Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos from Salish Kootenai College practices.
On the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, a land riddled with devastating poverty and perpetual unemployment, there are no scholarships. Basketball is played, as the saying goes, for the love of the game.
Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College is one of five Montana tribal colleges to officially form basketball programs within the last two years, joining Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation and the Crow Agency’s Little Big Horn College.
The others are Stone Child College in Box Elder, Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Blackfeet Community College in Browning and Fort Peck Community College in Poplar. Aaniiih Nakoda is in Harlem.
Now all seven of the state’s reservation colleges have basketball programs, playing in a league called the Montana Tribal College Athletic Association. The organization was called the Montana Tribal College Basketball League last year, which was the organization’s first. The regular season begins in November and the league tournament is held in February.
While the tribal colleges have long had loosely formed teams, the school’s athletic directors say the league gives the teams a real game schedule, a claim to legitimacy and, most importantly, an incentive to attract young American Indians to college and keep them there.
“It gets more students to our campus because Indian people love basketball,” Gerald Stiffarm, league commissioner and Aaniiih Nakoda College’s athletic director, said. “It’s just what makes Indian communities tick.”
Some of the greatest prep players to ever take the court in Montana have been American Indians. The names border on legendary in knowledgeable basketball circles: Jonathan Takes Enemy, Elvis Old Bull, Larry Pretty Weasel and J.R. Camel, to name a handful. Camel is an assistant coach on the Salish Kootenai men’s team.
But the transition off the reservation into college life has been rocky for a number of the state’s top native players, if they left home at all. It is with this in mind that tribal college presidents founded the league with three fundamental goals, according to Stiffarm: student recruitment, student retention and developing “the concept of the Native American-student athlete.”
The state’s tribal basketball teams are made up of enrolled members of their respective tribes who attended nearby high schools, except in the cases of Little Big Horn and Salish Kootenai, which have more established programs and recruit players from around the country in addition to locals. Little Big Horn is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Basketball players must meet certain academic requirements and they may also garner outside recruiting attention – two realities that help foster improved performance in the classroom. At Aaniiih Nakoda, Stiffarm hopes the sport encourages students to buckle down for their two-year degrees, and then maybe more.
“We want to do things for our youths to encourage Native American people to go into four-year programs,” Stiffarm said.
For all the passion and support behind the game, operating a basketball program on a reservation does not come easy. It is true that if you build it they will come, but enthusiasm alone cannot maintain a program. The money question weighs heavily, even on the Flathead Indian Reservation where the economic picture is more positive.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs pegs the unemployment rate on some reservations at higher than 60 percent. On Fort Belknap, located in north-central Montana, Stiffarm said the jobless rate at times soars above 80 percent, while a little under half the population lives in poverty.
“Money is damn hard to get,” Stiffarm said. “But we just dig deeper and we raised money to get those uniforms.”
In addition to securing money for the teams’ uniforms, the college’s 20 student-athletes – out of 143 enrolled students – must raise a combined $14,200 to pay their way and for cheerleaders, Stiffarm said.
“With a community with that high of a poverty level, it’s quite a task to raise that money, but we do it,” Stiffarm said.
Michelle Spang, the athletic and activities director at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, said her school once had a junior college men’s team but in recent years the college has only fielded teams to play in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) tournament in March. That has been the case for other tribal colleges in Montana as well.
The Northern Cheyenne student-athletes who try out for the Chief Dull Knife team must endure odd and often late practice hours based on the availability of gym time at the local elementary school. Many of the players – some nontraditional students – are single parents, all without scholarships.
Spang, who is the women’s coach, can relate. As a college basketball player years ago, she had a baby her freshman year.
“They played in high school and they were good and then they did what I did and went and had a child,” Spang said. “Now they’re able to be a part of an organized college basketball program. They’re able to travel and meet new people and go to other schools and experience that lifestyle, something they might never get to do otherwise.”
The socioeconomic conditions at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo are less bleak. As a whole, the reservation is more economically developed while the four-year college is reputed for its academic integrity. And the basketball program is among the most successful of all 36 AIHEC tribal colleges and universities in the nation, for both men’s and women’s.
Though the college has had basketball since the 1980s, it’s only been in the last decade that the program has become a national powerhouse. Both the men and women have regularly won AIHEC national championships since 2000. The teams practice and play in the $5.5 million Joe McDonald Health and Fitness Center, which opened in 2007 and was constructed with the help of grants.
Zachary Conko-Camel, in his 13th year as head coach of the men’s team, said in the early 1980s all seven tribal schools played regular game schedules. He’s glad to see it happening again, as he sees great benefits in a team working toward a common goal for a full season. His players, together as a group, have been able to endure the deaths of two teammates in the last two years – one in a shooting and another in a drowning.
“They become brothers and family members to me,” Conko-Camel, the older brother of J.R. Camel, said. “Our job is to make them into good players and good people, to help get them set for life.”
Juan Perez, Salish Kootenai’s athletic director and women’s coach, said since the formation of the league he has seen a decline in the number of players from other reservations who come play for his team. They are staying home to play, which is a foremost goal of the league. But players still stream in from out-of-state tribes.
Lisa Bible of Big Arm, a shooting guard for Salish Kootenai, grew up watching Bison basketball and said she doubts she would have played college ball anywhere else after graduating from Polson in 2007. Her husband is James Bible of the men’s team. She said most of her teammates are at the college specifically to play basketball or because of the school’s academic reputation.
“This is all on your own time; it’s a lot of work,” she said. “These girls want to be here. There aren’t any scholarships. It shows their heart.”
But even with the college’s many successes, both on the court and off, basketball dreams do not come without their obstacles at Salish Kootenai. For one, the programs don’t have money for scholarships, which is problematic for the athletic department’s goal of joining a league such as the NAIA’s Frontier Conference, in which teams such as Rocky Mountain College and Carroll College play.
Other tribal athletic directors have the same ambitions, though Spang concedes that such aspirations are hardly realistic for Chief Dull Knife College at this point. First the program must get on its feet. And while doing so, perhaps a few of the school’s players will get recognized by a four-year school.
“Maybe in the future we’ll be able to offer scholarships,” Spang said. “That would be my dream down the road, but it’s hard when you don’t have a gym and you have to hold rental agreements with the schools to be able to practice.”
Stiffarm also has a vision for his program and it extends well beyond the reservation borders. He hopes the players can see that far too.
“Hopefully one day we could send a Native American player to the NBA or WNBA,” he said. “That’s our dream.”