How to Cover Native American Sports

Evan Butcher of the Chippewa Tribe plays basketball near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. 2016. Robyn Beck /AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the New York Times Magazine featured the high school basketball team the Arlee Warriors on its cover. Hailing from the city of Arlee, home to about 600 people on Montanas Flathead Indian Reservation, the Warriors are among the greatest Native American high school squads ever assembled, a group that blends high-octane offense predicated on three-point field goals with a frantic and suffocating pressurized defense.

The feature, written by Abe Streep, doesnt just showcase the Warriors and its players —  including Phillip Malatare, a six-foot guard wholl be a preferred walk-on at the University of Montana next fall — it also profiles the town, the reservation (a sovereign nation comprising the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes), and a wave of recent suicides in the community. It was these suicides that prompted the Warriors transformation: The team wasnt just a winner of back-to-back state titles, but rather a beacon to those that viewed suicide as a solitary option.

The team hoped a few thousand people might view their video. But within 24 hours, it had been watched nearly 86,000 times. On Monday, the team, inspired by the reception, skipped practice to make another, this one an elaborate production with alley-oops and war bonnets. As they were finishing, a coach from Two Eagle River arrived in a black suit. He had come from the wake for the boy — his player — who committed suicide the week before divisionals. “I just wanted to say thank you, guys,” he said in halting breaths. His chest heaved, and he told the Warriors to bring home the trophy.

A long silence followed. Then someone asked: “Can we hug him?”

Phil embraced the man, and everyone else followed.

Its a powerful article, but one that is slightly undercut by a commonplaces familiar to articles about basketball on Native American reservations, otherwise known as “rez ball.”

Ever since Gary Smith profiled Jonathan Takes Enemy, a member of Montanas Crow Nation, for Sports Illustrated in 1991, there has been a seemingly never-ending supply of rez ball features — Chad Millman and Lars Anderson, in their phenomenal 1991 book, Pickup Artists, about basketball on the margins, featured David Cunningham of the Nez Pearce Indians; the New York Times published at least three articles about rez ball in Arizona over the past two years; and the Washington Post made waves earlier this year with a profile of Mya Fourstar, who might just be the best female athlete to ever graduate from a reservation to a Division I program.

And while the coverage is necessary and sometimes vital, there are some tropes that refuse to die: how the teams and players are inspirations for communities; how no one ever gets recruited from rez ball teams; how the expectations — especially from family members — can be overwhelming and crushing. Perhaps these have to be included to better inform an otherwise unaware audience, but at a certain point, the continuation of the same themes becomes comical. StreepNYTM feature is at its most relevant with its discussion of suicide and how it affects Native American communities, detailing what the Warriors did to combat the cycle (filming a video urging those in need to get help). The statistics Streep reports are crushing:

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control released a study examining suicide rates among Americans by race and ethnicity. In 2014, the last year for which the researchers compiled data, non-Hispanic Native women between the ages of 15 and 24 committed suicide at a rate of 15.6 deaths per 100,000, or three times the rate of non-Hispanic white women and five times the rate of non-Hispanic black women of the same age. Young Native men had a rate of 38.2 deaths per 100,000 people.

And there are scenes that left me close to tears:

One night he sent a despairing text to a couple of friends. He was considering climbing out his window to start running when he saw headlights in the driveway. It was two teammates, Lane Schall, a gregarious ranch kid, and Darshan Bolen, Phil’s cousin and foster brother. Greg told them he didn’t want to live anymore.

Dar sat with him while Lane went to get Greg’s mother, Raelena. She spoke with her son for about 45 minutes, then took Greg to a hospital in Missoula, where Whitesell met them. (He and Raelena are divorced.) Greg spent that night in a bare room with scratches on the wall. “I felt like I didn’t belong there,” he says.

The hospital staff determined he wasn’t an immediate risk and sent him home. For weeks Raelena woke up every couple of hours to check on her son, and Greg regularly saw a counselor. Then basketball season started. He kept his experience private until he learned that a younger teammate was battling depression, at which point he told the kid he had been through similar struggles. Lane and Dar never talked publicly about that night. But, Greg said later, “if they didn’t show up, I don’t think I’d be here now.”

But this brilliant reporting is often undermined by the proliferation of the rez ball clichés that dot the cover story — descriptions of the “freewheeling” speed of the Warriors offense; the“businesslike nature and slower pace” of college basketball; the push-pull felt from the Flathead community and going to a Division I college.

This is why I found Deadspins recent article about racism toward Native American lacrosse teams within the Dakota Premier Lacrosse League (DPLL) particularly vital. The way Curtis Waltman laid out the bigotry experience by Native American teams expelled from the league in his piece illustrated why there needs to be a shift in the reporting of Native American athletics. Other than basketball, coverage of Native sports is underrepresented, and the pressures and abuses that come from failing to shed light on these sports will only continue unless they become part of our everyday sports consumption.

And Deadspins feature very explicitly exposes this racism, in a way that the Times piece lets readers draw their own judgments. Both articles are essential for furthering how we report on Native American athletics, but Deadspins deep dive into the Dakota Premier Lacrosse League actually names the bigotry that fuels the“one chance” that Native American hoopsters often get. This is not to say that Streep fails in reporting how a community rallied around a team and how a collection of teenagers enacted their own form of social justice — exposing racism isnt Steeps intention — but the manner in which the Arlee Warriors story is laid out assumes readers know nothing about rez ball and Native American athletics, and in 2018, it feels pandering.