basketball drives reservation’s pride
by Matt Joyce
Condensed by Native Village
Wyoming: Basketball is king on the 3,400
square mile Wind River Indian
Reservation. Wind River is home to the
Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone
tribes. It is also home to Wyoming
Indian High School and the Chiefs
basketball team. The Chiefs are one of
the most successful teams in the state.
Their trophy case is 56-feet long.
The Chiefs are the pride of a community
filled with poverty, alcoholism and related
students attend Wyoming Indian High
of them -- along with many hundreds of
Chiefs fans -- recently traveled
130-miles to Casper to watch the Chiefs
take their seventh
state title. At the final
buzzer, the players were mobbed by
friends and family of all ages seeking
autographs and pictures.
The community celebrated with a potluck
dinner at the high school gym. They
watched a video of the title game, and
the players donned war bonnets and were
honored with a victory dance.
“As Native Americans, we’re very, very
family oriented and community oriented,
and I think (basketball) is just another
reason for the community to come
together,” said head coach Craig Ferris.
“Kids see the players that play now and
they want to be a part of it. It gives
the community something to cheer about,
something to rally around.”
Ferris, 32, won a state championship as
a Chiefs player in 1995. His first
championship as a coach brought relief
-- and pressure to win another.
“That’s the thing about our fans —
they’re never satisfied,” he said. “Last
year we were 29-1 and we got in trouble
for losing that one.”
“The whole atmosphere around here -- it’s
basketball first,” said Caleb Her Many
Horses, a senior on this year’s team. “I
always wanted to be a part of a state
championship and be a Chief.”
Basketball is popular across Indian Country. In 2003,
the Native American Basketball
Invitational was established to connect
college scouts with Native players. The
yearly tournament is held each summer in
Phoenix. Last year's tournament drew 64
For all of Wyoming Indian’s success,
however, its players aren't as
successful in college. Only a handful
have played at junior colleges or
universities. Some dropped out because
of culture shock and homesickness.
“They are just another fish in the sea
(in college), but it’s also not home,
either,” said Owen St. Clair, Wyoming
Indian's principal and member of the
1989 state championship team. The
players are so highly-honored on the
reservation, that when "you go somewhere
else, you're not going to get that," he
Ferris, who played at Casper College and
Eastern New Mexico University, said he’s
trying to change his players’ mindset
about college. “I set my goal as using
basketball to help pay for my education
and college,” Ferris said. “When I first
came here, I think it was something (the
players) thought they couldn’t
accomplish. A lot of them think that
after high school, they’re done.”
Some players recognize that sports could
be their ticket to education and help
them escape from the potential pitfalls
of reservation life:
Wind River's unemployment rate is 80%.
Most of the jobs are
The average life span is
49½ years. The
national rate is 76 years.
In 2008, alcohol or drugs contributed to
half of the deaths on the reservation.
Spoonhunter said basketball motivates
him to keep his grades up so he can stay
on the team and get into college.
“Basketball is a big influence,” he
said. “It’s like my key off the rez for
Her Many Horses, who won the 2009
Wyoming 2A cross country championship,
is being recruited by colleges for track. But he also wants to play
college basketball. “If you have grades,
schools will look at you and you can
actually go out to other places and
experience those people,” he said.
This year's Chief's team is relatively
short, averaging about 5-foot-10 inches.
But what they lack in height, they make
up for in speed. Rich Murray, head
coach of Niobrara County High School,
said the Chiefs are a favorite to take
this year's state title.
team lost to Wyoming's Indians in the 2009 state
championship. The Chiefs’ frenzied
full-court press forced them into an
uncharacteristic 25 turnovers.
“If somebody beats them, somebody played
a really good game,” Murray said.
“They’re not going to have a lot of size
again. But they jump really good and
they jump really fast, so that makes up
Said Ferris, “Every time we make it to
state, they always say, last one off the
reservation turn off the lights. That’s
my favorite saying. That’s how it is.”
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