On Thursday, August 7, WNBA rookie and All-Star Shoni Schimmel played her first game in the Pacific Northwest in three years. The game was a sellout, with Natives showing up in force to cheer on their hero, who, after leaving her home rez (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation) excelled at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon, and became a nationally-known star at the University of Louisville. Schimmel was in town on Thursday with the Atlanta Dream for a game against the Seattle Storm.
Though just 22 years old, Schimmel is arguably Indian country’s biggest celebrity, and she is the latest chapter in the long and proud history of elite Indian athletes that includes Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe. When Schimmel was a Louisville Cardinal, Indian country became Louisville Cardinals fans; now, when the Atlanta Dream comes to town, Native fans show up in droves to watch their favorite player.
Schimmel’s story has played out on the national stage, and while doing so it has touched the lives of Native Americans everywhere. For young basketball players on the rez, particularly girls, taking part in the Schimmel phenomenon, being in that crowd surrounded by Natives cheering with one voice for their hero, is a priceless experience. That’s what inspired Cori Pretty Weasel, coach of the Crow Cowgirls basketball team, to pack her young athletes into a van to make the road trip from the Crow Agency near Billings, Montana, to Seattle. Pretty Weasel took a few moments to reflect on the trip and what it meant to her girls.
Can you tell us about the Crow Cowgirls?
The Crow Cowgirls are a group of 5th and 6th grade girls: Kamber Good Luck, Alyssa Pretty Weasel, Marion Hugs, Kylee Old Ek, Breanna Old Elk, Kinahlei Armajo, Maria Stewart, Madison Big Back, and Jordan Jefferson. The core of our team has been together for a year now. We’re an independent team. We play in a lot of tribal tournaments and tournaments off the rez as well.
Can you give us the details of the trip?
We left Crow Agency, Tuesday, August 5th. Spent the night in Coeur D’Alene and left for Seattle the next day. Thanks to the support from our community and tribe, we were able to fundraise to cover all of the cost for our entire trip. We’ve never been on a trip without playing in a tournament somewhere, so I thought it would be nice to take the team as a whole and enjoy the trip. So we got there Wednesday, did some shopping and sightseeing, watched the game and left on Friday. On our way back we stopped at Silverwood Amusement Park outside of Coeur D’Alene. We would have liked to stay in Seattle a little longer but we had to make it back to a 3-on-3 tournament in Billings, Montana that started on Saturday.
How aware are your young players of Shoni’s career?
They are very aware of her career and try to catch every WNBA game on tv. They were so excited when I told them I was planning on taking them to the game in Seattle. I think most of them started following her heavilly during her junior year in college. I took my little sisters to [WNBA star] Tamika Catchings’ annual basketball camp this past winter, in Indianapolis, which is close to Louisville. They sold a lot of Cardinals gear there. The girls loaded up on it to wear for college day every Wednesday at their school.
Myself, I first learned of Shoni when I saw an article in Slam magazine; I think it might’ve been before her freshman year at Louisville. My grandpa let me know where she was going to college, and I started following her her freshman year at Louisville. I was in the Navy, and happened to be stationed in Indianapolis, so I had the chance to go to a lot of Shoni and [younger sister] Jude’s college games. I also flew from Montana to Louisville for Native Night in the spring.
What do you think Shoni Schimmel means to young girls playing basketball on a rez, or anywhere in Indian country?
It means everything! She’s breaking all the barriers for all of Indian country just by following her dreams. It gives them a goal that they know is attainable by someone just like them. Not only for them but everyone else on the rez, maybe not in basketball but to follow their dreams and live a better life. It lets them know it’s possible to go off the rez and reach your goals. When Shoni was awarded the MVP trophy at the WNBA All-Star Game, we all saw her mom crying — and I don’t know one mom on the rez who didn’t cry right along with her. When I was growing up, I remember looking up a lot to [WNBA player] Teresa Weatherspoon, but for these young girls to have another Native to look up to, and for her to being playing at the level she’s been playing, is amazing!
Did any of the Cowgirls speak to you about what this trip meant to them?
Yes, they all said something to me during the trip expressing their gratitude. We had a talk after the game in our hotel room. I asked them questions to help explain to them about why I brought them and how Shoni Schimmel is showing them that they can reach their goals through hard work. All of the parents thanked me a lot for taking them. A few of them told me that the game inspired their girls and that their girls were telling them all their dreams and goals when they got back. I would be completely fine if I didn’t recieve any praise for what I’m doing and have done because after hearing stuff like that, it lets me know that what I’m doing is making a difference in their lives and giving them hope!
How did you get involved with the Cowgirls?
My brother in law, Tristan Good Luck originally put the team together. I served in the Navy for seven years and after I separated from the Navy last summer, Tristan asked me to coach the team. I have a little sister and two nieces who are on the team.
What’s your own history with the sport of basketball?
I’ve been playing basketball for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a basketball family, my paternal grandfather Larry Pretty Weasel is a basketball legend around here, so everyone in my family plays basketball. I remember being a freshman in high school and noticing no one from the rez who played college basketball graduated college. They all eventually quit and came home.
So I took a step back from basketball. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t want to be like everyone else who came home from school without finishing. I had the grades to get into college, but I knew I didn’t have the self-discipline at the time, so in the middle of my senior year of high school I decided to enlist in the Navy. My last 3 years in the Navy, I got stationed in Indiana, which changed my life.
In 2010, while I was in Indiana, I met Tamika Catchings, who has surpassed just about every accolade ever set in the WNBA. Tamika and her sister Tauja are the founders of Tamika Catchings Catch The Stars Foundation. I’ve always loved kids, which is natural coming from a big family, so I decided to get involved in the foundation. The foundation’s mission is to empower youth to achieve their dreams by providing goal-setting programs that promote literacy, fitness and mentoring. So they put on fitness clinics, basketball camps, and mentoring programs, among other things. Over the years, Tamika has become one of my mentors and inspired me to bring that change she offers in the Indianapolis area back home to my reservation. I’ve never met anyone like Tamika, with everything she’s accomplished, with the same type of humility and tenacity. Her story is a book in itself. Tamika and I actually planned to hold a basketball camp on the rez, in Crow Agency last year but didn’t get enough people registered by our deadline so we had to cancel. (A camp is one thing you can’t run on Indian time!) With the help of Tamika, I’m planning on starting more of a formal mentoring program in the summer. The possibilities are endless. So you can imagine what impact she’s had on someone like me, just another kid from the reservation, I’m completely humbled by the opportunity. Inspiration to last a lifetime!