In 1887, the Dawes Act officially relegated the indigenous tribes of the West to reservations with the idea of turning these nomadic peoples into farmers and tradesmen. To better assimilate the following generations, “Indian schools” (Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was the most prominent) were established with the aim of erasing all traces of native culture, including language. Fort Shaw, Montana — a former military post — was one of these schools.
A decade before, the game of basketball had been invented by James Naismith (Springfield, Mass.,1891). It was soon picked up by the Indian schools, and in 1904 Fort Shaw fielded a girls team that could be called the world’s first basketball superstars. They are the subject of Happy Jack Feder’s Shoot, Minnie, Shoot!, a historical novel for juvenile readers, and based on the actual exploits of the Fort Shaw team. American Spectator online readers may recall Mr. Feder’s article of the same title, the piece that was the germ for his book.
The main character of the novel is Minnehaha “Minnie” Burton, a Shoshone girl from Idaho, who upon her arrival at Fort Shaw has not even heard of basketball, much less played it. But after being coaxed into trying out for the team, play it she does, and excels at it.
Fort Shaw (Minnie, Emma Sansaver, Rose La Rose, Sarah Mitchell, Katie Snell, Belle Johnson, Genevieve Healy, Nettie Wirth, Genie Butch) starts by demolishing local boys’ high school teams such as the Great Falls “Rustlers.” They moved on to the college level with big wins at the University of Montana in Missoula and at Montana State University in Bozeman, shutting out the latter 22-0. Using choreographed teamwork and expert passing, they easily outplayed male teams whose players were a foot or more taller. Minnie was a phenomenal outside shooter who routinely “swished” the hoop. Since hoop nets were unknown back then, the referees watched closely every time she fired one off.
Their final scores were rather lopsided, with the Montana State shutout emblematic. In those days all scored shots were only worth one point, and game totals were low. Games were much shorter. Each half was “twenty minutes, with no clock stoppage.” Games were played on courts of “dirt, wood, or covered with canvas.” Still, Fort Shaw crushed all opponents by scores of 25-1, 24-2, etc. Their fame grew and the state’s newspapers began to call them “Montana’s Team.”
Coincidentally, the year 1904 was also the year of the St. Louis World’s Fair, a vast exposition dedicated to the scientific and cultural wonders of the new century, both American and European. President Theodore Roosevelt opened it with one of his rousing speeches praising American optimism and technological know-how, and promoting the Fair as a harbinger of the American Century.
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