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Laramie Movie Scope:

Hoop dreams on the Rez

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 15, 2002 -- "Chiefs" is a documentary about native American basketball players from a small, rural school trying to find their place in a postmodern, hostile world. I had high expectations going into this film and it was better than I hoped it would be. It reminded me a lot of another great documentary about basketball players, "Hoop Dreams."

When I mentioned the comparison to the film's director, Dan Junge, he winced. He hates that comparison because it sets the bar so high for his film. Hoop Dreams is a classic documentary, one of the best ever made. Junge did not set out to make another Hoop Dreams. He did not realize that's what he had until he was well into the project. That this film can be compared to Hoop Dreams is about the highest compliment you can give a documentary on the subject of basketball. This film deserves that compliment.

The film follows the Wyoming Indian High School team, the Chiefs, in their run for two Wyoming state basketball championships over a period of more than two years. The film also follows some of the players as some attempt to "make it" in the white world and others try to learn more of their traditions. Some try to balance the two goals. The Chiefs are a team with a proud tradition, having advanced to the state high school basketball tournament 18 straight years. The Chiefs set a Wyoming high school basketball record by winning 50 games in a row. With a student body of only 160, the team regularly plays and beats teams from schools almost 10 times its size. The secret? They run like no other team. Building on a long tradition of runners, the Chiefs play fast break basketball and pressure defense all game long. They run like the wind.

The film starts out with a sweeping shot flying over the windswept hills of the Wind River Indian Reservation (the "Rez") in west central Wyoming as the narration recounts a legend of Indian runners whose feet never seemed to touch the ground. The great reservation, encompassing Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members, with its variety of beautiful scenery, is also home to grinding poverty, broken families, alcoholism and drug use. These are among the many tragic byproducts of generations of failed government programs, oppression, broken treaties and the theft of tribal lands. Conditions are remarkably similar to those of inner city ghettos. Despite years of trying to break the Native American culture and religion, it continues to thrive. It is evident at the home games of the Chiefs, and in the team's training. Large ceremonial drums at the games beat out a rhythm unchanged in hundreds of years. In the chants and cries from the crowd supporting a new kind of hardwood warrior, there are echoes of other war cries of the distant past.

Coach Al Redman, one of the founders of the school 18 years ago, and one of the most successful coaches in the history of high school basketball in the state, tells the team to sweat next Tuesday night at one point in the film. He's not talking about playing or practicing. He's talking about a team sweat lodge ceremony. Rocks are heated in a raging fire and then dumped into a pit in the middle of a tent. Redman feels the sweat is a way to get the team to come together and play with a single purpose and goal. It seems to work. Practices are hard. Redman knows he has the talent to win the state title this year (his teams have won five championships). He is a little worried about one of his more talented players, Beaver C'Bearing, because he likes to party a little too much.

There is a good deal of basketball footage in the film and it is good footage. We see a lot of steals, fast breaks, dunks and blocked shots by the Chiefs. The team does a lot of nifty passing on the break to set up easy baskets, and they drive the lane fearlessly. The up tempo game is what they call "Chiefs basketball." Redman is reserved on the bench. Assistant coach Owen St. Clair does most of the yelling. On the road (The Chiefs travel some 2,000 miles each season. Wyoming is a big, sparsely populated state), the players hear slurs against their race. After the film screened in Laramie, Redman was asked whether or not the team's success has eased racism. He replied that it has gotten worse, in part because racism rises and falls in cycles. But he also thinks racism has been aggravated by the fact that the Chiefs are so successful beating other teams by margins of up to 70 points. It is no wonder fans of other teams resent and envy the Chiefs success, particularly in a state whose symbol is the cowboy. Cowboys are not supposed to lose to Indians.

You would almost think that when the Chiefs beat up on teams made up entirely of white players that it is payback for the treatment they have suffered from whites over the years, yet it did not seem so in the film. The Chiefs dispatch their opponents in a workmanlike fashion. The other team seems not to be so much an opponent as an incidental obstacle to victory, to be overcome as efficiently as possible. It was the other teams that were trying the trash-talking and intimidation. The Chiefs try to play their game, not the other team's game. When one Chief player loses his temper and commits a costly foul in the film, he is severely reprimanded by the coaches. That is clearly not Chief basketball. They get even by winning, and so do the Chief fans on the Rez. On the Rez, the Chiefs are a source of pride and unity.

Off the court, the players struggle to make it in the world. Some seek refuge in drugs. Some want to go to college and make a life for themselves outside the reservation. Some go to college and return. Others never leave. Beaver C'Bearing likes to go cruising with his buddies. The rap music blares, baseball caps worn backwards, gang style. They use eye drops to get the red out after smoking dope. Junge said he was caught up in the idea that not leaving the reservation was a poor choice. It wasn't until late in the project that he realized staying on the reservation can be positive for some, a way to get in touch with the ancient traditions of their people. Yet, people in the film seem to be of two minds about staying on the reservation. Sometimes they view it as positive, other times they talk about life on the reservation as being a dead end, with no future, no chance for advancement or meaningful achievement.

Two of the featured players on the Chiefs graduate high school during the course of the film and go to college. One, Brian SoundingSides, returns after only three weeks. He didn't like college life. The other, Al C'Bearing, goes to Chadron State College, where he is currently listed on the basketball team roster. Beaver C'Bearing stays on the reservation, eventually getting an office job working with medical records. There is a brief footnote at the end of the film talking about what happened to the players. One of the more interesting stories has to do with one Native American player on the Chiefs, Tim Robinson, who has an ambition to be a rodeo cowboy. Gerry Redman decides to stay on the Rez and learn more about his heritage from his father. The players and their families are fascinating. We really get to know some of these people. The film has a lot to say about the resiliency of the human spirit and about how Native Americans were coping in America at the twilight of the 20th century. This film rates a B. It is an excellent companion piece to other milestone films exploring modern Native American life: "Pow Wow Highway" and "Smoke Signals."

This film is currently unavailable in theaters or on video. It was partially funded by PBS, so it may end up being broadcast on PBS stations around the country. It is certainly good enough for a theatrical release, if it can find a distributor. Check the links below in the future to see if it becomes available. It is worth the wait. Until then, check the film festival lists. I saw it at the Gladys Crane Mountain Plains Film Festival in Laramie. Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You may eventually be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

I mentioned earlier that I had been looking forward to this film. I had been aware of the tradition of the Chiefs for some time. I saw them play once in the Wyoming state basketball tournament when it was held here in Laramie, and it was a very impressive performance. A former colleague of mine, Ron Franck, once interviewed the team during the tournament, and Ron told me what a treat it was to talk to the players (they were not used to newspaper interviews in those days). I have followed the team with keen interest for a number of years. For instance, several of the players names are very familiar to me because members of the same extended families have played on the team for years. I can remember seeing the name Spoonhunter associated with the team for years. In the film, one of the players is Isaac Spoonhunter. Often, when you have such keen anticipation of a movie, you can be disappointed. Not in this case. Not only is it a good sports documentary, it is even more successful at revealing the humanity of its subjects.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)