Wade Davies Discusses “Native Hoops”

A prominent Navajo educator once told historian Peter Iverson that “the five major sports on the Navajo Nation are basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball, and rodeo.” The Native American passion for basketball extends far beyond the Navajo, whether on reservations or in cities, among the young and the old. Why basketball—a relatively new sport—should hold such a place in Native culture is the question Wade Davies takes up in Native Hoops; The Rise of American Indian Basketball 1895-1970.

The first comprehensive history of American Indian basketball, Native Hoops tells a story of hope, achievement, and celebration—a story that reveals the redemptive power of sport and the transcendent spirit of Native culture.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Native Hoops? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

WD: Native Hoops is a comprehensive history of American Indian basketball, from its beginnings in the boarding schools to its rise to preeminence as Indian country’s favorite sport. Through hard years, Native youths bonded with and drew strength from basketballand they made it part of their community athletic traditions. They did this while, along the way, injecting doses of speed and style into the game to help make it the global phenomenon it is today.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the comprehensive history of American Indian basketball?

WD: As someone born and raised in Indiana during the Bobby Knight era, I was amazed to discover communities that were as deeply devoted to this sport as Hoosiers were, perhaps even more so. Research for an unrelated book brought me repeatedly to Navajo country, where I met people who were inspired by this sport, and took great pride in their teams. As evidence of this, I saw basketball hoops everywhere on the reservation, as one sees in virtually every Native community across AmericaI wanted to know where this passion came from; even more so after witnessing Native teams competing fiercely for the 1999 Arizona high school championship before a sea of dedicated fans. It came as a surprise to me that, at that point, no one had attempted to write this important history, and so I committed myself to it

I was also drawn to the idea of writing a broadly sweeping twentieth-century Native history that was a celebration of resiliencejoy, and triumph. The story of Native basketball includes its darker aspects, of course, but it is largely one of hope.

3. You spent 20 years working on Native Hoops. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

WD: Because I deemed it necessary to adopt a wide focus studying all forms of the game, in all communities, over a seventy-five year period, the task of completing this project felt overwhelming at times. Just the scope of it, then, was the greatest challenge. Beyond this, my most difficult task was tracking the careers of thousands of players and teams whose stories had rarely been recorded, except in scattered newspaper reportsI cross-referenced these reports with student records and other available sources to get a fuller picture of where these players came from and who they truly were, but this was a time-consuminghit and miss process.

4. Can you put into perspective the influence American Indians have had on the growth of basketball in the United States? 

WD: Native athletes have had a profound influence on basketball from the beginning, in the first place by bequeathing to the world the sport of lacrosse, which partially influenced James Naismith’s invention of this sport. In the following decades, leading up to World War II, Indian boarding school and professional barnstorming teams were also some of the country’s biggest draws at times when basketball had yet to establish itself as a major American sportThe Fort Shaw boarding school girls in the early 1900s not only introduced the sport to their home state of Montana, but gave it a big boost by wowing spectators at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Lakota boys from the St. Francis Mission in South Dakota did their part as well by injecting a dose of energy into the American high school game. They did so namely through their scintillating performances at a national Catholic tournament held annually in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. Countless other teams did their parts as well, including the Sioux Travelers who frequently barnstormed alongside the famed Harlem Globetrotters and were, in effect, a Native equivalent of that team. Yet another way Natives influenced the overall sport was through their distinctive “Indian basketball style, later known as Rez ball. The speed and flair with which they played, especially on the fast break, helped transform basketball from the much slower, methodical, game it was in the early 1900s into the fast-paced spectacle it is today. I do not argue that Natives did this single handedlymembers of other races and ethnicities also made their marksbut they had a stylistic influence far exceeding their numbers.  

5. Your research stopped at 1970. Can you address what advances, or declines, have American Indians have experienced in that past 50 years?

WD: I selected 1970 as the end-point for this story, as told in detail,because basketball achieved its status as the most popular sport in Indian country by that time. This was not, however, the point at which that popularity peaked. It has just kept increasing since thenImproved access to transportation and broadcast technology, together with the sports’ reopening to women and a variety of rules changes, further opened up the game, both in terms of its public accessibility and stylistic flow. Among other things, this helped the style Natives played in the Indian school era fully blossom into the exhilarating Rez ball style Native public school and independent teams often play today. All-Indian tournaments have also kept growing, as has overall public participation in the gameToday, Native people of all tribes, genders, and ages commonly take to reservation and city courts, including many people well into their seventiesBasketball has also continued to serve important social functions in Native communities, as demonstrated by the recent Warrior Movement against suicide, initiated by a champion boys’ high school program in Arlee, Montana. College ball has also taken on greater meaning for Native communities since 1970 thanks to its increased accessibility to their male and female athletes. There is also hope that more Native women and men will make it as professional players as years progress. Some notable women, like Ryneldi Becenti and Shoni Schimmel have already done so in the WNBA, but the men have yet to make their mark on the NBA the way their ancestors did on the professional game prior to World War II. This may soon change, and become an important chapter in a future book.

6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

WD: That basketball has made an indelible, and largely positive, mark on Native communities while, at the same time, their players have made their mark on the sport. This is summed up by Blackfeet athlete Jesse DesRosier in the closing passage of the book: “We definitely feel just as much a part of it as it is a part of us. It’s ingrained in us.”

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

WD: Collectively, it’s the descendants of many of these great players whose stories, until now, have never been told by historians. I think of people like Chauncey Archiquette, Spec Blacksmith, Marcella Crow Feather, Clyde James, Grace Vanest, and Tony Wapp. These were amazing athletes who, in times of great difficulty for their people, succeeded on the court and helped change the nature of this sport. Hopefully this book will be a source of pride for their descendants, inspire them to learn more, and encourage some to publicly share their own stories about these heroes.

Wade Davies is professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, Missoula. His books include Healing Ways: Navajo Health Care in the Twentieth CenturyWe Are Still Here: American Indians since 1890, with Peter Iverson; and American Indian Sovereignty and Law: An Annotated Bibliography, with Richmond L. Clow.