|Colorado College sophomore CooXooEii Black is averaging 14.5 points per game, second on Tigers so far this season.
Colorado College athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
There’s a whole subculture of basketball in this country that so many people never notice. It’s comprised of little known teams from all over, playing often innovative styles, and full of talented athletes on a level most outsiders would be surprised to find. There may not be a ton of fans, but those who exist are passionate and loyal.
I’m not talking about Division III basketball, although I could be. The basketball subculture I found myself immersed in over the last few weeks is Native American basketball, sometime called Rezball to differentiate its distinct style and culture in Native American communities around the US. Rezball parallels and intersects with Division III basketball in a lot of interesting ways and the two are becoming increasingly more integrated.
"There are 567 tribal nations across the United States,” says NDNSPORTS.com co-founder Brent Cahwee. "Each tribe has their own distinct relationship with the United States government as well as their own culture and language, yet we’re all characterized as Native Americans."
Cahwee and John Harjo started NDNSPORTS.com as college students in 2000 to connect the Native American community nationally by highlighting athletes. “There are Native Americans competing at the highest levels in nearly every state, but with 567 tribal nations, how would one person know about another tribal athlete playing nearby?" says Cahwee.
"Our goal is to find these athletes and highlight their on-the-field achievements and let people know so they can go and support them. It’s difficult for Native Americans to get notoriety and support once they leave their communities or reservations; we wanted to provide that support."
Cahwee’s description of starting a growing website sounds very familiar to the one D3hoops.com Editor Emeritus Pat Coleman relayed recently on Hoopsville, in celebration of our site’s twentieth anniversary. It was difficult to find information at first, but as internet communication and awareness of the site increased, it became a flood that took lots of extra time to manage. In both cases, the sites provide valuable information that a specific group of basketball fans can’t readily find anywhere else.
A big piece of that information was simply how to get recruited. Cahwee says, “Traditionally, Native Americans were never recruited, despite being state record holders, despite being scoring leaders; they just weren’t recruited. Indian Country, as a whole, was under the assumption that all you had to do was to get good grades and play hard – someone will find you.”
Anyone who’s been around college recruiting lately knows it takes a lot more than that. CooXooEii Black, a sophomore at Colorado College, from the Wind River Reservation, just outside Yellowstone National Park, worked tirelessly to educate himself on how to be seen.
“I didn’t really know what to do until my junior year,” says Black, “I learned by looking things up – googling ‘how to play college basketball’ – I found out you have to make contact, send emails, send game film. I set up an NCSA recruiting profile and that was a big help. They had all these seminar sessions you could listen to that really helped me figure out what I needed to do.”
It also took some support from unexpected places. Former Denver Nuggets player and coach Bill Hanzlik owns a facility in Denver that hosts the All-West Native Tournament. He saw Black playing and kept in touch, helping to set him up with a travel team in Denver, where he made connections to do a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Black has a deep connection to his family, tribe, and traditions, adding an extra layer of difficulty to the process of leaving home for school. Black's first name CooXooEii is a traditional Northern Arapahoe name, bestowed by his grandfather.
“You have to step away and not be constantly surrounded by your traditions and your ceremonies that you had growing up,” says Black, “Smudging is the act of burning cedar or sage as a way of healing, as the way we pray, as a way to heal yourself. It’s not something I could really do out east in the dorm room. That was a little tough, because it’s something to fall back on when you’re in need of strength.”
In a sense, this is precisely the mission of NDNSPORTS.com: providing avenues so athletes don’t have to entirely leave behind their support systems to play college basketball.
One of the most successful native basketball players is Shoni Schimmel, leader of Louisville’s national runner-up squad in 2013 (which also included her sister, Jude) and a two-time WNBA all-star. Cahwee recalls, “When they played in Memphis one night, there were more Native American fans at the game than Memphis fans. The national championship game was one of the biggest events in Indian Country in the modern era, at least for sports. Millions of native people were following these girls.”
The effect of this success was massive and immediate and it’s paying dividends for D3 teams as well. “Having seen players, especially female athletes, playing in Division I and in the WNBA, a lot of kids my age saw they could take advantage of these opportunities as well,” says Seniesha Sekaquaptewa, a freshman at Eastern Nazarene College, originally from the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, “[Basketball] is a way for kids to get off the reservation and realize their potential, both playing basketball and getting an education.”
Sekaquaptewa had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Native Top 50 camp, in which the best Native American basketball players – 25 boys and 25 girls – were chosen from across the country to come together to receive top level coaching, get tips on recruiting, and be seen by college and professional scouts.
The camp is one of an increasing number of opportunities coaches have to see Native American athletes in competitive settings. While the largest native populations exist outside of typical Division III geography – in the Great Plains and Southwest – a number of large tournaments provide coaches the chance to see many often overlooked athletes in one place.
For many native athletes, it can be difficult to be overlooked. The history of Native Americans in the United States is obviously one of both great pride and great sorrow. The displacement and isolation of tribal nations was no accident and there are still real challenges in the way society at large interacts with the Native American population.
“Certainly there are a lot of struggles in Indian Country,” says Cawhee of NDNSPORTS.com, “There are a lot of hurdles Native Americans have to overcome on a daily basis, but sports in Indian Country is a relief from those issues.”
“Growing up on the reservation, sports is one of the main outlets for native youths,” says She’Chem Grant, a sophomore at Millsaps, where he transferred after an attempt to walk on at the University of Arizona. “My mom played at UNLV. I wanted to be like her, to play at the highest level possible. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for me, but it’s a blessing to be able to come to Millsaps and still be able to play here.”
Play is the key word. While the athletes highlighted here – two first year players and a sophomore – are relatively new to college basketball, they’re all already competing on a high level. All three average double figures and play significant minutes for quality teams – Sekaquaptewa was named Conference Rookie of the Week her very first week of college ball.
The evolution of basketball to feature more interchangeable roles, faster paced play, and emphasizing the three point shot is playing into the traditional Rezball style, where things move quickly. Reservation schools are often small, so players learn to do a variety of things – everybody shoots, everybody handles the ball, everybody plays in the post.
More and more coaches are recognizing the need for diversity and are willing to look in non-traditional places for basketball talent. Two schools Cahwee mentioned as signing top Native American prospects from the 2018 class are Texas and Wichita State – schools coached by former Division III basketball players, coaches who understand that talent runs deep.
Says Cahwee, “Coaches like Shaka Smart and Gregg Marshall are opening the door for a different style of play; they’re willing to look in non-traditional places for players with a different set of skills. In Indian Country, that’s what we have.”
Sometimes, though, it takes a lot of sacrifice to be noticed. The Texas recruit, Kamaka Hepa, won two state titles with his high school in Barrow, Alaska, but needed to move to Portland, Oregon to get an D1 offer; Schimmel had to make a similar move from her reservation to prove her abilities against stronger competition.
Sekaquaptewa’s family moved to the Phoenix area, not strictly for basketball reasons, but the move made her recruitment to ENC all the more likely. Black drove six hours to play on a travel team in Denver to increase his exposure.
It may take coaches doing similar travel to uncover the next great D3 stars. Lots of specifically native tournaments exist across the country, the largest being the Native American Basketball Invitational. Over 124 teams descend on Phoenix each summer to play and support native basketball – with the finals of the tournament held on the home court of the Suns.
“They’re big basketball tournaments that draw a lot of talented players,” says Grant, who grew up both in Arizona and in Conehatta, Miss., where he graduated from Choctaw High School, “The tournaments allow native kids to showcase their talents, because a lot of time most don’t get that opportunity – and even if they do, it’s not looked at for recruitment purposes.”
Grant clearly feels a tension, both for himself and for his fellow Native American athletes, between the talent they have and the opportunities they’re not yet getting on a level they deserve. “Coaches at different levels are willing to look more at Native American kids and their skill set and what they could become with a college program, but there’s not yet enough exposure.”
There was also the tension hanging over all of my interviews that, like anyone else, basketball players want to be known for what they do on the court, not necessarily for their ethnicity or background. They want to speak as Native Americans and not for Native Americans. Hopefully the diversity of their backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives shows through in this piece.
There is also a desire, though, especially for this generation that’s the first to engage college basketball on a large scale, to faithfully represent the many overlooked athletes who went before them and also pave the way to better representation for those yet to come.
“As a Native American, it’s good to go outside the community, outside the reservation and interact with the world,” says Grant, “In that aspect you’re able to remind people there are still Native Americans in the country, to educate people who simply may be unaware of the cultures that exist. Basketball creates an opportunity for us to have a positive impact for and on behalf of Native Americans in general.”
It was exciting and eye-opening to gain some access to a basketball subculture that, until now, was largely unknown to me. The camaraderie and kinship between Native American and Division III basketball culture showed through time and again in ways that give me hope for continued interaction between the two going forward. There are a lot of native athletes whose basketball prowess is demanding greater exposure and lots of Division III schools with ever-increasing platforms for doing so.