This school year, we're following the academic progress of students at Fort Washakie High School—a struggling school on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Academic achievement—like most things at the high school—is on the rise. Thanks to its recent switch from charter to public, there’s a brand new school building in the works here. And students here have just taken a step that seems small, but is key to earning Fort Washakie its stripes as a traditional high school on the reservation. They've put together a basketball team.
It’s Tuesday night and the fledgling Fort Washakie Eagles are doing pre-game drills inside the gymnasium at Wyoming Indian High School. Coach Nathan Barber barks encouragement from the sidelines.
“We’re playing the Wyoming Indian Chiefs freshman team,” says Barber. “This is a nice game to get the season started off for us.”
This gym is Wyoming’s largest—and the banners hung on its walls tell why. The Wyoming Indian Chiefs have earned 10 state titles—4 in the past six years. The team is the paragon of high school hoops of the Rez. Fort Washakie, on the other hand, has never even had a real team. Still, Barber is confident his nine guys can pull off a win in their second game this season.
“I’m very excited for today—and my kids are, too,” Barber says. “You can tell by the way they’re shooting around. They’re ready to play ball.”
Junior shooting guard Ransom Ferris is certainly excited just to be a part of this team. He’s been named the squad’s captain—a role he takes seriously.
“Basketball, that’s my favorite sport and it means everything to me,” says Ferris. “Being called upon, to be leading, you know? It’s special.”
But the Eagles have only practiced together for a few weeks—and their enthusiasm is no match for Wyoming Indian’s run-and-gun approach. Fast break offense, full court press, high scores—it’s a style of play that sets high school teams on the Reservation apart from most of their competition around the state. Halfway through the first quarter, the scoreboard reads sixteen to two…Chiefs. Junior Che Stiffarm is frustrated.
“I’m feeling like we need to pick it up a bit, pick it up a lot actually,” Stiffarm says.
Stiffarm’s parents sent him to Fort Washakie this year because he’d been getting into trouble. The fact that there were no sports teams really bothered him because he’d always been an athlete. When he was a freshman, he actually went to Wyoming Indian—and played on this very team he’s facing tonight.
“I liked playing with them, because it was more fast-paced and we actually won,” says Stiffarm. “But as long as I get to play, that’s what really matters.”
It’s difficult to overstate just how big a deal basketball is on the Rez. This is what’s available here. High school stars are local legends for generations to come. Powerhouse teams like the Chiefs are the pride of a community sadly best known for high rates of poverty and crime. Even tonight’s game has drawn quite a crowd. The Eagles trail by 25 points at halftime, but Fort Washakie fans cheer on.
“You know, us having a team is really the start of something that’s gonna be much bigger in our brand new school,” says Scott Polson, Fort Washakie High School Counselor.
There are currently about 50 students there, but the new school building—and gymnasium—will accommodate three times that. The high school is right next door to Fort Washakie Junior High—and Polson hopes the new basketball program will bring in students that would otherwise go elsewhere after 8th grade.
“They have options to go to Wyoming Indian, Lander, Wind River,” says Polson. “But if they see that we have something that they want to have, then we will be able to attract those students into our high school—something that we haven’t had before.”
There’s another benefit to having a team—one that’s more important—and already playing out.
“I’ve seen more basketball students coming in to just go over what they’re grades are—determining what they need in order to pass for the semester,” Polson says.
To be eligible to play, students must be passing five classes. In a school whose recent graduation rates were among the state’s lowest, Polson says basketball is motivating his kids to care about grades and attendance—like never before.
“I’m more worried about our star players—their eligibility,” says Junior Eugene Elk. “Cause if not than we’re not a whole team without everyone. I try to keep everyone on track. I try to make sure my friends are at least playing.”
Elk says earning a spot on this team was his number one goal this year—mostly, because he wanted to be a part of something new.
“It’s just this team, like, never got started before,” says Elk. “I’m one of the first to start playing. And it’s like other schools would never play me, I was always sitting the bench.”
The Eagles lose the game 95 to 50. Fort Washakie Junior Isaac Lee doesn’t like getting beat by Wyoming Indian’s freshman squad—but, it won’t keep him down.
“I just want to be able to play with those guys and try to build some chemistry,” Lee says. “Winning is something I keep in mind, but I really don’t care for it. I just want to play.”
Most of the students on the basketball team are new to the school this year. For now, the team is Fort Washakie High School’s entire athletics program, but administrators say the next step—is to launch a girls’ team.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.