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World Beaters

In the early days of basketball, the girls from the Fort Shaw Indian School took on all comers.

By Delia Cabe | HUMANITIES, November/December 2010 | Volume 31, Number 6

Tip-off for the second basketball game in a best-of-three series between the young ladies from Fort Shaw Indian School and the St. Louis All-Stars was scheduled for four o’clock, Saturday, October 8. This international event would determine the champion of the 1904 World’s Fair. Fort Shaw led the series, 1–0.

Each team had impressive records. The Missouri team, made of alumnae of St. Louis Central High, were state champs. The Fort Shaw girls, ages fifteen to nineteen, came from an off-reservation boarding school in Montana. They too had been crowned state champions.

The Fort Shaw girls, dressed ever so ladylike in navy middies and bloomers, stockings, laced-up shoes, and silk-ribbon bows tied on their braids, stepped onto the porch of the Model Indian School. The crowd greeted their appearance with cheers. Many people had seen the team play exhibition games in the last four months at the Model Indian School on the bustling 657-acre St. Louis fairgrounds. The girls were admired for their skill and agility.

The fair must have seemed welcoming and yet strange. It was a big moment for the new sport of “basket ball,” a women’s game that had only been invented thirteen years earlier at a YMCA in Massachusetts. But the 1904 World’s Fair also celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the United States’ westward expansion, including the acquisition of the ancestral lands of Native Americans.

The Great Falls Tribune, Fort Shaw’s hometown newspaper, reported the contest’s play-by-play beginning with the tip-off: “the leather sphere rose and fell. . . . Nettie [on the Fort Shaw team] made one of her phenomenal leaps . . . and sent it spinning far toward the Indian girls’ goal.” At the half, Fort Shaw was ahead 9 to 3.

Coming into the first game, a month earlier, the unbeaten St. Louis All-Stars thought they were ready to face Fort Shaw. Their coach had observed Fort Shaw play several exhibition games and spent the summer preparing his team. But when it came down to it on September 3, St. Louis proved helpless. The final score was 24 to 2. On the day before the next game a week later, St. Louis requested to delay meeting their opponents for a few weeks. The reason became apparent during the first half of the second match: The All-Stars had used the postponement to sharpen their game and were now playing much more aggressively. If the girls from Fort Shaw were to win, they would have to step up their game in the second half.

The story of how these ten Fort Shaw teenagers from seven different tribes in Montana and Idaho formed close friendships and became a united force on the basketball court begins in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In December 1891, Fort Shaw, a military post located in north-central Montana, was decommissioned, its original purpose, to protect white settlers from Indian attacks, long since fulfilled. Following months of renovations and construction, Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School took in its first students—thirty-five girls and boys transferred from the Fort Peck agency school, which had burned down.

The off-reservation boarding school was the latest addition to a network of such institutions administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. BIA schools were used to assimilate and acculturate Indian children, and, in turn, diminish their tribal fidelity and Indian identities. In the words of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the superintendent of Carlisle, the first off-reservation boarding school, the goal was to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Indian students were exposed to the arts, athletics, and academics in the same manner as their white counterparts.

Fort Shaw’s student population grew to three hundred and twenty. The children came from several different tribes, including Blackfeet, Assiniboines, Piegan, Gros Ventres, Métis, Chippewa, Cree, and Lemhi. Many of the boarders, including the girls on the basketball team, had white fathers and Indian mothers who wanted their children to receive an education and be able to navigate both worlds. Some of the children did not see their families for years.

Their days consisted of a strict routine: academic studies and mastery of industrial arts, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, or farming for the boys, and domestic arts for the girls. Students were permitted to speak only English, although the staff looked the other way when boarders chatted in their native tongues after lights out. At the end of the first school year, the school held closing ceremonies and hosted an open house with demonstrations, exhibits, facility tours, literary recitations, and choral performances. The presentations, the Great Falls Tribune reported, were “a great surprise to those . . . who have been more used to thinking [of] the Indian and the scalping knife than of the Indian and the slate and the pencil.”

That first year, the children were prohibited from returning home during summer vacation, lest they revert to their old ways or, worse, not come back in the fall. Some, however, had no desire to go home, although they missed siblings and other family members. The boarding school had become their refuge from family difficulties, such as a gambling father, domestic abuse, and illness. Summer at the boarding school with no schoolwork involved long days farming and tending the livestock for the boys and hours consumed with domestic duties for the girls. For breaks, the children exercised—Indian clubs and dumbbell drills—and enjoyed picnic lunches, hikes, and other summer outings with their teachers. The following fall, the school offered more activities for the children, namely music lessons and the formation of the Fort Shaw orchestra.

Meanwhile, Josephine Langley, who grew up on the Blackfeet reservation and worked at Fort Shaw, had learned the game of “basket ball.” She introduced the game to a few of the girls, teaching them the basics and running them through drills to learn passing and shooting, intercepting passes and “bouncing,” today known as dribbling. That fall semester, Langley put together a girls’ basketball team.

“[Langley] had no illusions about building a team that could compete against other teams. For one thing, she knew of no other schools in Montana playing basketball,” authors Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith wrote in their 2008 book Full-Court Quest. The book traces the remarkable rise of the Fort Shaw basketball team and the setbacks, disappointments, and racism they encountered along the way. In 1997, Peavy, an independent scholar who has coauthored nine books with Smith, had stumbled across a photo of the team, dated 1903, while doing research for another book. “[Theirs] was a forgotten story,” she says.

While learning the game, the Fort Shaw girls showed such discipline, commitment, and teamwork that Langley formed two enthusiastic basketball squads. At the school’s year-end program, the day’s events included an exhibition game on the parade grounds. For most of the visitors, this was their first exposure to basketball. At later exhibitions, still larger crowds came to see the girls play. “Boys’ basketball,” Peavy says, “never took off”—at Fort Shaw, anyway.

The school’s superintendent, Fred C. Campbell, quickly grasped that the basketball team could help build Fort Shaw’s reputation—on Indian reservations and among other agency schools, but also in Washington, D.C., at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The school’s orchestra and other performers had attracted crowds at county fairs and other civic events and were much in demand. Campbell approached Langley and Sadie Malley, the basketball coach who had substituted for Langley while she recovered from an ulcerated leg, with the idea of making the team competitive. Malley agreed under one condition: The girls had to continue playing full-court basketball, and not by the “girls’ rules” proposed by physical educators at a Massachusetts meeting the previous summer. The girls, Malley thought, would not embrace playing a half-court game, which would not be as fast paced or as exciting. “Back in the East, women had been reduced to playing half-court basketball,” Smith says. “It became a yawner.”

Until the team became competition-worthy, Campbell made no mention of his plans in his annual report to his Washington office.

Estelle Reel was then appointed the new superintendent of Indian education at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Unlike her predecessors, she viewed the “traditional arts and crafts as a source of livelihood for indigenous people, particularly indigenous women,” write Peavy and Smith in Full-Court Quest. Moreover, she was an outspoken advocate of athletics for women. Campbell agreed on both counts. He also believed that including displays of traditional costumes and crafts at school exhibitions would boost his students’ sense of self-worth and encourage them to take pride in their diverse cultures.

Bolstered by Reel’s appointment, in 1902, Campbell organized a Thanksgiving Day basketball game between Fort Shaw and Butte High. Before his team’s first interscholastic game, his students would perform a mandolin concert and gymnastics demonstration.

The week of the game, an Anaconda Standard article, headlined “White Girls against Reds,” referred to the Fort Shaw girls as “dark-complexioned maidens” who were strong, lithe, and comely, and it noted that the team consisted of three full-blooded Indians and that the rest were “half-breeds.” Eager to see the pregame coverage, Campbell ordered a copy of the newspaper and showed it to the girls. Although excited to be on the front page, they were offended by the descriptions and inaccurate tribal affiliations. Campbell decided he would need to send press releases from then on. At least the journalists would have the facts. As for the sensationalism, that was beyond his control.

When the girls arrived in Butte, they noticed the air was filled with soot and smells of sulfur from its main industry, mining. The Fort Shaw team understood that they had to challenge prevailing attitudes about their race and athletic potential as girls. But at the end of the first half, they were down by two points, 7 to 5. During halftime, their coach gave a rousing speech, insisting that they were good enough to reclaim the lead and win this game. Inspired, they dominated the second half, winning 15 to 9.

After that victory, Campbell and his team barnstormed Montana. They suffered few defeats, but endured numerous racial epithets. By 1903, however, their supporters far outnumbered their detractors, as eager fans filled gymnasiums to cheer them on, especially star guard Minnie Burton. “Shoot. Minnie, shoot,” resounded from the crowds. That year, the Fort Shaw team were crowned state champions and invited to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

The ten-member team would join 150 students from various agency schools staying at the Model Indian School for several months. While living at the World’s Fair, they would attend classes and pursue other activities, just as they did at Fort Shaw. However, students would be a “living exhibit,” a testament to the achievements of the federal Indian school system.

Campbell assembled the team in the gymnasium and presented the invitation. He let them decide whether they wanted to go. Astonished by the news, the teammates responded with silence, but quickly recovered. Yes, they told him. They were excited to have such an opportunity. All Campbell had to do was obtain their parents’ permission and attend to myriad details in the several months before the fair opened.

On June 14, 1904, the Fort Shaw team and their chaperones arrived at the St. Louis train station with baggage containing their traditional tribal clothing for their performances, their team uniforms and school uniforms, as well as handmade objects from their tribes. At the fairgrounds, the players glanced in every direction, taking in all the sights, aromas, and people throughout the midway: the Ferris wheel, Japanese gardens, Tiffany glass windows, the New York Building. “These were ten young women who are already excited, coming from an isolated post in Montana and arriving in St. Louis, the largest place they had ever seen,” Smith says. “It had to be overwhelming.”

At the Model Indian School, they were given a tour of their new temporary home. Their rooms overlooked the parade grounds, the traditional Indian village consisting of fourteen western tribes, and a basketball court. The Apache chief, Geronimo, also lived in the village, where he had his own booth. A federal prisoner at the time, he agreed to take part in such fairs, which allowed him a small measure of freedom.

An average of thirty thousand visitors came daily to the Indian Village, to see the displays of schoolwork and be entertained by concerts, athletic demonstrations, literary recitations, and other programs. The Fort Shaw team played basketball twice a week before hundreds of spectators. Prior to each game, the team entertained the crowd with string concerts, choral music, and poetry recitals. Geronimo even attended the Fort Shaw girls’ games and performances, which pleased the girls greatly. The Fort Shaw girls “never lost sight of the fact that they—and all of their classmates—were also on display. . . But if they were curiosities, they were also celebrities, a status they were enjoying to the hilt,” Peavy and Smith write. The team members saw themselves as performers—several were also talented musicians and singers—and accomplished athletes.

That autumn day in 1904, when the St. Louis All-Stars went back on the court for the second half of the second game in the best-of-three series, they were facing a group of girls who had come a long way from their first basketball scrimmage in June of 1897. The Fort Shaw team’s enthusiasm, camaraderie, and energy were unabated in the second half. At game’s end, the score was 17 to 6, and the Fort Shaw team was “Champion of the World’s Fair.”

Hundreds of people turned out to welcome the returning champions at a Montana train station in November. A band played Sousa’s “El Capitan” as the girls disembarked the train, hoisting aloft the silver trophy. On the wagon ride to Fort Shaw, townspeople lined the road, waving and cheering. Once at school, their schoolmates and Fort Shaw staff gave them a rousing reception.
That Fort Shaw team played together for another year. Some of them—now young women—eventually returned home to ranches or reservations, while a few took positions at other agency schools. By then, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was restructuring the curricula at its schools to emphasize training in domestic and manual skills, eliminating academic, artistic, and athletic programs like those at Fort Shaw, which closed in 1910.

As part of the research for their book, Peavy and Smith interviewed several descendants of the Fort Shaw team. “They were more than a skilled basketball team,” Turtle Woman told them. “They were a rare gathering of young female warriors who, facing the same . . . [barriers] that caused many Indian people to become discouraged and defeated, chose a path that made them victors.” To their descendants, Peavy says, “These women in their day were role models.”

About the Author

Delia Cabe is a magazine writer who is researching a book about her years at a Catholic boarding school. She teaches creative nonfiction at Emerson College and is a blogger for the Boston Globe.

Funding Information

In 2003, Linda S. Peavy and Ursula Smith were each awarded a $24,000 NEH research fellowship to support work on the history of the Fort Shaw Indian School and its basketball team. Humanities Montana supported the 2009 documentary Playing for the World, which drew on the research in Smith and Peavy’s book.