Celebrating Our Grandmothers: 1904 World Champions

    Members of the 1904 World Champions Fort Shaw Women’s Basketball Team pictured are (standing from left) Nettie Wirth, Assiniboine; Katie Snell, Assiniboine; Minnie Burton, Lemhi Shoshone; Sarah Mitchell, Assiniboine; and (seated from let) Genie Butch, Assiniboine; Belle Johnson, Piegan; Emma Sansaver, Chippewa-Cree. Not pictured are Genevieve Healy, Gros Ventre; Rose LaRose, Shoshone-Bannock; Flora Lucero, Chippewa.

    Photo courtesy of Terry Bender

    by Barbara Winters

    Fort Shaw, Montana (NFIC)

    The throbbing of drums echoed through the Sun River Valley, as the Vision Seekers drum team from Great Falls high schools urged intertribal children from Longfellow School to dance around the earthen-colored promenade on the Fort Shaw School grounds. They danced and swirled in bright Native costumes – a dance to honor our grandmothers.

    Scores of descendants and visitors crowded around to catch a glimpse of the veiled monument in the center of the 30 ft. concrete surround. Others drove by slowly in cars and motor homes. They crept by and read the words on the steel arch high overhead, “1904 World Champions.”

    Everyone was anxious to see the monument unveiled, but first the story of our Native grandmothers must be told, and the celebration must be blessed. Distinguished authors and historians Dr. Jeanne Eder, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, and Linda Kovar from the office of Urban Native American Ministry, took their place on the small stage of the school gymnasium with other presenters. The gym filled to overflowing as one o’clock approached.

    It was a perfect day – May 1, 2004 – a century after a team of young Native American women from the government Indian school traveled to the St. Louis World’s Fair, and returned to Montana with a silver trophy naming them world champions.

    The Sun River Valley Historical Society had begun planning for this day in early spring of 2001. We planned for a small plaque in keeping with other memorial structures at the former Military Post. The members were apprehensive about the scope of the project.

    So we sent queries to a few descendants of the Fort Shaw basketball team, and soon were overwhelmed with letters of support. Within a few short weeks, William Sansaver, a descendant of the team, and the Sansaver family from Wolf Point, Montana, drove some 300 miles to present to the Society an exquisite design. They also brought a substantial donation from the Fort Peck Tribal Council. With much trepidation, the members accepted the proposed monument design, and set the plans in motion.

    A year later, still seeming like an impossible undertaking for our small society, the black granite monument arrived. Only the clicking of a few cameras, and the hum of machines could be heard as the one-ton structure was gingerly lifted from the flatbed, and lowered squarely onto its foundation.

    Wrapped in plastic, a full-scale bronze basketball was cemented in place atop the granite, and as if by some well-planned maneuver, an eight-year-old great-granddaughter of the 1904 team was swooped up to unveil the basketball.

    By 2003, the historical society turned its attention, and anticipation, toward the generations of descendants who would attend the celebration of our grandmothers. The Fort Shaw School is now a small elementary school, and we wondered – could we possibly fit everyone in the gymnasium to hear the speakers, or shelter them from a harsh spring rain storm?

    And Emma Toman wondered if enough refreshments could be prepared for our guests. Word of the upcoming celebration and monument dedication had spread throughout the families of descendants. They would be arriving from as far away as Arizona, Texas, California, Idaho, Washington, and other states.

    They would come from every corner of Montana, and interest grew. Before the 2003 recess of the Montana Senate and House of Representatives, Rep. Frank Smith had pushed through a proclamation naming 2004 the year of the Fort Shaw Indian School’s 1904 World’s Championship Team.

    The proclamation read in part, “Herewith, let their names be read into the record: Minnie Burton, Lemhi Shoshone; Genie Butch, Assiniboine; Genevieve Healy, Gros Ventre; Belle Johnson, Piegan; Rose LaRose, Shoshone-Bannock; Flora Lucero, Chippewa; Sarah Mitchell, Assiniboine; Emma Sansaver, Chippewa-Cree; Catherine Snell, Assiniboine; and Nettie Wirth, Assiniboine.”

    Not long afterward, Montana’s first woman governor, a former athlete herself, issued the Governor’s Citation urging statewide recognition of the Fort Shaw Team during the year 2004. Governor Judy Martz also included her personal wish for our success on an autographed photo.

    May 1st came all too quickly. Historical Society President Warren Harding had rallied volunteers from the close-knit communities in the valley. Landscaping around the monument was completed, fields were cleared for parking, and 200 chairs set up in the school gym.

    Emma, with the help of the Sun River Sociables Club, did indeed have enough cookies and punch for a large crowd. As cars rounded the narrow gravel curve toward the monument and the school, familiar voices called out to each other. There were long-awaited reunions, and enthusiastic greetings among families and friends. Families crowded into the standing-room-only gymnasium.

    Linda Kovar began, “Creator God, we ask for your blessing today for this wonderful honor bestowed upon these incredible women who are being remembered on this special day... They were Champions of the Plains...”

    The cool afternoon breeze whispered through the open gymnasium doors. Linda concluded, “Now, Creator God, let the Wind Spirit bring forth your blessings. Let the Wind Spirit of the plains gently move and swirl forward these special blessings for all to know and embrace. Let these Roses of the Plains blessings continue to bring harmony and peace to all for many more generations.”

    Then Warren Harding stepped to the podium, and set the stage for the program, urging all of us to imagine Fort Shaw as it was one hundred years ago. Crossing the nearby Sun River, and fording the Blackfoot Crossing a few miles west of the Fort could only be accomplished after the spring runoff.

    By the time Fort Shaw became a government Indian school, wagon roads were well established, and the historic Mullan Road wound southward around Shaw Butte toward Helena, the state capitol. In some areas the deep wagon ruts can still be seen today.

    There were settlers in the valley, but the landscape was pristine, and the native grasses had not been disturbed. Warren challenged us to see the girls’ basketball team riding in an open wagon toward Great Falls, a four-hour ride, huddled together in the brisk Montana weather, jostled on the hard board bed of the wagon, toward another basketball game, and another victory.

    If the government school had adequate funds, the team might transfer to a train at Dracut Junction only an hour from the school. Great Falls was the hub of the team’s trips wherever they went. Many of the most rough and tumble basketball contests and exhibition games were held in Great Falls.

    Luther Hall, a short walk from the railroad station, was one of the few buildings that could accommodate large audiences. It was the story of these basketball competitions the audience came to hear on this day. And no one could tell it better than the next two speakers to take the stage.

    Seven years have passed since authors Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith began researching the Fort Shaw Story, as it has come to be known. Looking out over the audience, Linda Peavy first introduced the children, and grandchildren of the champions – we descendants who have willingly shared our individual stories, scrapbooks, and memorabilia.

    And they credited the teachers and students of Sun River Valley, who interviewed descendants as part of the 1999 Heritage Project. But it was in official records in Washington, D.C., Denver, Colorado, in Helena, St. Louis, in Oklahoma City, and in Springfield, Massachusetts, where some of the more exciting discoveries were found by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith.

    Traveling by plane, train, and automobile, the two historians covered thousands of miles searching through national, state, and tribal archives. It is our good fortune as descendants that the memories of our mothers and grandmothers will soon be gathered within the pages of a book.

    Concluding the indoor program, it was only fitting that Dr. Jeanne Oyawin Eder, appearing in her Native dress, presented the keynote speech. Dr. Eder is Director of Native Studies at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. She spoke of the realities of Indian Boarding Schools at the turn of the 20th Century, having heard her grandparents talk of the harsher side of living in a government school.

    In spite of the hardships Indian children may have faced in a unfamiliar culture, Dr. Eder praised the Fort Shaw basketball champions for their warrior spirit, and for being role models in a sometimes hostile world. Their lives and legacy were the reason for this celebration.

    The families and descendants were summoned outdoors to the monument site by the drumming of the Vision Seekers. The Longfellow School Indian Dancers stepped and whirled in time as they performed the Flag Song and an Honor Song.

    I slumped in my lawn chair some distance away from the monument, under a decades-old cottonwood tree. The afternoon sun was warm as the celebration continued outdoors. Bill Sansaver took the microphone and described in great detail the meaning of the design he and his grandson, Ryan, chose for the monument to our grandmothers.

    “The arch is an age-old... symbol of strength... The strength this school and education gave to the [Indian] girls’ basketball team... It replicated the arch in St. Louis where the girls won their championship.

    “The promenade, a circle surrounding the granite stone... a circle like the ancient Medicine Wheel.” Bill credited artist Michael Westergard for sculpting the beautiful bronze basketball, and for placing symbols of the medicine wheel on its pedestal.

    Scores of people pressed toward the monument to get a good view of the colorful dancers; a view of Cree Elder Henry Anderson blessing the monument in the Sacred directions – East, South, West, and North.

    That afternoon we held our Native grandmothers close, honoring them – sharing their victory, and feeling their spirit – these Roses on the plains.

    The Fort Shaw (MT) Girls’ Basketball Team at the 1904

    St. Louis World’s Fair

    In 1902 a group of young women at Fort Shaw Government Indian Boarding School in Montana’s Sun River Valley began playing the fledgling sport of “basket ball.” Over the following year, coached by Supt. Fred Campbell, the team traveled the state, playing before capacity crowds drawn by reports of their “lightning quick play” and “superb teamwork,” routinely defeating college as well as high school teams, and becoming undisputed Montana state champions.

    Then, in the summer of 1904, they took their game to the next level by boarding a train bound for the St. Louis World’s Fair, where they spent five months as students at the Model Indian School, the centerpiece of the government’s anthropological “exhibit” of Indigenous peoples.

    This seemingly invincible team took on and defeated all challengers and returned to Montana with a trophy declaring them “basket ball” champions of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair – in effect, champions of the world.

    – Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith

    Authors of the forthcoming book

    on the Fort Shaw championship team  

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