Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith’s decade of research that spawned from a picture has brought readers “Full-Court Quest,” an entertaining and intensely historical account of the 1904 girls basketball championship team from Fort Shaw Indian School.
Peavy and Smith began their research upon a chance discovery of a picture of the Fort Shaw team in the archives of the Montana Historical Society in 1997. The picture was of eight American Indian girls in full ceremonial dress – that contained a caption labeling them as the “Fort Shaw Indian Girls Basket Ball team.”
Unsure what to make of the reference and photo, Peavy and Smith began a 10 year collaboration of efforts, interviews and research to unearth the true meaning of the photo. The photograph is now on page 257 of the book.
According to the authors, a Native elder began one of these interviews with the following sentiment. “Back in the time of your great grandmother, there was once a team of Indian girls who played basketball better than anyone else in the world.”
“Full-Court Quest” is an excellent book full of rich history. No one could accuse Peavy and Smith of not doing their homework.
The authors take their time, but not too much time to educate and entertain the reader. The journey begins with the construction of the Fort Shaw boarding school and the beginning of the search for Indian students.
The reader seems to live alongside the characters within the book. One can feel the uncertainty of Native people that fear sending their young children to school. There is a small degree of sadness, but Peavy and Smith are always ready to focus more on the uplifting side of history. But there is no sense that they are ignoring it.
We see the invention of basketball and the ultimate creation of the Fort Shaw girls team all the way up to their championship victory at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
The authors tell a story of how this Indian girls basketball team would make such an incredible journey that originated from the establishment of Fort Shaw in 1892. Peavy and Shaw perhaps best summarize their findings in the preface.
“From this serendipitous convergence of events, 10 young women came together to form a virtually unbeatable team. The oldest of the girls was 19, the youngest 15. Some of them were veterans of boarding school life. … while others have been enrolled at the school for barely a year. Hailing from American Indian communities and reservations across Montana and Idaho, the players represented seven different tribes, some of them with long-standing animosities toward one another.”
The girls of the basketball team, Minnie Burton, Lemhi Shoshone; Genie Butch, Sarah Mitchell, Katie Snell and Nettie Wirth, Assiniboine; Genevieve Healy, Gros Ventre; Belle Johnson, Piegan; Rose LaRose, Shoshone-Bannock; Flora Lucero, Chippewa; and Emma Sansaver, Chippewa-Cree become less history and more a person with likes and dislikes, happy times and sad.
The book follows their boarding school lives alongside the inception of “basket ball.” Instead of reading, there are times when you genuinely feel transported to that time. The reader feels the tension of those students that want to escape the school, the scratchy collars and cold baths on winter nights.
But the reader also feels the excitement of the games played that are jam-packed with spectators adding to the heat of an already stifling room. You feel each and every scuffle for the ball as well as the celebrations after the games.
Peavy and Smith also recount the fact that Superintendent Fred C. Campbell of Fort Shaw was also a businessman in a sense that the success of his students meant the continued success of his school.
It comes across that Campbell was proud of his Indian girls basketball team, but the games were also a vehicle to promote the solvency of Fort Shaw. The authors go into detail about how the girls were quick on the court but just as quickly had to change from their bloomers into costumes and Native regalia in order to perform for the crowds with music and monologues.
Peavy and Smith convey the racial tension and ignorance that existed at the level of local news publications. The girls were called many things by many people, but as the story progresses, the columns of that time reflect less and less the racial aspects and more the superior sportswomanship of the Fort Shaw girls basketball team.
Ultimately, the team ends up in the World’s Fair. The descriptions of the events are engaging. From the stoic Geronimo that signs autographs for the crowds to the large groups of people that pass through the Indian exhibit by the thousands, to the massive Ferris wheel that oversees the fair, everything pulls together to create a very nice package of a book.
Peavy and Smith have written a lively and almost cheerful account about the introduction of Fort Shaw to many of the tribal people in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming. But it doesn’t stop them from relaying their ideas and thoughts about the inception of Indian Boarding Schools.
“Stripping American Indian youth of their native languages was a major tenet in the government’s goal of assimilation and acculturation through education. Immersion in the ways of their conquerors, abandonment of their native dress, rejection of their sacred and secular customs and traditions, and acceptance of the white man’s religion, values and vocations were all a part of policy one historian has termed ‘education for extinction.’”
As Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, superintendent of Carlisle, the nation’s first and foremost off-reservation boarding school put it. The aim of the educator was “to Kill the Indian” to “Save the Man.”
Peavy and Smith, in a sense did address this issue, but in more of a sense addressed the fact that an American Indian girls basketball team was a world champion.
A possible lesson: maybe it is time to focus less on what the tragedies and travesties were in history. This never means forget. But there is wisdom in celebration rather than devastation.
Bravo to Peavy and Smith for an excellent account of these Native heroes that deserve to be honored.
“Full-Court Quest,” was published by University of Oklahoma Press.
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Speaking with the authors
[Drop Cap] Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, co-authors of “Full-Court Quest,” have known each other since 1978. They took time to speak with ICT in regards to their historical book project on the Fort Shaw Indian girls basketball team. They professed that although they are not native, they desired to respectfully express the stories of these champions that had not been written into history.
ICT: All of the research in the creation of “Full-Court Quest” must have been exhausting.
Smith: It took us 11 years to do this – the research and writing. There were a lot of false starts. We didn’t know quite how to get our head around all of this.
ICT: Was the picture that you found the one that is now on the cover?
Peavy: No. We were looking for extra pictures for our book “Frontier Children” and we found a wonderful picture of eight girls standing in buckskin dresses with the inscription “Indian Girls Basket Ball Team – Fort Shaw School 1903.”
Smith: Do they look like a basketball team to you?
ICT: No, they don’t.
Peavy: We had quite an argument; Ursula said they could not have played in these dresses, I said, “How do you know that?” Our curiosity was boundless because we specialize in forgotten people and stories that haven’t been put into history yet.
Smith: Because they were from an off-reservation school and went back to their home reservations after school there were no social connections left between the descendants of these 10 girls.
Peavy: Families had heard the names, and some of them had photos with IDs but they had never really heard the stories or been in contact with the others. Discovering the background of each one of these young women sent us back to the reservations and all over D.C. and Montana and Denver – because the schools’ records were everywhere.
ICT: A lot of times when you hear the stories about Indian Boarding Schools, you hear about how horrible they were. Your approach is fairly light-hearted, and you focus on the more positive aspects. What would you say about this approach?
Peavy: We had a small population of 10 young women who succeeded and were the stars of a World’s Fair for six months. Their families (interviewed descendants of the Fort Shaw players) thought that Fort Shaw was just the greatest thing that ever happened to grandma. Five of those women sent their children to off-reservation schools.
Smith: It was a real revelation to see that this story was different. We did find cases regarding boys – of families that said “grandpa hated it.” In regards to boarding school life, it really depends on the individual’s reaction whether you hear they loved boarding school.
ICT: You must come away from this project with an extreme feeling of satisfaction with all the research you’ve done.
Smith: There is almost a withdrawal – it should be said that the richest parts of this entire experience were the collaborators, the true kin and tribal members of these girls. We wanted to know their tribal and cultural backgrounds. We wanted to know them as individuals. We wanted people to know something that was forgotten.