To the north and northwest of the Crow reservation lay the reservations of the Blackfeet, Sioux, Flathead, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree, Salish, Kootenai and Pen D'Oreilles; to the east lay the Cheyenne. These tribes too loved to run and shoot and jump. At tournament time in Montana, Indian teams were known to streak onto the floor for layup drills in war headdress, their fans to shake arenas with chants and war cries and pounding drums as their boys raced up and down the floor at speeds few white teams could sustain. Old women wrapped in blankets were known to pound the bleachers in unison with their canes, to lose their cool and swing the canes at the calves of enemy players; a few, back in the 1940s, even jabbed opponents with hat pins as the boys ran up the sidelines.
Their children spent their days shooting at crooked rims and rotting wooden backboards. Their young men drove for days to reach Indian tournaments all across America and came home to strut the dusty streets in the sheeny jackets they had won there.
Of all the perplexing games that the white man had brought with him—frantic races for diplomas and dollar bills and development—here was the one that the lean, quick men on the reservations could instinctively play. Here was a way to bring pride back to their hollow chests and vacant eyes, some physical means, at last, for poor and undereducated men to reattain the status they once had gained through hunting and battle. Crow men had never taken up the craftwork, weaving or metallurgy that males in other tribes had. They were warriors, meat eaters, nomads whose prestige and self-esteem had come almost entirely from fulfilling an intricate set of requirements—called "counting coup"—while capturing enemy horses or waging battle, A man could count coup by touching an enemy, by seizing a bow or a gun in a hand-to-hand encounter, by capturing a horse in a hostile camp or by being the pipe carrier (which signified leadership) on a successful raid. Only by counting coup, some say, could a man marry before the age of 25; only by counting coup in all four categories could he become a chief. Children were named after the exploits of warriors; men starved themselves for days and slept alone in the mountains to invite dreams that would guide them on raids; a woman attained honor by the number of scalps and the war booty captured by her man, tokens of which she brandished when she danced.
And then the white men hunted the buffalo nearly to extinction and banned intertribal warfare. "It castrated the Crow male," says Ben Pease, a tribal elder who played basketball for Hardin High in the 1940s. "It created a vacuum. During World War I we still weren't citizens, so our men couldn't gain prestige from that war. People began living off the war deeds of their ancestors, depending on them for their status. Some Crows fought in World War II, and for a while these men, especially those who came back with wounds or proof of bravery, became our leaders, and our ceremonies often revolved around them. But time passed, and there weren't enough wars or war heroes; there was a void that needed to be filled. In the late '50s Larry Pretty Weasel emerged at Hardin High, and our basketball players began to be noticed in the newspapers. That continued through the '60s and '70s; more and more of our children began to play. Something had to take war's place, some way had to be found to count coups. It was basketball."
Old Crow rituals had warm blood and fresh drama again. Some players tucked tiny medicine bundles—little pouches that might contain tobacco seeds or small pieces of bone or feather—inside their socks or tied them to their jerseys, the way warriors once had tied them to their braids before entering battle. Some burned cedar and prayed before big games. The same drum cadence and honor songs used 200 years ago to celebrate the seizing of a dozen horses or the killing of three Sioux now reverberated through gymnasiums and community halls at the capture of a basketball trophy.
"For us, a victory in a high school basketball game is a victory over everyday misery and poverty and racism," says Dale Old Horn, who heads the department of Crow studies and social sciences at Little Big Horn College. "But it's not a real victory. It doesn't decrease bigotry. It doesn't lessen alcoholism. It doesn't remove one Indian from the welfare rolls or return a single acre of our land. It gives us pseudo pride. It hasn't led us on to greater things."
No Indian has ever played in the NBA. Only one, Don Wetzel of the Blackfeet, ever came off a Montana reservation to play for an NCAA Division I team (the University of Montana, 1967-71). Trophy cases in the lobbies of Indian schools throughout the state are filled with gleaming silver...and with black-bordered dedications to the dead. This is not just the Crows' tragedy. Two months after graduating from Browning High on the Blackfeet reservation in 1987, 6'3" All-Stater Gary-Cross Guns packed his car to go to a junior college in Kansas. One last night out was all he wanted. The next morning his sister went for a horseback ride. She found her brother's car and his body in Cut Bank Creek.
Wetzel, who once coached basketball at Browning and is now superintendent of schools in Harlem, Mont., could bear it no longer. In the three years since Cross Guns's death, he has traveled 14,000 miles and talked to 12,000 kids, "trying," he says, "to make people see how scary this whole situation has become."
Every now and then, a lesser player left the Crow reservation and quietly, with no scholarship or fanfare, got his degree. But as best as anyone can figure, since 1970 only one prominent Crow player, Luke Spotted Bear, has received a college scholarship and graduated (from Mary College in Bismarck, N.Dak.)—and Spotted Bear often felt that his people held this against him. "Some of them say I'm too good for them now," he says. "If possible, they don't want to be around me."
College recruiters stopped coming to the reservation, opportunities disappeared. Sean Fritzler, who averaged 29.8 points a game as a senior in 1989, shot 68% from the field and was valedictorian of his class at Plenty Coups High School, did not receive a letter of interest from a single university.