Native Village
Youth and Education news
January 2010 Volume 4

In Wyoming, 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 social ills. 

Only 155 students attend Wyoming Indian High School. Most 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 teams. 

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 said.

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 hard labor.
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 an education.”

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.

 Murray's 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 for it.”

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.”

The documentary film about the Wyoming Indian Chiefs!

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