Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sebastian Junger—You missed something else

Dear Mr. Junger,

I went to a funeral mass for a friend last week. As I listened to the priests—one from Africa, the other from South America, and bathed in Catholic ritual with the large extended family and members of the local congregation, it occurred to me that you missed something else in your interesting analysis of PTSD and our tribal nature in your recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

You argued that most of the men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who claim PTSD have not experienced combat, and that what they are really experiencing is a homecoming reaction. You say that they have lived for a time in a highly interdependent military culture in which small groups of people have jobs, meaning, and each other.  They serve together in foreign lands—and then return to the competitive, individualistic, wealth driven scene at home.

I said last week that I agreed with much of your argument, but criticized you for lumping all New World Indians into one—“a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years”(quoting from your text)—“ignoring the diversity of economies and cultures, the growth and spread of agriculture, and the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia.” (my response)

To that indictment, I now add your omission of the importance of “ritual.”

When I returned from the funeral, I said to a friend that the Catholics do a good job with ritual. “Catholics and the Marine Corps,” he replied. And Indians, I would add.

Over centuries, Protestantism has gradually erased and eroded ritual in Christianity—favoring “does” and “don’ts” over tradition and accommodation. The attitude was prominent in 19th century missionary work in the West, where clergy worried about white fur traders and settlers intermarrying with Indians. The Methodists outlawed them; Presbyterians grudgingly accepted. The ritualistic and tradition-bound Catholics, on the other hand, were more accommodating, and, valuing the institution of marriage, trained clergy in eastern Canada and sent them West to minister to and marry mixed families.

Unfortunately, these stories are often lost, as the standard historical narrative is not strong on mixed bloods and their place in the settlement of the West.

The long-term history of history is ignoring Indian roles, and the history of Indian-White relations is of course largely about forced assimilation. Indian lands and migration patterns were divided and shattered by Indian removal and the creation of reservations. At the conclusion of the Civil War, President Grant turned the reservations over to the churches, which intensified the war on Indian cultures. The Dawes Act of 1887 demanded that Indians take up farmsteads, and Indian boarding schools demanded that they cut hair, lose language, and dress white. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration pushed one more time, with “Termination Policy,” to put Indian lands and culture behind us.

Not all Indians complied, of course. Some hid regalia, elders spoke among themselves, and names of people and sacred places were passed down quietly. And, gradually, beginning in the 60s, Indian voices were raised, old treaties examined, fisheries regained, language programs begun, and regalia taken out of closets. Indian art celebrating the past and present began to flourish. Land—reservation land, culture, and ritual are saving them from complete assimilation.

Although not all tribes are healthy or wealthy, there is a fine National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington D.C.; there are tribal, state historical, and regional museums which celebrate Indian culture. And there are proud Indian writers, artists, and Indian drummers and dancers who perform at powwows across the country.

And here, Mr. Junger, is where your veterans come in. At every powwow that I have attended, veterans are honored. At the local dances in the Wallowa Country of the Nez Perce, veterans—white, Indian, Black, Filipino, all—are honored in a grand entry with songs and dances and in a ceremony in which each veteran steps up and announces his or her branch of the military and dates and theaters of service. There is a drum roll for each vet. And when an eagle feather inadvertently falls from headdress to the floor during a dance, all stops; a veteran must pick it up with special ceremony.

(Why, you ask, are Indians eager to celebrate their service at all? Because, as Indians say, “We are fighting for ‘our’ country.”)

From sign up through boot camp and into service, soldiers and marines comport to ritual—ceremonies of completion and good conduct; medals for places and battles served; advancement of rank and station; changing of leadership, etc. Throughout, they are shoulder to shoulder with peers and cohorts.

Indian veterans who have ties to their reservations come home to ritual, but any veteran in reaching distance of a powwow can get a little bit of what’s been missing.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sebastian Junger, PTSD, and 500 Nations

I liked the argument in Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, but cringed throughout the first chapters as he lumped all American Indians together and made them stone-age hunter-gatherers, “a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years,” ignoring the diversity of economies and cultures, the growth and spread of agriculture, and the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia.

Alvin Josephy would say that this is yet another gross misunderstanding of American Indian history and its intertwined relationship with all American history, that the “standard narrative” once again sees all Indians as hunter gatherers with headdresses.

Sebastian Junger gained fame with a book about the sea, The Perfect Storm, and, after being embedded for five months with troops in Afghanistan, produced a well-regarded documentary film, “Restrepo," and book, War, based on that experience.

In the new book, he argues that “humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern Society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” His experiences with soldiers and vets, and his own brief encounter with PTSD—which he at first did not recognize as such—sent him on and exploration of PTSD that led him to the concept of “tribe.”

He’d quickly learned that most of the military veterans claiming PTSD now have not been involved in combat—only 10 percent of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced combat, while almost 50 percent claim PTSD. He thinks that most of what is diagnosed as PTSD is really a readjustment problem. Humans have evolved over eons in small interdependent groups—tribes—and need to be needed and need community in order to thrive. Soldiers leaving a situation that mimics ancient tribal culture and reentering a highly competitive, individualistic America have trouble. In the Peace Corps, which Junger gives a nod, it is called “reverse culture shock.”

Tribe is the book’s title and the answer to PTSD. His historical exploration begins with America’s founders and first relations with Indians. There are stories from Benjamin Franklin and other Founders about white men donning leggings and living like and with Indians on the frontier, and about women and children captured by Indians who did not want to be rescued. A Frenchman, Hector de Crevecoueur, lamented that “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.”

For women, Indian life might have been hard, but the dominance of husbands was not so absolute. For Junger, the important notion is that tribal life offered the mutual support, egalitarianism, and community values that contemporary European society did not. And today in America, vastness and radical individualism are at odds with our tribal natures.

It’s no accident that Josephy’s book and the Kevin Costner TV series were named “500 Nations of North America,” an upfront declaration that there was great diversity in the Americas before the Europeans came. And in the National Book Award nominated Indian Heritage of America Josephy uses linguists’ work to show two continents evolving into groups or tribes that spoke some 2500 mutually unintelligible languages.

There were, among these “nations,” vast differences in economies, cultures, life-styles, wealth, governance, etc. etc. There were the imperial peoples of South and Central America—Incas and Mayans and Aztecs; the wealthy, class-bound, matriarchal, and extremely artistic cultures of the northern Pacific Coast; and the treaty and governance pioneering Haudenosaunee Confederacy of northeastern North America.

Nations—no civilizations—had risen and fallen: Inca, Mayan, Aztec, Cahokian. The Mayans’ intricate irrigation-based society might have fallen to global warming. Incans’ penchant for revering dead leaders might have sapped their economies. The mound-builders that summited at Cahokia near present-day St. Louis might have fallen to overcrowding, or drought, or disease. And the agriculture! Who tamed and developed corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, rubber, manioc, squash and all the rest? And how did they do it?

No, Mr. Junger, none of this touches your basic argument about humans evolving over hundreds of thousands of years to best function in small groups—groups of about 50, he estimates—and to value and practice mutual support and co
operative working and living. And the history of early North American interactions among “the English” and tribal peoples is enlightening and important.

But painting all American Indians with the same brush (caveat—later in the book there is some minimal admission of tribal differences) is robbing two continents of histories that are as rich, complex and tragic as anything Europe and Asia have to offer.

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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Happy Fourth of July

American Indians’ patriotism and Indian celebrations of America’s favorite patriotic holiday are as complex and convoluted as is the overall dance of American History—although Indians, as Alvin Josephy said only half jokingly, don’t have history—or biography; they have anthropology, or archeology, or ethnography. (Look, as Alvin always did, for books on Indian cultures and heroes on bookstore shelves. See where they are shelved.)

The real early history of the people and places in the new world, the on-the-ground complexities of interrelationships between Indians and white Europeans (and later Black Africans and various groups of immigrants from Asia), is the push and pull of new relationships in a strange land. The pull was “help”—Early European immigrants needed help with food, clothing, and shelter to stay alive; the “push” was for Indian lands the newcomers needed to realize their visions of freedom and prosperity.

Indians tried valiantly to deal with the relentless colonization of the continent. They fought and they negotiated. And intermarried. There are many examples of that (which is not paid much mind in our standard histories), and only in Canada, with the Metis, does this intermarriage result in a new broad cultural melding. Most intermarriage was “local”—although the products of those unique pairings were sometimes historically important, from Tecumseh to the Western wagon guides for missionaries and settlers.

Josephy again: “from the beginning, Indians had three choices: assimilate, become white; move—west until the country filled; or die.” Assimilation was the first choice of government bureaucrats and religious do-gooders. Policy—from boarding schools to Dawes Act allotments to Eisenhower’s Termination, put as kind a face as possible on assimilation, and although men hungry for land seemed always in the wings, there were serious assimilationists who truly believed that Indians were doomed to die if they did not become white. Alice Fletcher of Dawes Act note and General Pratt and the Carlisle Indian School are two committed and sympathetic assimilationists. They believed their Indian friends’ alternative was death. It’s easy to criticize their assimilationist views now, but probably unfair to their circumstances.

I don’t know the background of Henry Teller, Secretary of the Interior in the 1880s, don’t know the roots of his assimilationist beliefs. But it was during his tenure that what has come to be called the Religious Crimes Code was enacted. These were regulations at the heart of the Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, and they prohibited American Indian ceremonial life. Teller's general guidelines to Indian agents were to end tribal dances and feasts. The “code” banned Indian ceremonies, disrupted religious practices, and destroyed or confiscated sacred objects. Consequences were imprisonment and/or the withholding of treaty rations. Indian superintendents and agents implemented the code until the mid-1930s.

Some Indians saw in the 4th of July and its commemoration of American independence a small opening through which they could publically continue their own important ceremonies. There were 4th of July fireworks, dancing and celebrating across the nation; superintendents and agents justified allowing reservations to conduct ceremonies on the 4th of July as a way for Indians to learn patriotism and celebrate American ideals. They could take their regalia out of hiding.

And then, after WW I Indian vets—there were 12,000 of them—could be honored in patriotic parades that crossed the culture barrier.  With a nod to American patriotism, they marched under American flags. At this point it is interesting to note that Alvin’s first Indian book, Patriot Chiefs, was loved by Indians for naming them patriots. “No one has ever called us patriots,” they would tell Alvin, “but this is ‘our land’ that were fighting for.”  To this day American flags fly alongside eagle feathers at reservation powwows and dances. And many of them fly on or near the Fourth of July.

As in so many ways, Indians had to be very creative to keep traditions and culture alive. Here’s more in a piece on 4th of July from Indian Country Today:

See also “Code of Indian Offenses”:

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Western History, 1960-1980

I graduated from high school in 1960. We didn’t know where Vietnam was, and automatic draft deferments for college and the Peace Corps allowed me to skate by that evolving war easily until I turned 26, in 1968. By then, I was on Peace Corps staff, and, after Tet, fighting with only limited success to keep Volunteers in the field from being drafted. And fighting, without success, to keep the Peace Corps in Turkey amid the anti-American sentiments unleashed by Vietnam

Skip Royes was a few years younger.  He came out of high school in eastern Oregon when the Vietnam mill was gobbling up recent graduates and college students who hesitated. Skip went to Vietnam, where he apparently was “good at war,” and came home to a world of alcohol, drugs, alternative cultures, and madcap college. He quickly left the whirlwind for horses and solace in Snake River Country.

Pam Severson was a few years younger than Skip, restless in North Dakota and then Ashland and Eugene during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s. A fast 1976 trip to the Wallowas in her VW bug to visit high school friends, and a backpack trip to the Snake River introduced her to that big country—and to Skip.

Pam’s written a memoir about their four years together in Snake River Country. It’s called Temperance Creek, after a sheep ranch they worked on, and it is wonderful—honest, bold, and chock-full of memory triggers for those of us who spent any part of our 20s and 30s in those years. Who didn’t know someone home—or not—from Vietnam? Listen to the music? Think you were or wanted to be called a “hippie”? Get a letter from a friend urging investment in a commune in British Columbia? Search for a soul-mate as free and easy, or radical and committed, as were we?

It’s all here: the Dakota Norwegian heartland, Vietnam, Eugene, hippies, dude ranch, back-to-the land; and some of the most gorgeous and challenging country in North America. And, for good measure, throwbacks and reflections on other times, when sheep ranching was big, when herders were local misfits and societal escapees—and Spanish Basques. A time when environmental concerns, the wilderness movement, and a more urban, technical workforce were making livestock a tough business. Agriculture, like the rest of the economy and the country, was changing. And we—the baby boomers and Vietnam vets, college protestors and followers of the Grateful Dead, were trying to make sense of it all.

I came to the Wallowas in 1971 on a one-year contract with the Oregon State University Extension Service. In 1976, along with wife Judy, I opened the Bookloft, and, eventually, Judy’s Kitchen. For 45 years I’ve watched people come and go, read the country’s books, listened to stories from “old-timers,” and tried to grasp what it was like 100 years before my time, when Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians wintered along the Snake, Grande Ronde, and Imnaha rivers and roamed the headwaters and the Wallowa Valley in summers.

Pam arrived the year the bookstore opened. I remember her running in and out with small children, using the phone on trips to town, I remember listening to her sing—she and Kathy Josephy and June Colony did some entertaining at the first Fishtrap—and have square danced and swapped stories with her and Skip around beers and potlucks ever since. This book’s kind of like that—strong stories of love and loss, dogs, sheep, horses, mules, friends and bosses, sheepherders and dudes. I told Pam it’s the best since Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight storied me past English imperialism and through the civil war in Zimbabwe. And this one is home turf, and for the last couple of years I’ve got to watch her sell the book to Counterpoint and live through the editing. It’s been a joy.

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Pam will be at Eliot Bay Books with David Laskin on Monday, June 27 at 7:00 p.m. And at Powell’s in Portland on July 19. Go say hi!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Eske Willeslev: Listening to science; listening with science

Eske Willeslev, the Danish geneticist who led the team that explored the DNA of the Ancient One, aka Kennewick Man, is the director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.  Dr. Willerslev and the Center are using ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 or 70,000 years of human history. His career and mission is outlined in a recent NYT article--

To remind, the Ancient One was found along the Columbia River in 1996, and the remains, or how to handle the remains, was contested by tribes and some members of the academic community for years. Early attending academics thought that Kennewick man looked, in skull shape particularly, more European than Native American, which brought a rush of theorizing about pre-Bering corridor, European or even Pacific Island, arrivals to the Americas. Northwest American tribal leaders—Umatilla, Colville, Nez Perce, Yakima, and others—argued ancestry and advocated reburial. After much wrangling, the academics won a legal victory and instructions to the Corps of Engineers, which held the bones, to proceed with DNA testing.

I’ve not followed the process at every step, but know from a good source, then Oregon U.S. Attorney Kris Olson, that the wrangling was tough and the Indians were patient. And I understand that initial DNA testing done in this country was too crude to make determinations. And that Willeslev and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen recently stepped in with newer and better techniques and made the determination that the Ancient One’s near relatives were American Indians, not Europeans.

Willeslev’s personal history, as outlined in the NYT article, is fascinating, but what is more fascinating is his philosophical conversion from a scientist whose view was “that human history belongs to all of us because we’re all connected, and no people have a right to stop our understanding of human history” to a scientist-humanist willing to listen to contemporary relatives of ancient peoples with their own histories and concerns about scientific inquiry.

He once proudly showed off a collection of ancient Danish skulls to Native American visitors, only to find them upset by the sight. ‘How can you treat your ancestors like that, so disrespectfully?” he recalls them asking.

But the philosophical conversion actually occurred when he was working with ancient Australian DNA. On discovering that there was resistance from some of the aboriginal people, Willeslev decided to travel to Australia to meet with them. He was shocked to learn of the history of “scientific” research on aboriginal Australians. Victorian anatomists—not unlike their US Smithsonian counterparts—had plundered burial grounds and carried off bones to put in museums. Years of such exploitation had left many aboriginal Australians suspicious of scientists. In The US, it led to passage of the “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)” in 1990.

In Denmark, it led to a rethinking on Eske Willeslev’s part. He’s still the scientist. And the Australians were delighted to learn of links from the continent’s dwellers of 70,000 years ago to them today—this is certainly one of the longest continuous DNA records constructed by scientists to date.

In America, as things played out with the Ancient One, only one tribe stepped forward to provide DNA to the Danish researchers; other tribes clung to their beliefs that the bones were theirs and should be put in the ground without the new DNA science. The one tribe was enough for Willerslev and colleagues—and for the critics—and in the end, I am sure that our Plateau tribal people were glad to have “scientific confirmation” that the Ancient One is related to them.  Like the Australian aborigines are proud of “scientific truth” linking them to 70,000 year-old ancestors.

But the story also tells us that science—and scientists—come and go. That there is always something provisional about even the “best” science. Willeslev’s good work does not make up for past abuses. This is what I take not only from the Indians, the Australian aborigines, and their experiences, but from Dr. Willerslev. A chastened scientist, he says now of the Ancient One, “it means I regret that important material is getting reburied… But when you find that these remains are genetically Native Americans, it’s not our call anymore.”

He’s working now with some Crow Indians, and suggesting that genetic work might help with the tremendous diabetes problem on their reservation. They are interested; Willeslev is listening to them and his science is at their service.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Geneticists, Linguists, and American Indians

There’s an interesting piece in today’s NYT about genetic testing African Americans. The researchers covered in the article calculate that “the ancestors of the average African-American today were 82.1 percent African, 16.7 percent European and 1.2 percent Native American.”

More interesting than that, by examining the length of matching DNA strands, they claim that the Native American genes got into the African American mix very early, as slaves were first brought from Africa, and that the European genes got into the mix later—primarily during the time just preceding the Civil War.

Furthermore, by tracing X and Y chromosomes—Xs come only from mothers; fathers can pass on Xs or Ys—and the fact that the X chromosome of contemporary African-Americans shows more African ancestry than do the Y, leads them to the conclusion that the 16.7 percent European ancestry is primarily due to white slave owners fathering the children of their black slaves.

Here is a link to the story:

This is all very interesting, but haven’t historians been telling us most of this for a long time—if we were listening? Linguists too, and folklorists have traced languages and cultural patterns, and thus the movements of peoples across time and geography.

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I always introduce Library visitors to Alvin Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America (published in 1968) by pointing out that he begins with languages. Although scarcely 50 years ago, this was a time before the “human genome.” But common sense and Josephy tell us that we can trace people’s movements, and to some extent the development of their cultures, through language. Josephy found early that one of the gifts left by missionaries, furmen, and adventurers is a chronicle of Indian languages.

Speaking of gifts, a donor recently left the Josephy Library a copy of John Wesley Powell’s 1891 report to the Smithsonian. This Powell—the same who floated the Colorado—sent a team of a half dozen researches across the country gathering language information for two years. He then analyzed and classified the Indian language information they brought back in his annual report. Powell broke them into 46 major language groups—I believe this was the first classification of North American Indian languages.

Josephy had later research to work with. But it has always struck me as a mark of his genius that he began a book intending to paint a broad picture of the Indian heritage of North and South America by talking with linguists. And it occurs to me that his advantage in being a journalist was that he was not discipline-bound—he reached out to linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, and others who were, often quietly and for an audience limited to their own field, building pictures of the past.

There are a dozen ways to go with this: genetics is incredibly interesting, but let’s not forget the human stories of slavery, the “Great Migration” of African Americans out of the south, and, always, the Indian presence in all subsequent “American” history. How do we make sure the human stories don’t get lost in the science?

Or, we can celebrate the new emphasis on tribal languages across the country. One of my early Peace Corps language memories is a Turkish saying that where there is “one language, one man; two languages, two men.” Taking away the gender issue, the point is that language is intricately tied to culture, and the loss of language is a loss of culture and history. So good for the tribal language programs and linking tribal peoples to history and culture.

We’ll continue to get stories from geneticists, but let’s also remember and thank those missionaries and adventurers for their roles in preserving languages. And let’s remember the stories that language, oral history, and culture tell us about the past as we keep them alive in the present.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Loving the Game, the Rez Game

I’ve not followed professional basketball—or even college basketball—much over the past few years. The “posting up” business is boring, and the spectacle of who might be the most athletically talented individuals in the world running up and down a court that seems too small for them, dunking basketballs in a hoop that seems too low for them, just didn’t stir me.

Mary Stewart of Nixyaawii Golden Eagles (credit: East Oregonian)
But I have watched a lot of high school basketball, where the size of the court and the height of the rim seem to be in proper proportion. And this year I’ve taken special interest with my freshman grandson playing at Joseph High School. One of the treats has been watching Nixyaawii Community School, the boys and girls teams from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. Both beat Joseph handily, with great ball control and great three-point shooting, and both went on to take third place in the state small schools tournament. It was fun watching the shooting, passing, and ball control—“they’ve been playing together since elementary school,” we were told. And, when we played at Nixyaawii, it was fun sitting in a small gym with the parents, and the grandpas and grandmas, aunties and uncles, watching the game, soaking up the joy, pride and community.

* * * *
As a sports junkie since my own playing days who doesn’t watch much of it on TV, basketball interest started growing this year with my grandson playing and news stories about the Golden State Warriors and a new kind of pro basketball. So I watched some pro ball, including almost all of that last Golden State game, when Steph Curry and the Warrior crew tore up the record books. The way that Golden State moved the ball, and the long threes that opened up alley-oop dunks was different from a big man posting up and backing down another Goliath. And it looked like the whole team and coaching staff—and the fans of course—were having fun as they wrote their way into the record books—for most wins, most three pointers, most most most. It was, I thought, a bigger version of Nixyaawii.

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I ran across another basketball piece in the New York Times this week. It was about Baron Davis and a documentary film—The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce—the former NBA all-star made about this thing that has been going on in South Central Los Angeles since the 70s called the “Drew League.” In the heart of the ghetto, where Davis grew up, and started playing at the age of 13, a bunch of hoopsters from high school and up play basketball for the camaraderie and the love of it.

Yes, most of the young black players in the Drew League want do be like Davis, go from Drew to UCLA to the NBA, But the Drew also catches players like Davis after they’ve been to the top and, with injury stopping careers, still need the game. It catches players on the way up and the way down, makes a place for high school and college players, old pros and aspiring ones to play the game for gain—and for the love of it. Right there on the “home court” in South Central.

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Not many rez players make it to the NBA—or the WNBA, but if you hang around tribal people at all, you know that basketball is the rez game. When you sit in the stands at Nixyaawii, you hear pride in the next generation and stories of uncles and cousins who played the game well. You get a sense of community that spreads across ages and genders, pride when a full scholarship to Stanford is announced for one of the girls. You know that the people on the court, on the bench and in the stands all love the game that’s brought them together that night.

Schimmel sisters at Louisville (Indian Country Today)

Which reminds me that the Schimmel sisters, Shoni and Jude, started on the Umatilla. I remember watching the 2013 NCAA women’s final when the Schimmels and Louisville took on Connecticut—hoops were rattling and nets swishing into early morning hours on the rez—and probably on rezes across the country—that day in 2013.   They lost—Connecticut has been almost unbeatable for years—but they lost well, and Shoni played her way into professional basketball.

Googling “Native American professional basketball” players will only get you a handful, but you’ll also be introduced to “Indian Country Today,” and some great stories of basketball in Indian Country, where, like the Drew, there are aspirations for the college and pro games, and a whole bunch of love for the game.

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