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Wyoming's Native student athletes overcome racism

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By Patrick Schmiedt -- Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - James Blare wasn't upset.

The head football coach at Wyoming Indian, Blare didn't expect his Chiefs to actually compete with Mountain View. The Chiefs were in the middle of a 0 - 8 2005 season, while the Buffaloes are a traditional Class 3A power.

''It was one of the funnest games we've ever had,'' Blare said of his team's trip to Mountain View. ''We got smoked 55 - 0, but they treated our kids great.''

But as the Chiefs were leaving a restaurant after their postgame meal, someone in a passing car rolled down the window and shouted: ''Go back to the rez!''

It's nothing new for high school sports teams from the Wind River Indian Reservation. On nearly every trip they take, they hear a war whoop or a racist remark. Or they see someone following team members around a store to make sure they don't shoplift.

Sometimes, it's worse.

Usually, the athletes are told to ignore it. ''Stay focused,'' coaches tell them. ''Let it make you stronger.''

But for some on the reservation, the fact these teenagers have to deal with it at all is a disappointing dose of unfortunate reality in Wyoming.

Rarely do Wyoming's American Indian students, parents, coaches or fans run into a clear example of racism on a road trip. Ignorance and misunderstandings are commonplace, though, and those can lead to unintentional incidents.

While returning home from a game against Lovell on Jan. 13, the Wyoming Indian girls' basketball team was not allowed to use the bathrooms at a Cenex truck stop in Worland, according to WIHS coach Aleta Moss.

As the team arrived, the lone visible clerk at the store pushed a cart in front of the restroom doors, and then told Moss the restrooms were being cleaned.

Moss asked the clerk how long the restrooms might be closed, and according to the coach, the response was terse.

''A long time'' was the response, Moss said, and nothing more.

Moss asked the attendant if the store was open.

''She said, 'Yes, but I'm busy,''' Moss said. ''I told my girls, 'Let's just put everything back,' and she said, 'Yeah, we don't want you here.'''

Kathy Fronk, the Worland Cenex store supervisor, said the team wasn't refused service. Fronk said the bathrooms were flooded, and it was going to take 15 to 20 minutes before they would have been reopened to the public.

''When the bathrooms are flooded, you really don't want people traipsing through,'' Fronk said. ''We would have been more than happy to wait on them, or they could have waited 15 or 20 minutes [to use the restrooms].''

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Most incidents in Wyoming fall into this gray area, a ''he-said, she-said'' argument where no clear answers are produced. Moss did admit the incident in Worland could have been motivated by factors other than race, but also said it was hard to deny in her mind that it wasn't.

''I guess that's the only way we could take it,'' she said.

On the court, incidents translated as racism often spring from the flow of competition, according to coaches close to reservation athletics.

''Everybody trash-talks,'' said Craig Ferris, Wyoming Indian's head boys' basketball coach and a former player for the Chiefs. ''If you're a real competitor, you'll do whatever you can to gain an advantage over someone.''

Occasionally, Ferris said his team will encounter a group of fans doing a war whoop or a tomahawk chop - something that he doesn't necessarily consider racism.

''I see that as a team trying to gain a competitive mental advantage over you,'' Ferris said. ''If you're a good, competitive player, you can block that out.''

While many others share Ferris' view, a few people from Wyoming's only reservation see the chants as a blatant, race-driven attack on an ethnic group, not just on five players on a basketball floor.

Even for Ferris, though, there are certain lines people should never cross. Occasionally, those lines are crossed, and it's those instances that most anger those from the reservation.

''I can understand the testosterone level,'' said Jenni Runs Close To Lodge, who works in the Wyoming Indian school system and has a son, Winter, who's a senior at Wyoming Indian this year. ''I can understand kids saying, 'you suck.' But I can't understand someone calling a kid a 'prairie n-----.'''

Sara Robinson, a native of Fremont County, said she saw clear examples of racism both as an athlete at Lander and as a parent of an athlete.

''Everybody wants to act like it doesn't exist, but it does exist,'' said Robinson, whose daughter, Tahnee, was the target of verbal racial attacks while playing volleyball and basketball for Lander. ''It's not something we're making up. It's something that happened, does happen and still happens.''

For those on and off the reservation, there is one central question: When does competitive fire end and an attack on an entire race begin?

A comment that might bring one person to tears may not even raise the eyebrow of another. An action some might view as motivated by race may actually be motivated by the scoreboard - or the stress of a flooded bathroom.

Most problems Native athletes see on the road arise from such misunderstandings.

Ron Laird, commissioner of the Wyoming High School Activities Association, said his office hasn't received any reports of racism at high school events this school year.

''Any time, in my experience, at least, it was always addressed immediately by that school,'' Laird said. ''You can't control what every person is going to say or not say, but I think our schools have done a pretty good job of being proactive.''

Reactions to misunderstandings can often make the problem worse, according to Runs Close To Lodge.

''Unfortunately, a lot of times, the first response [from those making verbal attacks] is, 'I didn't do that,' or 'I didn't mean that,''' Runs Close To Lodge said. ''The adult, mature thing to say is, 'I'm sorry. I won't do that any more. .... Maybe I won't understand why you're offended, but I'll try not to do that again.'''