Basketball Champions of the World – 1904

Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire

Linda S. Peavy & Ursula Smith
Full-Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School, Basketball Champions of the World
479 sidor, inb.
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press 2008
ISBN 978-0-8061-3973-0

The story of the Fort Shaw Girls basketball team is one that cries out to be told. In summary, during the first few years of the 20th century, a basketball team from the Fort Shaw Indian School, a residential school in a former cavalry fort in central Montana became local celebrities (including with the region’s white settlers), played and toured throughout the region, went to the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, played competitive matches in and around the city and nearby. This team dominated the game and on that basis claimed the title World Champions.

It is not hard to see why Peavy and Smith were drawn to this story; it is the kind of thing that, as historians, we relish. First, it has a great narrative. Second, it has many of the key markers of history from below in that it deals with a marginalised group of people engaged in everyday activity and allows deep insight into lived experience. Third, it opens up some serious and challenging issues that critique dominant historical interpretations. Native American women at the turn of the 20th century were among the most marginalised in the USA; colonial war, treaty signings, forced relocations were all either current or within living memory, land loss and social upheaval continued. The mission was to ‘civilise’ Native Americans through legislation that individualised land ownership (which also made it easier for settlers to buy) while the development of Indian Schools was intended to train young Native people in the ways of Euro-America.

The experience for many young people in Indian schools was oppressive – they were stripped of their names, their language, their ways of seeing, doing and being. In many schools, the run-away rate was extremely high and punishments were harsh. The story we get here is a richer version of the Indian schools experience, and in this case for many of the young women it suggests that there may have been what some historians of women’s PE claim is a form of ‘internal emancipation’, that the social conditions remain oppressive but that young women are able to expand their horizons of the possible. To see this, however, we need to be aware of the limits placed on women’s physical activity by the dominant ideologies of the day (as seen in Patricia Vertinsky’s excellent analysis of medical, scientific and social views at the time in The Eternally Wounded Woman), but also on the limitations on travel – getting anywhere in sparsely populated Montana to play highly competitive sport meant that one game could mean up to five days away. These young athletes defied the gender conventions of the day – not that they were alone; there were of course other women’s basketball teams they played, mainly also based in educational institutions. A distinctive feature of this team, however, is that they outshone boys’ teams, including the football squad, by a considerable margin. That is, nearly everything about this story disrupts dominant interpretations.

While successfully taking a view from inside the team, its development and successes, as well as the challenges of developing women’s sport alongside institutional resistance, Peavy and Smith have done well to take the story beyond the team and to put the players into their broader social and cultural contexts to give us a sense of the difficulties that their families had in deciding to send them, sometimes hundreds of miles, away to school. They have made extremely good use of archival material, patched together biographical narratives of the team members, drawn on family histories and interviews to enrich our sense of these few years of this school sports team. Some of the members lived into the 1960s, but others died young leaving only patchy information. Few of their families knew much (or in some cases anything) about these women’s adventures as athletes.

A distinctive feature of this team, however, is that they outshone boys’ teams, including the football squad, by a considerable margin.

The uneven evidential base of the book does cause some problems, and in a few places Peavy & Smith’s attribution of motivation stretches the limits of plausibility, but this is a problem caused to a large degree by the depth of their delving into each player’s life and family/social context beyond the school. A more pressing difficulty is that in places they seem to gloss over the oppressive character of Indian residential schools, although the level of detail they are able to explore around the deaths of some runaways and those related to illness, including siblings and other relatives as well as close friends of team members, humanises the experience by attempting to explore (often successfully) the effect of those events on students.

Peavy and Smith write fluid and mellifluous prose, and have a skill that should be the envy of more historians – excellent story telling abilities that evoke the experiences of the subjects of the book. In addition to its rich insight into the lives and experiences of a group of young women in a remote mid western Indian school, the book does two other things extremely well. These are both summed up in promotional quotations on the back cover; Mark Dyreson notes that this book sheds “new light on the histories of Native Americans, women, and sport in the American West”; on this I think he is quite right and that despite its problems it is a significant contribution to the field. To their credit, Peavy & Smith point to the irony at the centre of their story – the costs of the educational policies that produced the Indian schools such as Fort Shaw, the destruction of custom, cultures and languages in the name of forced assimilation, also took these young women away from the demands of family and tribal life and allowed them become athletes, musicians and public figures in cross-tribal setting. As they say (on p 345), “had there been no Fort Shaw, there would have been no world champions”.

The other strength is much more personal, and encapsulated in the quotation from Barbara Boyd Winters, a granddaughter of one of the team members, Emma Sansaver, who observes that the book “brings home so vividly the challenges and richness of the life of a grandmother I longed to know”, and added that it “will be treasured by countless descendent of the team”. This is a timely reminder to historians that our work, especially in more recent periods, resonates and often has a deeply personal and intimate impact with contemporary audiences – those who descend from the people we discuss.

All in all, this is an important story that enriches the historical record in many ways, well written and engagingly told. As with other good histories, it tells a much bigger story than just the exploits of a basketball team in small town Montana.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2012

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