The game of basketball is perceived by most today as an “urban” game with a locale such as Rucker Park in Harlem as the game’s epicenter (as well as a pipeline to the NBA). While that is certainly a true statement, basketball is not limited to places such as New York City.
In recent years scholars have written about the meaning of the game (and triumphs on the hardwood) to other groups, such as Asian Americans (Kathleen Yep and Joel Franks) and Mexican Americans (Ignacio Garcia). To this important literature one can now add an examination of the sport in the lives of Native Americans, through Wade Davies' Native Hoops: The Rise of American Indian Basketball, 1895-1970
(University Press of Kansas, 2020).
The game, as Davies notes, was not just something imposed upon Natives in locales such as the Indian Industrial Training School in Kansas (and elsewhere). The game provided linkages to the Native past, and was embraced as a way to “prove their worth” within a hostile environment designed to strip students of all vestiges of their cultural inheritance. The sport provided both young men and women with an opportunity to compete against members of other institutions (both Native and white) and to challenge notions of inferiority and inherent weaknesses.
Davies’ work does an excellent job of detailing the role of the sport in the lives of individuals, schools, and eventually, Native communities. Additionally, it examines how these players competed against sometimes seven opponents (the five players on the court and the two officials) to claim their rightful place on the court. They also often had to deal with the taunts and racism of crowds at opposing gyms. Still, most of these schools managed to field competitive teams that created their own “Indian” style of basketball that proved quite difficult to defeat.
is professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, Missoula.
Jorge Iber is a professor of history at Texas Tech University.