Every year, nearly 5,000 high school girls earn full-ride scholarships to play basketball at the Division I level. In 1992, only one of those players was Native American — Barbara “Malia” Kipp from Browning.
A member of the Blackfeet Tribe, Kipp was an all-star on the courts as a prep athlete, following in the footsteps of her dad, grandfather, uncles and other family members, all who played ball.
“Basketball? I think it was in my genes,” Kipp said.
After watching the University of Montana Lady Griz play in person, Kipp set her sights on a collegiate career with a squad that under legendary coach Robin Selvig became one of the top women’s collegiate teams in the West.
Over 40 years with the Lady Griz, Coach Selvig made it a goal of his to recruit in-state athletes as often as possible and discovered talent across Montana, especially in underserved communities that were often overlooked by scouts, such as the state’s then-six tribal reservations. When Selvig offered Kipp a scholarship to play for the Lady Griz, it marked the first full-ride NCAA Division I basketball scholarship given to a female tribal member in Montana.
Kipp’s journey from Browning’s basketball courts to the University of Montana’s Dahlberg Arena is the subject of the documentary “Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer,” co-directed by Emmy Award winners Megan Harrington and Jonathan Cipiti.
“Native Ball” debuted at the 2023 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February and will be released to nationwide audiences served by PBS affiliates beginning in November.
“There were a lot of talented Native American men and women playing basketball in the state, but not many who had gone on to college,” Selvig told Flathead Living. “I had always been interested in Native culture, it’s such a big part of the state’s history, so I had the good fortune to recruit across the reservations and bring in a lot of talented kids. It was not easy for them, and I certainly feel blessed that I had the young athletes I did.”
Kipp credits Selvig’s cultural sensitivity and inclusivity with helping open opportunities for Native players, saying he took the time to learn about the cultural differences setting individual players’ upbringings apart. Even so, the documentary captures Kipp’s reflections on the struggles and pushback she faced from the campus and community.
“You had to figure out how to live in two worlds,” Kipp said. “To be who you were and who people expected you to be … at times that was difficult.”
The 27-minute film features interviews with Kipp, Selvig, Browning residents and many former Lady Griz players, painting a picture of possibility while presenting the challenges Kipp, and the Native athletes that followed in her footsteps, faced leaving their hometowns and communities behind.
“Malia was a warrior because she did her education,” Blackfeet elder Paul Old Chief says in the film. “She played ball against the best ball players on whatever team she came up against. Malia played her best for herself, for her university and for her tribe. That’s what makes her a warrior.” To watch the trailer or schedule a screening of “Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer,” visit www.familytheater.org/nativeball.