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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 23, 2002 - Issue 57


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Belknap Celebrates Its Heroes


Honoring Basketball TeamFORT BELKNAP RESERVATION, MT - Goodwill reverberated even louder than the pulsing drums and soaring songs as Fort Belknap treated its basketball players to a royal homecoming Monday night.

Hundreds gathered at the reservation's bingo hall to celebrate the weekend's double victory on the court.

While the Harlem Wildcats were winning the Class B title in Great Falls Saturday, the Hays-Lodgepole Thunderbirds, from the south side of the reservation, were wrapping up Class C honors in Butte.

But in the eyes of their beaming relatives and friends, the kids did more than win basketball glory.

"There really is a sense of community between Harlem and Hays that was missing before," said Phyllis Sells, a retired nurse who had treated some of the players before they could dribble a ball.

"It blows my mind to see everyone together like this and it's because of these boys.

"I'm just so proud of them," said Sells, 57, as she enjoyed Monday evening's celebratory feast at the bingo hall. "It's just beyond words."

The Thunderbirds' victory stunned their fans.

The team seemed doomed from the start, from a near head-on collision in the team bus outside Malta to the team's growing reputation for bad sportsmanship, said head coach Shawn Backbone.

"Our team was noted for being the bad guys, and we turned that around during the season," Backbone said. He worked with the players in a "talking circle" to build their spiritual and emotional bond.

"We used to let other teams get in our heads and talk trash to us and throw us off our game. But later in the year, we played as a team and didn't let people get in our heads," said Shawn Shambo, the Thunderbirds' star forward who was named state-tournament MVP.

Backbone said the turning point came when the team dedicated their season to two lost classmates: Nick Werk, who died in a car accident last summer, and Marvin "Buddy" Doney, a promising ball player who committed suicide in the eighth grade.

"It was kind of emotional when we won the state championship because when we were in eighth grade we talked (with Doney) about how we were going to win state when we were seniors," said Shambo, a senior.

The Wildcats scored a field goal with three seconds left against Wolf Point to win the championship in Great Falls. Coach Cal Bigby said it all with his T-shirt reading, "You gotta believe."

"We all had to play together as a team, and if we did that, we knew we were going to win," said junior forward Chris Cole, who sank the winning basket.

Though some of his teammates looked a tad overwhelmed, Wildcats center Jim Kennedy soaked up the handshakes and hugs. Within hours Monday, the bingo hall was transformed with festive rows of purple and gold, and white and maroon balloons.

"It's pretty cool being young and being able to have all these little kids look up to us," said Kennedy.

Each player was presented a single eagle feather, a traditional reward for accomplishments, which can be added to a war bonnet.

"You are young warriors who put us on the map, and you are now our heroes," tribal councilman and spiritual leader John Allen told the boys. But as role models, he warned them not to be satisfied with just one feather.

"You are our next generation for the Fort Belknap Indian community, the elite, our hopes for the future to become contributing members of our society both on and off the reservation," said Allen, 48.

Already, the future looks bright.

"I keep calling it a monumental victory," said Tribal Chairman Ben Speakthunder. "It really brought tears to my eyes, tears of joy."

Fort Belnap, MT Map

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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