“Why We Play Basketball”: The Importance of Sport in the Native American Community

By Katherine Quaid

Google “basketball rules” and you will find millions of webpages that will give you information about the rules and regulations of the game. Google “rezball” and only a handful of web pages come up, most of which only mention the word and do nothing to define it or provide rules. This is because rezball doesn’t have rules, not in the traditional sense anyways. It lies at the cross-section of performance, athleticism, and creativity. Instead of trying to define it I will attempt to describe it.

Five on five still applies but the strategies have changed. No zone defense, fouls are many but calls are few, and players must be ready to run for the entirety of the game. Most rezball tournaments take place in community centers and gyms past their prime that are the social hub of most reservations. Players run back and forth trying to beat their opponents down the court. They pass behind their back, in between their legs and even without looking, something I never excelled at. Players will make insane shots from the half court line, from underneath the basket and from positions traditional basketball players would only dream of. Rezball is often described as “fearless” and “creative” by those who are recent newcomers to this “racehorse style of basketball” (Colton 2000: 172). The re-appropriation of basketball into rezball has led to a new liminoid space, where structure is subverted and resistance blossoms.

Anthropologist Jean Comaroff notes that under oppressive authoritarian states, resistance forms in seemingly apolitical spaces in which new stories are created and symbols are fought for (1985: 261, 196-197). Basketball as a symbol, once of assimilation, is constantly fought for by Native American athletes who represent the Native American population. The basketball court is a space in which resistance against dominant stereotypes, concepts of play and racial epithets occurs because of its liminoid characteristic. The term “liminoid” is alternative to “liminal” because it further encapsulates the creativity of activities. Comaroff defines resistance as “typically neither an all-or-nothing phenomenon nor an act in and of itself; it is frequently part and parcel of practices of subjective and collective reconstruction” and these practices, especially as it pertains to basketball, are contained within the body (1985: 195).

To learn rezball is not to be taught rezball. A player must grow up in a certain type of environment, one in which these characteristics of athleticism, performance and creativity are valued and learned through watching others. These are learned and maintained through the body and become a habitus of not only basketball but general sport performance. Anthropologist Marcel Mauss labels these types of bodily practices as “techniques of the body” defining them as an “action [that] is imposed from without, from above, even if it is exclusively biological action, involving the body” (2007: 54). By viewing these as techniques we can see how seemingly apolitical actions become forms of resistance that are transferred from one generation to the next, evolving from the boarding school era to now.

Native American college athletes like Shoni Schimmel, Abby Scott, and Lakota Beatty use the techniques of rezball to prove to the general public and to their own communities that Native Americans are more than just a statistic.  In one interview Schimmel states, “one thing that my mom has talked to me about is, you have to go out there and show that you can come off a reservation and you can make it” (Oregonlive). This concept of “making it” becomes tricky when living in the “White man’s world” because athletes must constantly navigate the line between cultural pride and cultural assimilation. The Schimmel sisters are constantly navigating a line with their coach, who is continually trying to understand the rezball techniques that they use. By continuing their practice of their rezball playing style, the Schimmel sisters are models of agency and resistance for young girls all throughout Indian country.

Their position as star athletes and as some of the only female Native Americans in the public eye gives them an extreme amount of power and responsibility. Buford May found that kids don’t just pick role models based on their athletic skill but also what they do for their communities (2009). All of his participants viewed their “chosen role model as a resource to the overall Black community. Thus, the young men take into consideration professional players’ off-the-court behavior” (450). The athletes must also give back to their communities in order to fulfill the role of role model. Most of the communities that support these athletes, view the athlete’s success as helping the population (Anderson 2006).

Jude Schimmel, for example, was nominated for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Allstate Good Works Team, an award that commends student athletes who are active members in their communities through volunteerism and civic service (Gocards.com). During her spare time Jude travels all across the country to speak at reservations and let other Native Americans know that “they can do it, too” (Gocards.com). The Schimmel sisters, Scott, Beatty and all the other female college athletes out there not only subvert societal notions of gender and race but they provide role models for women and girls on the reservation.

Women are able to fit into this role because, in general White society, they do not threaten the status quo, and they become subverters of patriarchy as they become the main role models within their own societies. By getting a foot in the door female college basketball players give a voice to Native Americans and take over the role of representing culture and pride in an apolitical realm. By doing so, they provide millions of young Native girls with hope for upward mobility, education and opportunity.

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