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Woman Crush Wednesday: Shoni Schimmel and Catching a Shadow (Rez Ball Jim Thorpe)

Gyasi Ross writes about Native American basketball star Shoni Schimmel, a standout at Louisville who is now playing in the WNBA.
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He simply ran wild, while the Cadets tried in vain to stop his progress. It was like trying to clutch a shadow.

"Jim Thorpe Beats the Army," The New York Times, November 9, 1912 about Jim Thorpe and Carlisle Indian School’s Victory over Army

Quick Story: Socially, I was a pretty awkward kid. My head was too big for my body (still is), I was badly pigeon-toed, bushy hair, acne, etc. I’m sure mostly everyone went through that. For me, it had the sum effect of making sure that I was too self-conscious to really interact with girls. However, the ONE place where I felt comfortable and like I could be social was on the basketball court and, accordingly, most of my early crushes were women basketball players. From the Native basketball tourney circuit to the young ladies who would come to men’s open gyms, my early archetype for “The Perfect Girl” was a beautiful, brown-skinned Native girl with a basketball in her hand, a jersey on her and hopefully not TOO good of a jump shot lest she assault my delicate ego. 

Why Am I Telling You This?

Some people see Native people’s Homelands, called “Reservations,” as places of desolation, isolation and poverty—as a place to get away from. And while it’s true there certainly are hardships within our homelands, many Native people understand how valuable these lands are to who we are and know that these precious lands are worth protecting and living on and raising families within. Sure there are difficulties, but life has never been easy for Indigenous people—why should it start being easy now? Those folks know that success is more than simply making money or convenience.

To those Natives, our homelands are not simply a place to escape, a qualification to put on their resume of “Indianness.” Instead our life-giving homelands are beautiful and huge expanses of wide-open spaces, providing freedom to create and presenting opportunities to do something new every single day. That is reflected in everything from the opportunity to hunt for the same foods that fed our ancestors to the beautiful art and carvings and songs that come from these remote locations. 

It makes ABSOLUTELY PERFECT sense that, out of these wide-open places of creativity, Rez Ball would spring forth. And out of that creative and graceful tradition of Rez Ball, Shoni Schimmel (and eventually MANY, MANY Shoni Schimmels) would develop. 

'The Tourists' (1912), directed by Mack Sennett.

Oh…you don’t know about Rez Ball?? Let me explain a little bit. 

See, there’s conventional basketball. Conventional basketball is game that is based upon low-risk/high-percentage movements, and is intuitively intended to maximize every single time your team gets the ball. “We have to hold on to the ball like Gollum did his Precious, because God forbid we get behind in the score.” As evidence of that “low-risk” theory, the basketball at every single level had to install a shot clock because teams simply ran the clock out (four-corners, stall) when they had a lead.

Bob Cousy

Conventional basketball is White Republican basketball—“We started off with the lead and we never want anyone to get a chance to be competitive.” 

Then there’s Rez Ball. Rez Ball is predicated upon the notion that “We don’t need to maximize every single possession because we’re talented enough to score again when we get the ball back. We want the game to be competitive and not simply to hold the ball the whole game.” This is a throwback to the practice of counting coup, where you claim victory by beating them; however, you allowed them to be competitive another day.

Alonzo Adams/The Associated Press

March 29, 2013: Shoni Schimmel center) reacts after a shot over Baylor's Brittney Griner left). Schimmel scored 22 as the Cardinals upset the Bears in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

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Rez Ball is wide-open. Beautiful. Disciplined, but disciplined by Mother Nature’s rules and not by man’s structure, which makes it a war of attritionThere is an innate flow and beauty to it—high risk maneuvers, long passes, three pointers galore and, to be honest, not quite as much defense. But it’s beautiful. And natural. Colors of the wind, anyone?

So there’s conventional basketball … then there’s Shoni. Watching her play reminds me of the way the New York Times described Jim Thorpe:

The big Indian captain added more lustre to his already brilliant record, and at times the game itself was almost forgotten while the spectators gazed on Thorpe, the individual, to wonder at his prowess.

Look, I first saw Shoni play when she was in seventh grade at Indian Heritage High School in Seattle. Even then Shoni encapsulated Rez Ball in a way that shows all the best attributes—fearless, competitive, but not nasty. A showwoman—she knew she was the best player on the court, but wasn’t snotty about it. Quick with three-pointers—not prayers, but perfected from hundreds of hours of practice. Handles the ball like it’s part of her hand. She’s even better now—a million times better. Sometimes, like Thorpe, we just have to gaze at her prowess and grin, “She’s one of ours.”

Her talent is amazing. The coldest part? I’ve seen Shoni’s talent before. We have a million Shoni’s in Indian Country: Bob Eaglestaff, Gary Crossguns, Jess Hart, Tommy White, Russ Archambault, Jonathon Takes Enemy, Reynaldi Becenti, Michael Chavez, Alan Spoonhunter, Michael Jordan, PAULETTE Jordan (yes, she was that good), Tahnee Robinson, JR Camel, Kurt Schwamp, just to name a few. There are a lot. Homegrown in our so-called “desolate” reservations. And just like the amazing athletic talents that African-Americans have raised and cultivated in America’s inner-cities, where there has likewise been a reputation of being a place to “escape from,” oftentimes the most talented are not recognized for many structural reasons. Those structural reasons are deep and profound and worthy to be discussed. Still, that’s not the focus right now.

At the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, left to right: Mark Consuelos, Kelly Ripa, Cecilee Moses, Shoni Schimmel and Jude Schimmel. Photo by Tara Polen from

The focus is Shoni—beautiful, elegant and talented Shoni, who NEVER forgets where she comes from. She knows that our homelands are no place to escape from, but instead a place that is worthy and creates and is amazing. Like Jim Thorpe and ALL of the young Native brothers on the Carlisle Indian School football team in that historic game against Army, you are revolutionizing the game. Beautiful, brown-skinned, smiling, long ponytail bouncing—trying to catch her on the court is like trying to catch a shadow. Your people are praying for you.

Thank you Shoni, for loving our people and our homelands. Even though you are far off in distant lands, you constantly show where your heart is. You are the best and you’re changing lives. Like Jim Thorpe, the best in the world. We got your back, lil’ sis.

How Can You Have Shoni’s Back?

VOTE VOTE VOTE!!! As you all know, Shoni is having a DREAM season for the Atlanta WNBA team (see what I did there???); she’s amazing. Now, the All-Star game is coming up soon, and Shoni’s a candidate to go. The game is to be held in Phoenix on July 19th.

Vote EVERY DAY thru July 2nd! You can vote using twitter, facebook or online thru the AllAcess website.

Here is a link for details to the voting process.

Please share this info with any of your friends who will get Shoni Schimmel selected to the 2014 WNBA All Star starting lineup!


At the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, left to right: Mark Consuelos, Kelly Ripa, Cecilee Moses, Shoni Schimmel and Jude Schimmel. Photo by Tara Polen from

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
New Book, "How to Say I Love You in Indian"—order today!!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi