Meet Eagle Woman, Native American Basketball Player
By Tom Danehy
JUNE 7, 1999: MANY people's lives are defined by lines. Lines they stand behind, lines they walk along, lines they suddenly cross. For Eagle Woman Ereaux, her interaction with the line is definitely a straddle. The 18-year-old high-school senior-to-be jumps back and forth between legal adult and mischievous kid, between serious steen outstanding athlete and clear answer to the question, "What's wrong with this picture?"
But mostly, she's a strange kid in a strange land, a Lakota Sioux in the Land of Casual Hispanics and So-What Anglos. A young woman who is intellectually and physically at peace with her surroundings, and yet is constantly--maddeningly--hearing the spiritual call to return home.
Hers is a journey long ago begun, but one which will not be over 'til it's over--and maybe not even then. In the meantime, she saunters through life, a ball of incongruities, struggling hard to throw off the shackles of old stereotypes, while at the same time wildly embracing the new one.
She's Eagle Woman, Native American Basketball Player.
The first day she walked into the Amphi High gym, she looked like she had been dressed by blind people with really bad senses of humor. Barely 5-foot-4, she was wearing an oversized hockey jersey that Shaquille O'Neal would probably have to tuck in, shorts big enough for two, and socks up to her knees. Shiite Muslim women often show more skin.
And she had on the Jordans, the latest in the assembly line of over-priced, over-valued shoes no longer coveted by serious ballers, but instead worn mostly by wannabes and fashion flaunts.
School starts at 9:30 a.m. on Thursdays at Amphi High, allowing for teacher workshops and such. But a handful of die-hard girls show up at 7:30, on a day they could blessedly sleep in, to play ball. They are the few, the dedicated, the insomniacs. The Thursday morning open gym is not so much a secret as it is something which is actively avoided by those who see those two extra hours of sack time as a gift from God Hisself.
She introduced herself as "Wamnee Wea" (Wom-nee Wee-uh), which is Lakota for Eagle Woman, and asked if she could play. A coach who was there at the time told her that she looked like she had been mugged by Tommy Hilfiger. She was told that while it was open to all, the games were generally played by serious ballers, not goof-arounds, but she was welcome to play if she came back looking like someone who had actually touched a basketball at some time in her life.
Eagle disappeared into a bathroom, then emerged wearing regular shorts (defined as going only to the knee, not mid-shin) and a jersey which read "HARLEM Basketball." When asked about it, she replied, "It's Harlem, Montana, on my reservation. I've been to that other Harlem, but mine is tougher."
And so it began.
SHE HAD AN outgoing, breezy personality, belying the inner turmoil which can only be dragged out of her in rare times of a lowered guard. She quickly became popular in the tight-knit basketball sisterhood. She showed up for every open gym and worked hard. Her game was raggedy, but the passion was there. That's a combination that's vastly preferable to a great game with no passion, which translates to...oh, the 1999 Los Angeles Lakers, I suppose.
There was a Navajo kid from Winslow, where girls basketball championships are as common as dust storms and lost tourists, trying out for the team, as well. The kid, whom Wamnee referred to as her "cousin," had the good game/bad 'tude mix. After a couple games where she displayed great offensive skills and no desire to play defense, the coach told her, "You couldn't guard a chair with a gun." The kid went back to Winslow.
Wamnee stuck it out. She tried out for, and made, the junior varsity team, which would end up being the best in Amphi school history. Her coach that year was Rebecca Chilton, a truly scary mix of drop-dead beauty and stomach-turning intensity. The tanned, blonde Chilton (no one ever calls her "Rebecca"; it's too soft) was a former national rodeo star who had excelled in three sports at Buckeye (Arizona) High School and had played basketball and volleyball in college.
Chilton loved Wamnee as a person, but bristled at the kid's undisciplined game. They got along like, well, cowboys and Indians. Sorry.
Borrowing a line from a colleague, Chilton said that Wamnee "would rather pass a kidney stone than a basketball." Plus, the kid apparently never met a shot she didn't like or wouldn't try to force at the most inopportune time. She ended up deep on Chilton's bench, where she stayed most of that season.
The only time she got to start was when Chilton, after unsuccessfully battling pneumonia for a week, was ordered by her doctor to get some bed rest. The aforementioned colleague coached the JVs that one day and started Wamnee, as much to piss off his buddy Chilton as anything else. Wamnee responded with a solid all-around game as Amphi crushed the host Sabino team.
When Chilton returned to the team, Wamnee returned to the bench. But she played well in spots the rest of the season and remained generally upbeat.
When the season ended, she seemed destined to play a second year of JV ball the next year. But a funny thing happened. She showed up at the gym the very next day and began working. (Serious hint to prospective ballplayers and/or their parents: The only thing that will put a smile on a basketball coach's face faster than showing up on that symbolic "first day of the next season" is to have freshman twins walk into the office to introduce themselves, having to pause to duck their heads through the doorway.)
A few years back, she made a mid-life decision to become a tribal lawyer. She was accepted by the University of Arizona Law School, and the family moved to Tucson.
Eagle Woman's father, Charles, is almost too Indian-looking to be true. Strong face, even stronger chest. Arms that undoubtedly made a tribal cop or two think twice about hassling him during the troubles on the rez back in the 70s.
Through happenstance or circumstance, Charles and Michelle had found themselves deep in the mess a quarter century ago. Michelle, who was originally from Florida, had moved to the Sioux Reservation shortly after college. Idealistic and headstrong, she draws scary parallels to the character of Maggie Eagle Bear in the movie Thunderheart. The big difference is that, in the movie, Maggie ends up dead, face-down in a gully.
Michelle nods calmly and says, "Other people have made that comparison. I can say that I often feared for my life in those days. They were bad days."
An understatement, to be sure. Almost open warfare raged in the Sioux Nation in the early '70s, and it was a four-sided affair among Traditionals, who wanted a return to the old ways; the American Indian Movement, an outgrowth of the radical '60s who generally sided with the Traditionalists but were branded as Commies by others; the FBI; and the self-titled GOONs ("Guardians Of the Oglala Nation"). With oil and mineral companies gladly greasing the palms of crooked Indian politicians with millions of dollars in graft while other on the reservation were near starvation, the place was a tinderbox. And the Ereauxs were right in the middle of it.
(Writer's note: For a gripping account of these years, which came to a head with the killing of two FBI agents and the subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Leonard Peltier for their deaths, read Peter Mathiesson's masterwork of investigative, opinionated non-fiction, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse.)
"Terrible things happened back then," recalls Charles Ereaux. "People you had grown up with were all of a sudden your mortal enemy, bought off by the GOONs with a new pickup truck and a color TV. You learned not to trust anybody, and that's the worst part. The history of the Indian is built on trust. Mistrust and greed were worse White Man's poison than smallpox."
They eventually moved on to the Ft. Belknap Reservation in northern Montana, less than an hour's drive from the Canadian border, and started a family. First came a son, then Eagle Woman, followed in a couple years by her younger sister, White Thunder Woman.
Eagle Woman remembers those days on the Ft. Belknap Reservation, near the small town of Harlem. (If you check the map in the atlas, you'll see that it's right near Zurich.) For a while, they lived in a small ranch house which didn't have electricity. The Montana winters are legendary, and Eagle Woman has vivid memories of lying under several blankets at night, listening to the wind blast past and through their house. (Just down the road from Zurich, Montana, is the aptly-named Chinook.)
"It's weird," Wamnee says. "We were freezing to death and I remember hoping that we wouldn't run out of wood for the stove, but I can't help but look back at those days and smile. They were hard times, but I feel like I belonged there."
Shunning what passed for society at the time, Michelle home-schooled her kids for a while, but finally relented and sent them to school in Harlem. It was here that Wamnee latched onto the time-honored tradition of becoming the school's tomboy, earning that proud title by beating up several of the toughest boys in the school.
She starred on the boy's baseball teams, but eventually gravitated to basketball, despite (or perhaps because of) her diminutive stature. She loved the game and played it all the time, even when the wind was howling and the snow was blowing.
Over the past two decades, Indian Reservation basketball has become a cultural phenomenon, raising its skilled practitioners to icon status and making each home game by the local high school a place of sound and fury, signifying a great deal to a great many.
And so it was in Montana, where reservation schools often challenged the "big-city" schools from Billings and Great Falls for the state championships. The rise and tragic fall of one such team was chronicled in a classic Sports Illustrated piece which focused on the team's star, the wonderfully-named Jonathan Takes Enemy.
The team had won the state crown and the players were heroes on the rez. But within a few years of the championship, all had fallen. Two of the starters were dead from alcohol-related problems. One was in prison and another had been horribly injured in a car crash.
At the time of the article, Jonathan Takes Enemy was at his third or fourth "last-chance" college, trying desperately to cling to his high-school basketball God-hood. During his senior year, he had taken full advantage of his status and had impregnated more females than Steve Garvey. With all the girls coming forward claiming he was the father of their children, it was a wonder he could get up and down the court.
"Indian basketball is an interesting thing," according to Michele Francisco, a Tohono O'odham who starred for Sells Baboquivari High in the early '90s. "In a way, it has become the drug of choice for young Natives. It's a bleak, empty existence for a lot of kids, so they find a ball and a hoop and just play all the time.
"I read a history of basketball once," she continues. "They said that a lot of people mistakenly believe that it's always been a black person's game. But it was really an inner-city game (where you can't always find a baseball diamond or football field). It was first played by the Irish and Italians and Jews. It wasn't until blacks replaced those other ethnic people in the inner-city that it became a 'black-person's game.' So it's really not surprising that Indians play it. Unfortunately, a lot of reservations are the ghettos of the '90s."
Charles split on the family. He claimed it was something spiritual, but Wamnee suspected otherwise. He ended up in Scottsdale, which, of course, is the center of all things spiritual. Meanwhile, Michelle packed up White Thunder Woman and Eagle Woman and headed back to Ft. Belknap, where they spent much of the summer doing pretty much nothing at all.
Charles eventually showed up and the family was reunited. (Michelle tells the strangest story on that account. She claims that after seeing the indie hit film Smoke Signals, Charles felt ashamed and hurried back to his family. It's strange because after I saw that film, all I felt was a blood rage toward that annoying character, Thomas.)
Wamnee returned to Amphi in the fall, her skills somewhat eroded, her confidence shaken. She was happy to see her friends, but after having spent the summer on the rez, felt it pulling her back. But she concentrated on her schoolwork, successfully swatted away all the boys that seem to be constantly buzzing around the bundle of energy, and made the Varsity team. The squad was coming off its best season ever and appeared to be even better than the previous year's group.
Then the cough showed up. And stayed. Basketball teams are natural breeding grounds for more germs than a Woodstock reunion. You've got a group of kids in close proximity, pretty much locked in a building for two or three hours a day at the height of cold and flu season. Illnesses can make several circuits of a team in one season. During basketball season, most kids get sick, and some kids stay sick.
Wamnee's cough got worse and worse as Christmas approached. She was noticeably weaker and had trouble running the sprints in practice. Just after New Year's, Amphi had a non-conference game at Santa Rita, a team which had upset the Panthers in a pre-season tournament. There would be no upset that night, as Amphi rolled to a 40-point win.
Wamnee was playing well off the bench, but then she started coughing. She told the coach not to take her out, but he did, anyway. She sat on the bench and coughed into a towel. When she pulled the towel back, it was soaked with blood.
Her parents took her to the hospital, where the doctor said she had pneumonia. Indications were that she had had it for more than a month. She missed several games and when she finally returned, many pounds lighter and weak from the ordeal, her playing time went back down to Chilton-era levels.
Her team won the first-ever girls basketball conference championship in school history. She recovered enough to represent the 5A-South Conference in the statewide 3-point shooting competition at halftime of the boys state championship game at America West Arena. She finished third in the state.
In March, she was walking her dog one evening when she was accosted by two males in their late teens. One made an improper remark about her anatomy and she, perhaps recalling her halcyon days in Harlem, punched him right in the face. The other began punching and kicking her. She fought back as best she could until a passing motorist stopped and the thugs ran off. The next day, she proudly displayed her facial bruises at school. She still had what it took.
When the season got over, she drifted away for a while. She began traveling on weekends, performing traditional dances at powwows around the Southwest. New Mexico one week, Nevada the next. She loves her people, but in many instances, has come to resent their lifestyle. The basketball reference would be hatin' the game, but not the playa'.
"I naturally have a lot of Indian friends, but it's ridiculous. All they do is drink and complain. I tell them, 'Think back. I'll bet the first person who put a bottle of alcohol in your hand wasn't white.' We do this to ourselves and then we perpetuate the stereotypes.
"I know I'm not going to do that stuff. I'm not going to drink, I'm not going to have a kid before I get married. Thunder and I are going to get an education. Maybe we'll both be lawyers with our Mom."
She said this just before getting into a car and leaving Tucson again. They're headed back to the reservation for what Wamnee smiles and calls "another summer in the Third World." There was some talk about getting jobs at a summer camp in Minnesota, but both Thunder and Eagle agree that they'll probably just end up back on the rez.
Wamnee says she'll be back for her senior year at Amphi. Michelle needs only one more year of law school to graduate. And with four starters back from last year's team, the Panthers should be favored to repeat as 5A-South champs.
She says she'll play ball, but admits she's lost some of the fire. She realizes that her size and circumstances limit her future in the game. She doesn't see basketball as a means to an end as much as a means to a dead end. She'll play it because, like the land, she can't resist its siren song.
Oscar Wilde said he could resist everything except temptation. Wamnee can resist everything except that which defines what she is and what she does at this moment in time. Right now, she's an Indian and she's a ballplayer. Not somebody's girlfriend, not somebody's drinking buddy. She's Eagle Woman and she stands apart.
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