Sports have become the weapon with which the Jesuit fathers and Franciscan sisters of St. Stephen's Mission in Wyoming are waging a battle for their Indians. The fight is going well but, as in other battles, not without some losses
April 03, 1961

The flat Wyoming country between the Wind and Little Wind rivers and the Wind River Range is bleak in winter. The sagebrush patches the snow and the tumbleweed is caught disconsolate in the fences as the land rolls somberly back until it achieves the beauty of the mountains. This is the Wind River Indian Reservation, and it takes 100 acres of it to support a horse.

"No water," said Father Kurth as we lurched along the winter-rutted roads on a tour of the reservation. "Only one family out of 25 even has a well—the rest have to come to the mission for water. It's about 125 feet down. Our well is big, and we had to go down 500. Costs about $5 a foot to sink one, depending on the width. Some of the Indians wash their clothes in the irrigation ditches and hang them along half a mile of barbed-wire fence to dry.... I've never known how they got them off again," he mused. "All in one piece, I mean. There's where Shannon lives." He pointed, and I could see the house a long way down the little side road, mean and boxy, like all the Arapaho houses in the flatlands. I couldn't see the rusty frame of the abandoned three-year-old car, or the outhouse or the dogs, but they probably were there. For the next few miles I watched the sides of the road and looked into passing cars, hoping for Shannon Brown on his way home, but he eluded me again.

He was not my business any more, strictly speaking. I was visiting St. Stephen's, a small Indian mission, to find out something about the mission teams as such. St. Stephen's Father Torres had written us:

"Last year our high school teams lost only one contest in the three sports in which they compete. Unlike many parochial schools, we do compete in league competition against public schools. The one defeat was a 14-13 loss to the state football champion. Our basketball team was undefeated in 28 games, winning the state final game by a 71-55 score over a team that had won 25 straight. The track squad also won the state championship, and this year our football team...."

Straight achievement, duly respected. But about Shannon the letter had said:

"...might be the Indian angle. A good example is Shannon Brown. This boy has been an All-State basketball player for two years and is one of the greatest in the history of the state. And yet he quit school this year with his third and greatest All-State season undoubtedly coming up. He is a real paradox.

"On the court he is poised far beyond the average high school athlete. He has never played a poor game in an important situation. Last year in the state final before over 10,000 fans in the Wyoming U. field house he scored 30 points, rebounded beautifully and generally demoralized the opposition. Yet he is so shy off the court that it took him about a year to get to the point where he would speak extended sentences to one of his teachers.

"Once he split his trunks in a game and walked off the court without calling time, without saying even a word to his coach. When the coach noticed we were playing with only four men he looked down at the far end of the bench and there was Brown, looking straight ahead. 'Shannon, for heaven's sake what are you doing off the court?' All Brown did was point stoically at his seat. That's all he would do when the coach questioned him further. Finally one of the other boys on the bench told the coach what had happened. Brown was rushed to the dressing room for a quick change, for to play without him is like Cincinnati playing without Robertson. The coach waited. He waited. Finally he asked one of the fathers to please see what the holdup was. Shannon was seated immobile in the dressing room. His explanation: there were no more white trunks with red trimming left. Only white with no trimming. If he put these on, the people would notice that he was different and would guess that he had split his pants. Father had to run to the laundry here at the mission, sew his pants and run back again, and then Brown went back into the game.

"Yet the Wyoming press writes of him only in superlatives (the dancer-graceful Indian, the fabulous Shannon Brown, the much-discussed Brown, etc.) and, as I have written, besides his remarkable accuracy his forte on the court is his poise. His failure to return to school this year was almost the death of his coach, but it was only one of a long series of harrowing experiences. The coach is a 28-year-old named Bill Strannigan who tells anyone who will listen to him, without a trace of jokefulness, that Shannon has made him prematurely grey. For one thing, Shannon likes to break wild horses. For another, up until last year, Strannigan never knew him to show up for a game more than 10 minutes before the beginning...."

Shannon had looked out at me from innumerable newspaper clippings, solemn and shy under his astonishing hair—brushed back on the sides, forward in front, in a sudden and complex swoop, his own invention and particular pride. He was 6 feet 2 and except in the action shots was shy up and down every inch of it.

But if Shannon wasn't my business any more, he was not an irrelevancy either. In him were typified the problems and condition of his nation and what the mission was trying to do about them—and what the mission was trying to do about them was the explanation of the mission teams. So everything was really safely of a piece.

Shannon's nation is the Arapaho. They share the Wind River Reservation, unenthusiastically, with the Shoshoni—about 2,200 Arapaho in the flatlands to the east and 1,600 Shoshoni to the west, against and into the mountains. Though the land lacks water it was found to have oil, which yields the inhabitants approximately $40 a month apiece. This would probably be enough, if saved and applied wisely, to irrigate the land and allow something toward the purchase of farm machinery, but it is seldom so saved and applied. The Arapaho and Shoshoni have for the most part subsided into that apathy, almost an ethnic despair, which so often marks the grand job the U.S. has done on the Indian. It is rare that one of them here summons the spirit for a sustained try at anything. The successfully cultivated land or the healthy herd of sheep is almost invariably the work of a white man leasing the land. ("What is Shannon doing now?" I asked one of the sisters. "Nothing," she said. "When Sister says an Indian is doing 'nothing,' " I asked one of the fathers, "what does that mean exactly?" "It means nothing—staying in bed and reading comic books, going into town and standing on the corner....")

St. Stephen's is concerned physically and sociologically with its people, as well as spiritually, and has for years been trying to help them up and out of this sort of "nothing." It is a small mission, which has been on the Wind River Reservation since shortly after the government designated it as such, where Jesuit fathers and Franciscan sisters minister to the Indians, Catholic or not. A great many of the Arapaho are Catholics, having been converted in the late 1800s by a Father Jutz and continuing in the faith in their own erratic fashion. The specific dictates of the Church regarding marriage, for exam pie, are somewhat less specific in the minds of the Indians than they are in the minds of the fathers, and liquor still brings on the old mayhem—as in the case of two boys who undertook to get a friend home and decided on tying him by one leg to the back of the car. "He was dead by the time they got to the Lander bridge," Father Kurth said gloomily. "But the boys meant well."

The first step on the road to anywhere is always the education of the children. The fathers have undertaken it, but they do not regard lightly the idea of transposing a people from one culture to another. The mission is a most active force for the preservation of Arapaho skills and traditions. It encourages the old dances and the powwows; the interior of the mission church is decorated in vivid Indian designs and colors and so, on occasion, is the exterior of Father Kurth, in vestments magnificently worked in Indian beading. Father Torres has said he wonders, sometimes, what they are doing, training the placid Indian to the "hurry, hurry-up pace of the white." But the Arapaho cannot go back, or even stay where he is, and, that being true, all that those trying to assist him can do is to equip him to go forward. Hence the work of educating him and the opening of the mission school to white children, as was done several years ago.

"We are cooperating with the government in its effort to integrate the Indian into American society. In order to spare him the shock of coming into sudden contact with the white man upon leaving the reservation we brought the white man to the reservation so that our Indians can become accustomed to white ways under less disturbed circumstances...."

St. Stephen's had figured out the best thing to do. The only trouble was hanging on to anybody long enough to do it. The Indians didn't stay very long in school.

By nature the Arapaho are a shy, quiet, good-tempered people, eager to please. But they are also proud and not to be put upon, and not given to doing anything they don't care to do. To maintain a relationship in which anything is hoped or required of them takes a great deal of experience, delicacy and infinite patience. If you rant at an Arapaho at Mass, he is less apt to repent than he is to simply leave and not come back. If you chide him too harshly in class, he may give up coming to school. And he may give up coming to school anyway, since he doesn't care for schooling particularly, and who's to make him come? Indian parents love their children extravagantly, and deny them little. They aren't apt to force school on them when it may seem as unnecessary to the parent as to the child, and as unnecessary to the Indian truant officer as the parent. "They just drift away from school," Father Zummach said, a little tiredly. "Nobody is sure why. Some teacher may have bawled them out and hurt their feelings, who knows?"

It is schooling, therefore, pretty much by consent of the schooled. This means that the fathers, in addition to devoting their lives to teaching and their spare time to building the school to do it in, had to find something that would draw the children to school and keep them coming and get them to study the lessons that didn't interest them. However intelligent, the Indian is not extremely quick and responsive—his heritage is one of reserve. And though the functioning of his culture may be out of date, his nature is still rooted in it, and the study of, say, geometry may not seem particularly applicable to life on the reservation. So the children had to be lured into an education predicated on the white man's goals, not on their own. It was Father Zummach who realized that the lure should be basketball.

Basketball already existed as a disorganized passion among the Indians. No Indian house was, or is, without its rim on a cottonwood tree in the yard. There is no backboard and no net, and the rim is often not regulation size but scaled to the proportions of the rubber ball a boy can have from the dime store. Philip (Little Star) Warren, St. Stephen's junior high coach, remembers practicing with a wire hoop and five-and-ten ball.

Father Zummach, as a start at mining this vein of motivation, began the Termite and Midget teams, for the 8-to-10- and 11-to-13-year-olds. Before long, boys so little that they had to be helped into them had their own uniforms and warm-ups. St. Stephen's exists by charity, which is to say it is poor, and the expense of uniforms for the present five basketball teams is no small matter. But they blaze in rows in the locker room of the new gymnasium, a powerful inducement to not cut school. ("It has surprised us that they get the 'no study, no eligibility' concept as effectively as they do.")

All in all, the Termite and Midget competition worked out very well, and in time the county athletic association adopted the classifications. More important, little St. Stephen's was laying in crops of ballplayers who reached varsity age with eight years of competitive experience behind them and, most important, boys who reached varsity age—and were still in school.

Then in 1957 Bill Strannigan arrived from the University of Wyoming to take over the coaching. It was his first job, and he was a spectacular success. There were only 50 children in the high school, 23 of them girls, but in 1959 and 1960 his varsity won the conference, district and state class B basketball titles. As for his track and football records, when Father Torres says of the mission teams that "last year they lost one game in the three sports in which they compete," he is understating the case, for "last year" was only the second year of existence for the football team, and the third for the track team that took the state championship. Strannigan got half his boys out for that first football team, and the fledglings won one game and lost six—the next year they won five and lost one. Football uniforms for the new team were begged from St. Louis University, which had given up football, and Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo., and the fathers made the football field. "It's where the plum trees were," said Father Kurth. "The plum trees never got to have any plums. The boys ate them green, or threw them. So we leveled the trees and seeded the field with Kentucky bluegrass. We fertilized it and took out the dandelions and the rocks by hand—it's the second most beautiful field in the Wyoming class B football league," he added, scrupulous in his pride. "It's bigger than a regulation field, so it doesn't get worn out. Of course, the little kids just running around in their bare feet aren't going to hurt it any."

The track team the first year had consisted of Mike Harris and Mickey Gamble, who picked up 23 points in the state meet. The next year the team was second in the state, and last year they took first.

As the basketball teams got better L and better, boys drifted in from all over the reservation—down from Ethete, from Fort Washakie, to come to school where good ball was played, and the varsity was a championship team known all over Wyoming. It had been the right bait for St. Stephen's quarry. The fathers took Carl Patton with it. Carl was a Sioux. His parents had died, and he had wandered for years until he came to visit his uncle, Ted Charging Crow, who had married an Arapaho. Carl had never stayed for longer than 30 days in a high school, but he let Strannigan and St. Stephen's make an All-Stater out of him, and a high school graduate.

And down from Ethete came Shannon Brown. He had left school at Ethete, nobody knew why. It was presumed to have been the usual thing—harshness, an affront to his pride—and he showed up at St. Stephen's. There was a great deal of excitement about it. Everybody knew Shannon as a basketball player; his first game for St. Stephen's would be an event. The day came, and with it probably Strannigan's first gray hair. The game was with Morton High.

"Five minutes before game time," Strannigan recalls, "we're all there awaiting the unveiling of Shannon Brown, and he hasn't arrived at the gym. Two minutes from game time he showed up. We rushed him into the locker room and we waited, and he didn't come out. I finally went in and there he was, sitting in his regular clothes. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he wasn't feeling good. 'You were O.K. at school all day. What's the matter now?' I said. He wouldn't tell me. I wasn't reaching him, so I got another Indian, Lloyd Jenkins, to go in. He came out and said, 'Shannon doesn't want to play. He looked at the other team, and they weren't good enough. He doesn't want to play against little kids.' "

He didn't, of course. "Well, he would have killed them," Philip Warren said about it, but I couldn't tell whether he thought Shannon should or shouldn't have.

It was par for that early course. His first year Strannigan had to put in some time blundering around amongst the Indian sensitivities, finding out what, in their pride, would spur them on and what would make them quit. The time-honored "All right, you guys, if you don't want to play football, why don't you leave?" had, for instance, sent the football team home. "The basketball court is really the only place where the boys will take a scolding," Father Zummach observed. "They love it too much to quit. That's important—if they go out and get jobs, they'll have to know how to listen, and maybe be scolded." Occasionally the boys will quit even basketball, though. Sometimes Strannigan knows why and sometimes he doesn't, but he knows when they will. "It's their tennis shoes. It's all right if they take them home before a game, but if they take them home on a Monday, watch out!"

But progress had set in. A few of the Indian boys began to take showers without their underpants. A few of them parted with the knee pads (which the fathers had finally figured out they were wearing over dirty knees). Three years ago there had been one graduate from St. Stephen's, the year after that, two. Last year there were 14; and now at St. Stephen's there is George Spoonhunter. George is 17, characteristically shy, but very obviously a quick, bright boy. He is an all-round athlete—a pillar of the football, track and basketball teams. And an eager student. George Spoon-hunter is thinking he would like to be a lawyer. The mission has almost an air of holding its breath, like a child who planted the seeds and did all the things it said to on the package....

The difficulty is that Shannon wasn't planted soon enough. When he got to St. Stephen's he could hardly read, and it hurt his pride. He fell behind in English and would have had to make it up in summer school. And his 20th birthday fell on March 8—he would have been ineligible for the state tournament in any case. Father Dillon went to his house from time to time to bring him back—followed him down across the creek, into the brush, across the hedgerow, where Shannon would have gone looking for his father's buckskin horse—but still the mission lost him.

Of course, he's no more lost just because he was almost saved, I tell myself. And after all, it's not the most important thing. The mission is on the way to succeeding with the children and doing the whole community a great deal of good, and there is George Spoonhunter, who may go to college, maybe even beyond. So I congratulate the mission and wish the best for George—but somebody, give my love to Shannon Brown.

ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERT ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTCassocked but capped, fathers coach the boys. ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTSecondhand uniforms delight players. ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTShannon's hair is his prick, in Indian tradition, if not worn in the original style. ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTIndian boys start "basketball" almost as soon as they walk.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)