A find of several arrowheads on our land in western NY sparked my interest in reading Full Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School: Basketball Champions of the World by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. Once the authors introduced me to the players on the basketball team named world champions at the 1904 World's Fair, I found myself immersed in the players' lives as they transitioned from life on reservations and farms with their families to their coming of age at a boarding school, separated from their own cultures.
Because different tribes had been settled in one location at the Fort Shaw Indian School, there existed the potential for conflict, but instead these girls supported one another while negotiating the illnesses that plagued them from time to time, as well as surviving the deaths of parents, siblings, and friends. Starting with a soccer ball and a basket nailed to the wall, they progressed through and over many obstacles to become the "champions of the St. Louis world's fair." Not only did they play two twenty-minute, full-court basketball halves, several times a week and sometimes twice in a day, they also performed pantomime, played musical instruments, and recited poetry as part of their "demonstration" of how Indian girls could become "civilized." They raced up and down the court and through the Northwest exhibiting their talents, recruiting new students, accepting challenges from whites who could barely score against them, showing grace and modesty each time they won.
Even though they were exploited to gain money for their school budgets, these diligent young women put all their efforts into perfecting their performances and heroically presenting a positive view of Native Americans at a time when the whites who lived on their native lands ridiculed, criticized, and denigrated them.
Through newspaper and magazine articles, BIA reports, letters, and oral history from their descendents, the Fort Shaw Girls' Basketball team emerges from the pages as a group of unique individuals, each with her own distinct personality. Numerous photos of the girls and extensive notes add to the details of their lives.
The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, originally intended to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, became the showcase for Native American crafts and lifestyles that were quickly disappearing. The Fort Shaw girls represented the future with their recitations, dance, and exhibition basketball games just as the exhibits represented the past. Their biographers and descendents deserve our praise. Recommended for women's, multicultural, and regional history collections.
Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith began their collaborative work in women's history and biography in Bozeman, Montana. In the intervening years they have coauthored ten books, including Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement, Pioneer Women, Frontier Children, and Frontier House. Currently residing in Vermont, they have given presentations and workshops across the nation, including at the Library of Congress and the White House.
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