Junior Shoni Schimmel lit up the NCAA women’s tournament last spring with her fearless, exhuberant play for the University of Louisville (that’s her trash-talking Britney Griner at left).
By way of her ascent to the national stage, Schimmel has shone a light on the experience of females like her: Native American basketball players who are making a name for themselves beyond the reservation.
Leaving the familiar surroundings and support of traditional Native American life is a challenge that many Indians before her have shied away from or only undertaken out of sheer necessity. While life on a reservation today is certainly not as antithetical to mainstream American life as it once was, Native American athletes still experience a longing for their traditions and the close-knit sense of community they left behind. According to an NCAA study, only 3 percent of enrolled Native Americans complete four years of college.
Filmaker Jonathan Hock documented the push-pull of the reservation in his wonderful film, “Off the Rez,” which follows Schimmel as a high school junior and senior. The film ends before Schimmel decides to go to Louisville because she took longer to make her decision than most highly-recruited athletes do; her main concern was the effect on her family of moving so far away from the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon.
“They really only have each other,” said Hock in an interview when the film was released. “…that closeness is so powerful that when it comes time to pursue your destiny that exists off the reservation, the impetus to stay is so powerful that you have this really dramatic tension between your future and your past,”
For Schimmel and her family, basketball (and the distinctive style of play called Rez ball) became the bridge from the reservation to the outside world. While few Native Americans have made that leap, Schimmel is by no means the first. Minnihaha (Minnie) Burton was the first Native American to make a name for herself as a basketball player back in 1904.
Minnie, pictured at left, grew up in northern Idaho, a member of the Lemhi Valley Shoshone tribe (made famous by Sacagawea, the Shoshone interpreter best known for being the only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition). In 1908, the whole tribe would be banished from the Lemhi Valley reservation and moved 200 miles south to Fort Hall in southeastern Idaho. But in 1902, Burton and her family were struggling to make ends meet in the Lemhi Valley and so Minnie’s father made the difficult decision to send her to a boarding school at Fort Shaw in Montana. There she flourished thanks to the game of basketball, which she’d never heard of, but proceeded to excel in.
The Fort Shaw girls team became a sensation in Montana, beating boys’ teams, college women’s teams, and finally “performing” at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 for the crown of national champion. The DVD, “Playing for the World,” chronicles the Fort Shaw team’s experience.
The documentary makes the case that traditional Indian games from childhood helped Native girls use the emerging game of girls basketball as a means of assimilating to the White world. As it is for Schimmel, basketball was Minnie Burton’s bridge. And these two documentaries do a great job illuminating this fascinating part of women’s basketball history.