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A WOMAN of THE PEOPLE
Gary Smith
March 01, 1993
Ryneldi Becenti, star of the Arizona State women's team, struggles to balance the demands of major college basketball with the ancient traditions of her tribe
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March 01, 1993

A Woman Of The People

Ryneldi Becenti, star of the Arizona State women's team, struggles to balance the demands of major college basketball with the ancient traditions of her tribe

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This, Ray asked himself, was where he was letting his kids go? If the parents weren't there for the children as they went off into the world, what would make the children be there for the parents as the time drew near for them to leave it? He sat in the passenger seat of the Cutlass and watched Reyes slalom through three-tenths of a mile of red mud to reach the paved road, where another truckload of Diné was heading off to the game. All of the People, in private, were wrestling with this same question. Television sets were luring their children to a different dream, grant money from the tribal scholarship office was luring them off to college. If the covenant was broken between the land and the People, between the young and the old, many elders believed the tribe was doomed.

Ryneldi was, in a way, a litmus test. She would show whether the People could compete head-on in that foreign world, but perhaps even more, whether they could learn the Anglos' strange ways and still return home. Ryneldi was the first Diné to play out the question in public. "She means to our people," says Lester Kinsel, her coach in middle school, "what Pelé meant to Brazil."

Already the ripples were spreading. Ten Diné women, far more than ever before, played junior college basketball this year, and another, sophomore Gwynn Hobbs, started at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Four of the five Diné seniors on the girls' team at Sis's alma mater, Window Rock High, had committed to entering college next season, and all four Diné seniors on the reservation's Monument Valley High girls' team, which twice had traveled six hours to watch Ryneldi play, planned to go to college too.

Ray motioned his son to stop the car. He limped to a tree, the same tree as always, and took a fresh sprig of cedar to keep on the dashboard during the trip. It was a ritual Ray performed virtually every week of every basketball season: fill the tank, change the oil, change the cedar and follow the road to Sis again.

There were no boundaries to his pride in her accomplishments...but one. "I wonder if all my children are going to move away," he said. "I wonder if I'm going to end up all alone."

"She's the hero of the reservation. They hold their breath with every move she makes. She feels such pressure to be the perfect role model, to make every game the perfect game. They come from so far to see her, they call her on the phone all the time. She's a walking Dear Abby column, in reverse—all of her people want to give her advice. Their fear is that she won't go back to them, that she has become too modern. My fear is that she's under so much pressure to please everybody that she won't please herself."

That was what Ryneldi's coach at Arizona State, Maura McHugh, said. So many voices filled Sis's head as she walked across campus to the arena for that evening's game. There were the words of Peterson Zah, the tribal president who had designated her a youth ambassador to speak at alcohol and drug clinics, schools and youth conferences across the reservation the past two summers: "She is perhaps the first role model we have ever had. She is a pioneer. When she speaks, all the children are quiet and listening intently. She is helping to teach us the competitive attitude, which is what we have lacked. We haven't taught our children how to go out into the cold world—we need her to come back here and to be seen physically, to explain to them how she did it. She has the qualities to be president of our tribe."

Then she would hear the voice of Margaret McKeon, the young Arizona State assistant coach from New York City who had taken Sis under her wing, urging her to explore the possibility of professional ball in Europe, or to accept that request to speak in front of 350 whites and blacks at Arizona State, or to see what her hair looked like long or to try on a pretty blouse and a pair of designer jeans at the mall ... to go out and crack open the great chestnut of life while she was young and free. Who could not wish to be as confident and loose as Margaret, as full of life and laughter? Sis could be all silliness and giggles too, but she usually had to be in a place with lines around it, a basketball court or a reservation in northeastern Arizona.

And then old arguments with her dad would come back to her, from still summer nights when she was home from college and thought she would go nuts.

"Let's do something, Dad. I'm so bored."

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