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Fort Shaw Superstars

Happy Jack Feder's teen thriller is a buzzer-beater for all ages.

By 9.14.04

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Shoot, Minnie, Shoot!
by Happy Jack Feder
A Big Sky Stories Book
164 Pages, Paperback, $14.95
(shootminnieshoot@yahoo.com)

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.

Happy Jack Feder's descriptions of this opulent display of "crafts, arts and treasures from around the world" are vividly rendered, and capture the scientific and architectural wonders of 1904 St. Louis. He is also adept at juggling characters, from Minnie's intense teammates to the colorful Louis Youpee, the team's traveling male cheerleader and lively halftime vaudevillian. And there is Minnie's love interest, Oliver Shakespeare, a Blackfeet student bright enough to attend an Ivy League university, but barred from such by race. ´

In one of the novel's happy endings, however, President Roosevelt intervenes to see that Oliver is admitted to Georgetown University. In a comic but apocryphal scene, T.R. (overdressed in the formal athletic attire of the day) scrimmages with the Fort Shaw girls and is sent sprawling following some intense action. The President finds the competition, well, Bully! -- even as Secret Service agents react with horror. Further historical shenanigans finds Feder presenting cameos by Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull, although in reality the latter had been deceased fourteen years. Though the subtle comparisons of the victor of the Little Bighorn with the Fort Shaw team are certainly apt.

Which leaves us the Big Game, one of the highlights of the World's Fair. Fort Shaw vs. the Missouri Women's All Stars, who were the unofficial national champs, and coached by the historical and seemingly villainous Joseph Stremmel.

But I wouldn't want to spoil for the reader the exciting ending. Suffice it to say that Happy Jack Feder has written a marvelous little novel for teens (or anyone else, for that matter) interested in sports, or in simply always doing the right thing.

Read it, because as writing, it's a "Swishhhh!"

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.