Crow Agency, Mont. - For four student athletes from the capital city of Nassua in the Bahamas, leaving home to play basketball on a scholarship at Little Big Horn College (LBHC) in rural, southeastern Montana probably felt like going not just to another country, but another planet.
One of the women’s first observations was of a landscape that included not only mountains and expansive skylines, but vast prairies that seemed to be inhabited by more livestock than people.
After waiting a year for their Student and Visitor Exchange Program (SEVP) forms required by the Department of Homeland Security to be processed, David Small, the college's dean of administration and athletic director, said the women were eager for classes to start. The SEVP ensures only legitimate students are allowed into the U.S., and tracks them while protecting their privacy.
Since 2007, the LBHC basketball team has jumped from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) conference to the more competitive National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region IV. This conference encompasses 17 competing community and junior college women’s teams.
Because of the transition, LBHC is qualified to take in three foreign scholarship student athletes at a time per team. Since she’s not on a scholarship yet, freshman Krystal Dean attends LBHC with her own money until she’s eligible for a scholarship when her fellow Bahamas teammates depart after this year.
LBHC coach Dominic Gaglia only said he’d heard about the Bahamas players through contacts gained with 30-plus years of coaching experience at various levels. Gaglia, along with Tiffany Wildgoose’s mother Laverne, coordinated most of the paperwork and traveling arrangements for the women until their arrival in the fall semester of 2009.
Gaglia is looking at two more Bahamas players possibly coming to LBHC next year to join Dean and the mix of local and regional talent after sophomores Wildgoose, Taniel Poitier, and Tracy Lewis graduate.
An open enrollment school, foreign students only need SEVP paperwork to attend LBHC. Small said they’ve received calls and e-mails from dozens of student athletes interested in attending the school. Like the Bahamas girls, most potential students want to use the tribal college as a stepping stone to come to the U.S. and possibly play at a four-year college.
The population of the Crow Indian Reservation has embraced the women. Poitier said while the small population is generous to them, they’re also “nosy” about the girls from islands.
One teammate, Loretta Brown from Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation, lives with the women off campus. She described them as her “best friends.” Although Brown’s also a newcomer to the Crow Reservation, she tries her best to explain Montana and Indian ways to her friends.
Apart from the monotonous nature of living in an isolated community, the Bahamas students said one of the main struggles is adjusting to the winters.
“I don’t like this weather at all,” Lewis said as her Bahaman teammates nodded in agreement. “That snow part? We can’t deal with that. We don’t have snow where we’re from. Ten below and stuff?! No way!”
Small is impressed with the determination of the women, and noted they otherwise had limited means to support themselves. Gaglia thinks their humble upbringing was a reason they were so quick to relate to other students where 75 percent of the on-reservation Indian population lives in poverty, according to a 2009 study by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
“I think the community’s really adopted them as one of their own,” Gaglia said. “They have a lot of friendships, and a lot of people that look after them.”
Gaglia has had no discipline problems with the women, which he credits to them keeping focused with school and basketball. He proudly noted that they’ve been excellent academically, and have met the 3.25 accumulative GPA requirements to be Academic All-Region Region IX athletes.
Small said there’s even been talk of adopting the women into the Crow tribe. Of their impact on LBHC, he said, “Where it helps us is that it gives our kids here a chance to talk to these girls and see how driven the are.”
“It’s a motivation thing, and what we’re finding out is that a lot of local students really don’t appreciate and take for granted the opportunity they have here. But when they see these girls here working hard, appreciative just to be attending school, then that attitude rubs off.”