we want kids to go to college and we want them to finish.” With a wink and a nod, Her Many Horses said, “We’re, like, super-complicated, you know?”
We both smiled, and I asked him about traditional Native American culture and whether it still plays an important part in the lives of the kids he teaches. He talked about his son Keegan, who is not only running track and playing for Ferris, but competes in pow wows, as do many of his teammates.
“A lot of the time when family members are sick, they’re going to the Sweat Lodge. They’re going to see the elders and they are there, praying. They’re trying to help each other out,” he said. “They understand things about suicide. They understand things about drinking. They understand drug abuse. They pray for those people. They do everything they can.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how basketball became so interwoven with this community. There is something here—something essential and perhaps indefinable or at least unnamable—that’s in some way related to running a killer up-tempo offense, but I still didn’t know what that was. It’s in no way the sole cause, or a reductive “answer” but what I do know is that, while the scars of the past haven’t faded, there’s so much pride here.
It’s a tangible thing, so thick you practically have to wipe it away from your eyes to be able to see with any clarity.
That night, the Chiefs took on Wind River High School and I spied something that I’ve never seen before at any sporting event on any level: There’s a huge leather drum in the center under the basket being taken out with the utmost care by a group of five or six burly men. It’s not clear if they’re affiliated in any way with either school, but they’re definitely not students.
They gather around the drum and begin singing. It’s enthralling. I watch them sink deeper and deeper into the rhythms of the music, and the rest of the world—the giggling little kids, fans hustling into their seats, the layup drill that the two teams are going through—slips away. I desperately wanted to ask what the song is and what it’s about, but there’s just no space. It wouldn’t have felt right.
As to the game itself, while the turnovers aren’t pouring down like rain and a few more threes are clanking off the iron, the defense is still locked in. Though the Chiefs are going to fail to reach the magic 100-point mark, they’re still going to win rather easily.
Ferris is actually not in attendance tonight, and as such, his brother/assistant coach Mike Hiwalker is in charge. At the half, I tell him that I was hoping to see what they’d run in half court, but there were so many transition buckets, it was nigh impossible.
His response: “That is our offense.”
Toward the end of the fourth quarter, my photographer tells me that there’s someone that wants to speak with me. His name is Robby Valdez, the father of the Chiefs’ starting shooting guard, Noah, and he’s situated amongst a group of older fans that I’ve been hesitant to approach. Aside from a few instances where they stop to clap after a good play, for the most part, they’re not moving. There’s a stillness, a seriousness and a total focus on the game that’s downright imposing.
There are a lot of reasons that one might be critical of sports, but as an entry point into a conversation, it’s a pretty swell tool. Robby and I start out by talking about the game and a Native American kid that’s playing for Wind River High and who plays with many of the Chiefs in an offseason hoops program that Robby runs.
“I take all of them, even if they’re from opposing teams. We root for all of them, because, you know, it’s not one, it’s all.”
That phrase is still hanging in the air, when he brings up the CHIEFS documentary before I can.
“I talk to a lot of people and the kids and I said, hey, we are going out to represent,” Valdez said. “Our school, our community, our people, our reservation and Wyoming. I teach them to talk with their game.”
It’s obvious how keenly aware the kids are that the old prejudices still exist; that not only do they do have to play well, and get good grades; they have to “prove” that they aren’t a series of negative stereotypes.
Furthermore, there’s the idea that success is determined by leaving or being not like the rest of their friends and family. It’s implied that unless they reject their own culture to a certain degree, where “making it” is dependent upon getting out, those outside will shake their heads and label them failures. That’s an impossible standard for anyone to live up to. It’s not just the soft bigotry of low expectations; it’s a set of expectations that demand an act of self-nullification. A no-win situation.
Sara Robinson brings her thumb down with an audible thud upon the long, wooden dining room table, and turns it slowly back back and forth. It’s form of punctuation that might be specific to either Wyoming or just the Wind River Reservation. Chico Her Many Horses did the exact same thing while asking, “Do you still have your language? Do you still have your ceremonies?” And I’ll see it again four days later when I meet with Mark Soldier Wolf, a tribal elder.
Sara Robinson is Buell’s mother. She, her husband, Tim, and I are seated in their living room table, and Sara is mad. The thumb gesture she’s utilizing doesn’t always literally mean, “Under their thumb” but at this particular moment, that’s the case.
“I’m not so stuck up to think that Buell isn’t involved in things and that’s why it’s this way. Our thumb is right there. We learned a lot of lessons with our oldest kids, and now Buell’s reaping the benefit of that. He probably doesn’t think so, but that’s just how it is.”
“How it is” includes his grades, getting him to practices, games, summer tournaments, and any and all extracurricular activities. But Sara Robinson isn’t your average Basketball Mom. She’s a lawyer, a teacher, has been on the Board of Trustees at the University of Wyoming and worked with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. A year ago, the Eastern Shoshone Business Council appointed her as their new tribal liaison to the Governor’s Office. If our talk is any indication, she’s going to ride Governor Matt Mead as hard as she does Buell.
“The state of Wyoming tends to dismiss us, push us to the side, and expect us to just stay in line. A lot of my family has been in tribal leadership, in tribal government, and they did what they were supposed to do. A lot of that goes back to their upbringing in boarding schools. We were always taught, as I called it, that ‘White is Right.’
“It’s why, to a certain degree, we don’t speak the language very well, even though we were raised with our ceremonies and dances and song. They wanted us to go to school, to go out and experience what’s out there so when you come home, and it’s time to fight for us, you’ll be able to do that.”
It’s taken me a while to begin to understand that anger here can often have a different quality and/or tone than say, that of your typical ranting East Coaster. It’s rarely about raising one’s voice or gesticulating wildly. Often, it’s expressed by an increasing stillness and quiet insistence.
“It’s turning—that tide of us being compliant, where they just kind of pat us on the head and are patronizing. That’s over.
“It’s a new day.”
She broke down the battles she’s been waging with the Governor’s office from issues ranging from Medicare expansion, to budget cuts, and on and on. More importantly, she made is clear that, “Things have not really changed here since I was a little girl. We have to become better business people, and we are! It’s taken us a long time, but it will get better.”
But the Robinsons have some experience with shepherding a child towards a potential scholarship. Buell’s sister Tahnee started at Junior College before playing Division I ball at the University of Nevada. She was drafted by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, the first woman from Wyoming and the second Native American to be selected. She spent last year with Elizabeth-basket Kirovograd a professional team in the Ukraine that’s situated an area frighteningly close to the combat zone.
It’s made for many a nervous night waiting for a call or email from their daughter, but that’s just part of their job as parents. “Getting them a scholarship, that’s only half the fight; it’s keeping them there. And having them fit in, get along with the coach. There are a lot of things you can’t control,” Tim said. “We learned a lot from Tahnee, and sometimes you make mistakes. We’re applying it to Buell.”
“I really don’t know how to say this, but our lives are different, and our lives are hard,” Sara continued, “We’ve been very blessed, but my oldest son went to prison. My only daughter who was going to be the next big thing had her son right before she went to college. There’s a constant,” she said, somewhat trailing off. “… Just sadness and mourning.”
While his parents spoke, Buell mainly sat and listened. He’s engaged at every moment though, and even without the conversational ball in his hands, he is as in control as he is on the court. He casually announces that he’s been spending summers away from home for a few years now playing AAU ball and, “during one of our tournaments,” Buell said, “a couple of recruiters for juco colleges were looking at me.” As if that’s the norm for most 15-year olds.
There’s no doubt about Buell’s talent. But if his dream is to play Division I basketball, it does mean leaving, a decision about which Sara Robinson has zero doubts.
“This little place will always be here. This is always their home, but I want him to leave.”
Tim added, “What we want for Buell is when he comes back, he’s a grown up person. That’s what everyone wants for their kids, not just Indians. Basketball? We don’t care. Just be.”
Kane Big Lake, Lucy’s grandson, lives about an hour away and it’s definitely a poor community, but contrary to the near-hysterical proclamations of some in the media, it doesn’t come across as a dangerous place.
We hunker down at a small kitchen table. There are a few other siblings hovering about, and Kane’s baby sister, her arms wrapped in bandages, is recovering from surgery to correct a cleft palate and fussing in the lap of Malania Buffalo, Kane’s mom.
Partially due to his friendship with Buell, and partially because of Ferris, Kane wanted to attend Wyoming Indian instead of the closest school, St. Stevens. It meant a serious commute, and a few quibbles from the locals about jumping to a rival, but Malania put in the hours. She broke down their grueling schedule, getting up early in the morning, picking him up after practice, whether it’s for football, basketball or wrestling, and all the travel to and from road games. She’s also making frequent trips to Denver for her youngest child’s medical needs, a brutal slog through the blinding mountain storms that I encountered on my arrival.
Just like the Robinsons, it’s clear where the family’s priorities lie, despite Kane’s athletic gifts.
“My goal for him is to do well in education. That’s what’s going to take you where you want to go. I mean, he can play basketball, he can play football, wrestle, get a scholarship and end up doing nothing,” Malania explained. “But if he gets his education, he can go out there and actually be somebody. And I ride his butt all the time!”
Kane tells us how he’s learning about Native American culture and language in high school. Malania eagerly chimed in, “He’s always got that drum going. If it’s not his drum, he’s got his phone blasting pow wow songs. You know, he’s really into his Native ways. I mean he has an outfit too. He dances at the pow wows.”
While Malania showed me a YouTube video of him playing football, barreling through tacklers like Adrian Peterson, Kane ducked into his room and brought out small trunk and a hand-crafted, hand-stretched leather drum.. It was shocking the degree to which his entire demeanor changed, not unlike the drummers at the Wind River High game, as he delicately took out each item, explained the difference between fancy and traditional dance, and broke down what each movement is meant to signify and its importance to indigenous peoples.
I asked why more people don’t know about pow wows and Native American culture as a whole, and again, as was the case with Mr. Valdez, the Big Lake family pointed to the CHIEFS documentary. When I asked how that made them feel, they didn’t hold back.
Malania started with a curt, one-word reply: “Mad.”
Lucy: “Go out and start cussing,”
Malania: “We are out there striving, surviving to live day to day. The way people perceive us is not how we are. We work to make a living, just like everybody else. We raise our kids. We correct our kids.”
Lucy: “It made the young kids look like they’re all druggies and alcoholics.”
Kane was more diplomatic: “It’s a false statement, and that makes you want to retaliate. It’s an automatic reaction. But you just got to find something else. Find a different way to tell the truth, Try to find a new name for yourself, and where you’re from.”
It’s a daily thing, from getting eyeballed when they walk into stores, to tournaments, where they hear mock war whoops, and taunts about drunkenness and laziness. During the heated contest versus Big Piney, Kane tells us that even the referee told him, “You guys are nothing but filthy slobs.”
But Malania adds, “You come here now, people will see a big difference from that movie. I mean, you will not see these kids out doing drugs. I mean some of them maybe, but they present themselves as, you know, young adults.”
Kane lost his father to alcoholism, and despite the varying ways in which the extended family has become surrogate fathers, he’s still been forced to grow up quickly.
“We have a lot of dropouts. I think the main problem is the drinking. I myself despise alcohol,” Malania said. “I’m kinda putting a lot on his shoulders, but I’ve just seen it destroy so many people. We had so much talent on this reservation—people that could have gone out and done something with themselves, but what’d they do? Fall in that rough and never jumped out.”
Lucy: “Can’t crawl out.”
Throughout it all, the realization slowly dawns that the Big Lake family and everything they hope to accomplish is such a stereotypically American narrative, it’s practically a cliché: a poor but hardworking family, one that’s undergone more than their fair share of struggle and even tragedy, yet doggedly determined to do whatever is required so that the next generation will be better off. That requires actually listening to Native Americans. As Ferris said, “You people just don’t know, because…”
And he paused momentarily, trying to explain something that should be obvious: “The whole family dynamic is just different. It’s mom, dad, cousin, sister, nephew, niece, grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles—that’s why Native American kids can’t handle going off to school. They’re so used to having this big huge family supporting them. Suddenly it’s gone. And it’s a struggle.”
“It’s a really good support system on our reservation. We’ve just got to figure out how to extend it down to when these guys go to school. It’s getting better; it’s getting easier.”
I arrived late for practice to find the team installing the game plan for the matchup in the Regional Tournament—one that will eventually take them to the State Championship. If you have any questions as to how the Chiefs maintain their pressure defense and transition offense for an entire game, just watch one of their two-hour, dry heave-inducing practices; they would tax the stamina of a Clydesdale.
Later, they work on a zone trap, tweaking their defensive scheme to combat the fact that they’ll be playing teams they’ve faced before and the offense bogs down. Slowly, I realize that the only team in Wyoming that can possibly hope to contend with the Chiefs is… the Chiefs.
There are offensive adjustments as well, including a complicated play that they’re calling “Slice.” It’s a pro-level set, and no entirely dissimilar from the “Elevator Doors” play—a series of picks designed to free up a deadeye three point shooter—that’s often used to unleash Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
I couldn’t make out who said it, but amidst the din of squeaking sneakers, someone bellowed, “This is the shit right now. This is what counts!”
Toward the end, Buell Robinson goes tumbling to the ground with a sprained ankle and remains on the floor for about five minutes. My heart stopped. Losing him would be a devastating blow. My first instinct is to start speed-dialing every medical professional within a 60-mile radius, and cover him from head to toe in bubble wrap until Regionals. Luckily, he gets back up and is soon scrambling around and scrimmaging with the rest of the team.
Driving up to Mark Soldier Wolf’s house meant ditching the GPS. Either by design or by accident—and the signs plastered at both the front of his driveway and on the front door warning that trespassers will be shot suggest the latter—he’s living somewhat off the grid. It’s what you might expect of a Northern Arapaho tribal elder, a storyteller and the guardian of their history and language.
During the course of the afternoon I spent with him, I barely uttered a word. The combination of his gravel-toned voice, the delicate, lilting rhythms and the way that his hands danced was transporting and transformative. Like a sacred invocation, it’s never going to be wholly translatable to the written word. And it was pure magic.
Here, he is telling me how basketball came to the Wind River Reservation.
“There was an old man at that time came from back East. He was a Catholic priest; his name was Father O’Connor. He taught the boys how to play basketball, and that was more than the previous people came to teach us anything. A lot of us just went to school because we had a better place to play in. You know, like a floor?
“We played till real late, I don’t know, nine, ten o'clock. We didn’t have clocks in those days. But that’s how we learned it.”
He explained that the sport grew because there was a chance to earn some money barnstorming. And here he is as a village elder:
“I tried to teach these younger people our dialect, our language amongst other things, the Arapaho tradition, how to dance and how to sing songs, and they are many, many different kinds of songs. And wherever your voice is going fit the sound of the song, that’s where you going to be. Can’t be anywhere else because that spear wants you to be there. You can’t change that.”
“I always been told you were born out of a nation. You were born from Arapaho people. You came into this world as an Arapaho nation and people. So as you grew, they taught you their language and knowledge of what they know about the Arapaho people and our spirituality, our religion, that’s not to be forgotten… All this response to life.”
This is how he describes the struggles of indigenous peoples:
“The Department of Interior is holding us down. Just like in the Bible story, where they say the great Pharaoh held down the Jews, Israelites and all that. And finally they got away from a great leader. They had the nerve and the guts to go do something about them and lead the people out, even though he lost some people while taking them out of tyranny.”
And this is how he explains that the mythology surrounding General Custer is largely false. That in fact, he took his own life, and he has the forensic evidence to prove it. That’s when you recall that the Wind River Reservation marks the end of the Sand Creek Massacre Trail, which commemorates the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, where over 100 Cheyenne and Arapahos, the majority of them women and children, were brutally slaughtered by 700 members of the Colorado Territory militia.
“My grandma was telling me when she was little girl about eight years old, she saw her mother running around in the battlefield here, and soldiers cut all their tits off and made them run around naked. And the soldier that did that put those tits on a sword and carried them around.”
Then—and this I’ll never forget—His gestures became ever so slightly more stylized, and like a truly great actor, it was as if he grew in size. But it never felt like a performance. It was oh-so subtle, but he began to embody his grandfather and his father. And it wasn’t just that I was the audience; I was part of the story and experiencing it all at once.
“My dad came home from the First World War—my grandma, his mother, my grandma… boy she just cried when she saw her son get sloppy ass drunk. Suit on, army suit. Clothes on, nurse him back up. Told him. She said, ‘Son, soldiers don’t do that.’”
He turned to me, we locked eyes and it was like the universe opened up under my feet and swallowed me whole.
“And he said, ‘Y'all don’t know, but mom, I felt so damn bad killing people. I killed more people, my enemy, than you’ll ever know. And when I sleep, they’re there.’”
There’s so much more. He’s continuing to work in and with the community, still working his ass off. There are so many stories that I fear might be lost. There’s an entire book or a documentary or both that should be made—that needs to be made—about Mark Soldier Wolf and a culture and heritage that is both vanishing and vibrant, a swirl of contradictions, so separate from the rest of the United States, and yet essentially American.
I began the six-hour drive back to the Denver airport and for the life of me I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving. I desperately needed to be there to see how they did in the sectionals, and then travel with the team for the State tournament. I wanted them to win it all so badly, more than any of the pro teams that I’ve ever given my heart to, because of these people and this place,
Back in New York City, I kept track of every single game from Facebook updates, pumping my fist with every victory. I was ecstatic to discover there was a live streaming broadcast of the championship game available for purchase, and so, from my apartment, I watched, fretting and shouting at the tiny, perpetually skipping and/or freezing screen.
Throughout the State Tournament, the Chiefs had shot uncharacteristically poorly, prevailing by just plain tiring opponents out. But the team got wickedly hot in the finals, finishing a combined 10 of 26 from long range, led by Buell’s 20 points.
When the buzzer sounded, the score was Wyoming Indian 69, Rocky Mountain 53 and the fans poured out on to the court. The camera cut to Kane Big Lake and Buell Robinson and Keegan Her Many Horses and Craig Ferris and all of them, crying and hugging, jumping up and down, deliriously happy and yet almost unaware of the profundity of their accomplishment, caught amidst the swirling, mass of friends and family. The moment was all.
I found myself transported back to Wyoming, stomping on the floor and shouting at the top of my lungs, “CHIEFS, CHIEFS, CHIEFS, CHIEFS, CHIEFS!”