It is impossible to underestimate the emphasis on high school sports on the reservation. On the hardwood stage in Browning, thousands of people gather to cheer for the Running Indians basketball team. Before the school was required to travel great distances to compete, caravans of fans would follow them to games in nearby towns, while others listened to radio coverage. In cross country, no Montana school in modern history has dominated a sport the way Browning has. Between 1971 and 1992, the boys' team won 17 state titles, including 11 in a row. During that same period, the girls' team won eight state titles.
The boys' basketball team takes the home court wearing war bonnets. Runners braid eagle feathers into their hair for important races; football players paint their faces. High school sports is a fleeting moment of honor, a chance for courage and cheers, a level playing field when there are few others. No matter how much is wrong with your life, you have this moment in the sun. For many, though, it is followed by darkness.
"All the cross country champions, where are they?" asks local educator Darrell Kipp. "Why aren't they on the Olympic team? Why didn't they make it to college?" Kipp, who has a master's degree in education from Harvard, runs the Piegan Institute, which develops schools in which only native languages are spoken. Born on the reservation, he has observed the rise and fall of Native American athletes for years.
"If you take people and you beat out of them their language and their sense of being an Indian, and you take everything valuable that they feel as Indians and rip it out of them, then what do you have?" asks Kipp, staring out the window of his office in downtown Browning. "You have a brown body left with nothing in it, and it's standing over there on the corner sucking on a wine bottle. We become people unable to hope. There's a reality here and it's a very blunt one. It's right across the street."
Across a potholed intersection from Kipp's office is Ick's Place, where the regulars huddle in back around a bottle. Among them is Carlin No Runner. His name belies his ability. No Runner, 29, ran on four state high school cross country championship teams, then went on to compete at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., before returning home. He still loves to run, loves the feeling of movement, the rhythm of his feet upon the ground. Sometimes he takes off over the knuckles and knolls of prairie between Browning and his home seven miles away.
And sometimes he dances at pow-wows, losing himself in the pounding of the drums and his heart, the rhythm of his feet upon the ground. He thinks about his dream, mostly forgotten now, of running in the Olympics. His eyes move slowly as he looks up. "Maybe," he says, "I can still do it."
In the still-quiet late April dawn of boulder park in Colorado Springs, on land once inhabited by the Utes, Dan Foster stands in a circle with 20 Native American athletes. The previous day, at the airport in Great Falls, Mont., a security guard demanded to search his bag, which contained a pipe and other sacred items that are not to be touched except when offered in prayer.
Foster pleaded with the guard not to handle them, to put the bag through the X-ray machine instead. The guard, unlike those at every other airport Foster has traveled through, would not oblige. He dug through the bag and, in doing so, contaminated it. For Foster, who has endured the piercings of the Sun Dance on his chest and back, it was as if the guard had ripped out the pages of a family Bible that had been handed down for hundreds of years.
As the players stand together in the park, John EagleDay begins speaking about the Ghost Dance. Prior to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, representatives of many tribes gathered in Nevada to pray for the return of all that had been swept away. One man, Buffalo Short Bull of the Dakota tribe, had a vision that as people gathered in the circle, they should grasp hands by interlocking their fingers.
"In this way, you may want to let go, but I'm not going to let you," EagleDay continues. "It is a symbol of the determination at the dance to never let go of each other. Let's put our hands together. Interlock your fingers." The players grasp hands. "This circle is too strong now. It can never be separated. . . . This is going to be our victory, our determination never to let go."
In addition to Foster, the players in the circle include:
Shel McLain, 25, of Colbert, Wash. Foster saw him play in a basketball tournament in Browning two years ago and invited him to the camp. While playing professional basketball in Germany this year, he saw a team handball game on television. This gives him more background in the game than some of his fellow players.