Lighting up the Little Big Horn

    Itís not an easy question, even for sports trivia experts.

    Sure, Jim Thorpe is the gimme answer. If youíre good, you came up with runner Billy Mills, a gold medalist in the 1964 Olympics. If youíre very good, you got golfer Notah Begay, a winner of the Greater Hartford Open. If youíre very, very good, you thought of collegiate quarterback Sonny Sixkiller.

    The challenge to name famous American Indian athletes begs the second question as to why there are so few.

    Some enlightenment, if not an answer, can be found in the recently-released book, "Counting Coup, a True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn," by sportswriter Larry Colton.

    If there are two things we think we know all about here in Connecticut, itís womenís basketball and Indians. Women hoopsters are glamour girls Ė smart, pretty, athletic, just the best of the best.

    Indians are people who look just like you and me, except by an accident of birth are owners of casinos who make a gazillion dollars a month.

    Not exactly, and not everywhere.

    "Counting Coup" chronicles the Senior season of high school basketballer Sharon LaForge, a full-blooded Crow Indian living in the land where Custer made his Last Stand. LaForge is the best female basketball player in Montana. Sheís intelligent, attractive, stoic, tough and determined.

    She also drinks, smokes pot, has a boyfriend who knocks her around and, by traditional definition (though not by Indian standards), has screwed-up sleeping arrangements in which she stays with various relatives and friends.

    Her father is barely a passing acquaintance. Her mother is a falling-down drunk. In a scene right out of the movie "Hoosiers," LaForge toes the foul line as she prepares to make a crucial free throw just as her mother staggers into the gymnasium and causes a scene.

    Colton goes as far as he can in trying to explain the social pathologies prevalent on the "rez." Men beat the women because dominating the females is all thatís left from the warrior days. The canít hunt buffalo or kill the white invaders anymore.

    In a high school with a 49% Indian population, the teaching staff has no Native American teachers, and the school has zero classes in anything that relates to Native American life. Not surprisingly, the absentee and tardiness rate for Indian students is seven times that for whites.

    The statistics are severe. 98 percent of Indians who start college donít survive the first two months. Though the official unemployment rate on the Crow reservation is 44 percent, residents peg it much higher and 8 out of ten males have no jobs. Alcohol-related deaths among Native Americans occur at a rate 8 times higher than for the U.S. population as a whole.

    Tribal politics on the Crow reservation are personal, divisive and bitter, even by political standards. "Counting Coup" diverges from its main story to tell of the tribal councilís attempt to shut down Little Big Horn College, one of the regionís few success stories, because its founder fired a well-connected Indian.

    This is not, however, a book about bad things afflicting people who seemingly deserve better. Like any candid exploration of the self-inflicted pathologies which disproportionately affect certain minority groups, it does leave the reader with more questions than answers. This is a story about LaForge, a women possessed of a grace and fierceness that few of us could achieve even without the sociological handicaps she faces.

    Most likely, you already know she doesnít end playing basketball for Connecticut or Tennessee. Some readers will think the story has a happy ending, others will not. Itís one of those glass half-empty/half-full visions which depend on the beholder.

    But whether you turn its last page in a state of satisfaction or sadness, it will have given you a new way to think about both Indians and basketball. And for better or for worse, you will be pleased to meet Sharon LaForge.

    This is a very good book.


January 22, 2001