I was excited watching the women’s NCAA tournament the past couple of days.
I don’t think that I was alone—in fact, I think that every single Native in North America was equally as excited as me. Here we had two beautiful young Native sisters, Shoni and Jude Schimmel, playing a key role in a HUGE upset victory over the seemingly unbeatable Baylor and the powerful, 6’8” giant Brittney Griner. If that wasn’t enough, last night, they clinched a spot in the Final Four with the sisters playing incredibly.
It was a beautiful site. Native people seemed to be singing in unison, like those old Coke commercials, “I’d like to teach the world to sing…in perfect harmony…”
Native unity—coming together as a people.
Well, not really.
See, let me explain. I remember a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine, knowing that I’m a decent lawyer, referred Shoni Schimmel’s family to me. There was this really amazing opportunity for a feature length show highlighting Shoni on TLC (I think it was TLC, but it was one of the better cable networks). Anyway, there were some private investors raising money for the film, which would have highlighted a wonderful and loving Native family who teach their children to work hard and follow their dreams. The Schimmel family wanted someone to review the contract, understandably, to make sure that the girls and the family generally were not being taken advantage of. Being a basketball fan and also a pretty mediocre businessman, I said “Of course, I’ll do whatever you need for free.”
I reviewed it. We discussed the terms in it—all was well. I made my tiny contribution to the project and I figured the film was well on its way to being an Oscar nominee. It was a great story: Native girl from the Rez makes it to the big time, overcoming countless obstacles, because of her loving family’s support.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. Why?
Well, the project died on the vine because of a lack of money. The investors went to MANY, MANY Tribal councils asking for contributions. “Anything will help,” they said. It wasn’t a particularly big-budget project—much less than many Tribes give to local law enforcement or to any particular parade. But not for this Native basketball prodigy. For her, barely any support. The reason? “She’s not from our Tribe. Obviously she’s a good player, but why should we help with HER project? What do my tribal members get out of it? They want us to invest in our own tribal members."
Now, I take all of the people putting the image of Shoni screaming at Brittney Griner after her AMAZING shot with a grain of salt…yeah, it sounds good to support them now and we should absolutely support them now. But know they’re a proven commodity and are both destined for the WNBA-it doesn’t take too much faith to support them now. But what about when their family had no resources and was unknown a few years ago?
The larger point: we have to invest in Native people when they need it, not just when it’s convenient and easy. We cannot just be fair-weather supporters when they’ve already made it. It’s really easy to “claim” our most successful people after they’re getting accolades from the larger world, but we should be the first cheering section for Native outliers, for the ones trying to become tomorrow’s role models for Native youth. We’ve got to, Tribal citizens and elected officials alike, shoulder some of the responsibility of developing this Native talent if we want to bask in their glory when they win.
We’ve gotta do better at supporting and loving our own people. We could have 30 Shonis and 50 Judes and 100 Adam Beaches and Jacoby Ellsburys, if we created the infrastructure and support systems for that to happen. Forget which Tribe they’re from anymore—nobody cares (nor should they!!) which Tribe Shoni and Jude are from now. Nobody cares what Tribe Adam is; nobody cares which Tribe Jacoby is. We love them because they’re Native. And that’s how we should support our hard-working and talented Natives before they get their big break too.
For the next few months, I’m going to be highlighting some Natives in business, arts, entertainment and sports and pleading with you all to lend support, spiritual, and yes MONETARY to these ambitious Natives. Tribal casinos and Native organizations give TONS of money for washed-up athletes and celebs with tax problems to show up at their casinos and conferences…and oddly, nobody cares which Tribe the washed-up athletes or celebs with tax problems are. Nobody asks—they just take them at their word when they smile a rehearsed smile and say that they have some distant and remote Native ancestry.
And the Tribal casino/Native organization promptly writes a big check for them. That’s cool—business is business. We also have to develop our enterprises.
…But can’t we even commit half of those resources to the development of tomorrow’s Native heroes?
Blackfeet Nation Enrolled/Suquamish Nation Immersed