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Hoop Life on the Rez
Many years ago, Plains Indians gained honor and respect by "counting coup": successfully touching an enemy in battle, stealing an enemy's horse, leading a war party, or capturing an enemy's weapon. In Larry Colton's Counting Coup -- a stirring, engaging account of a women's high school basketball season in and around a Crow reservation -- the modern "counting coup" is achieved on the hardwood by teenage women.
Neither the men's nor the women's hoops squads of Hardin (Montana) High has ever won a state championship; with a population nearly half Crow, the school town have long missed out on that honor. But coach Linda McClanahan (Coach Mac) thinks this could be the time. In 15 years, Colton writes, "she's never arrived on a season with such high expectations."
Her optimism is well founded, one of the biggest reasons being the team's talented but moody star and co-captain, as well as the story's heart and soul: Sharon LaForge, a sixth-generation Crow. Despite an alcoholic absentee mother and the accompanying emotional difficulties, Sharon is primed for a big season. Basketball is her passion.
The Lady Bulldogs get off to a shaky start but soon find their footing and climb the standings. Colton's game coverage is enthralling, more so because the games are nail-biters. "Is this the seventh or eighth game that's come down to the last minute? I can't remember," writes Colton. "I feel drained. It's been hard enough watching these Cardiac Kids all season." Coach Mac, long pained by severe gastric attacks, also feels the stress, leaving the bench during one of the final games because "her breathing and heart rate are scaring her."
A 15-3 mark earns Hardin a spot in the divisionals, but the players are banged up, especially Sharon, who suffers from chronic back pain and a knee problem that will require arthroscopic surgery after the season.
The physical ailments, though, are the least of the Lady Bulldogs' problems. Colton sets the game action against a background of racial misunderstanding and distrust, both on the team and in the culture around them. At the top, tension exists between the two co-captains, Sharon and Tiffany Hopfauf, who is white: "Off the court...they mirror the way whites and Indians co-exist...distant and suspicious."
The rampant racism is striking, and Colton's report is balanced, allowing both whites and Indians to sound off. Tom Hopfauf, Tiffany's father, says, "I don't get it. I learned that whenever there is a war, the loser has to abide by the winner's rules. That's the way it was for the Germans after World War II. Right? So why should the Indians be any different? Why don't they have to abide by the rules?"
The Indians respond in kind. Janine Windy Boy, president of Little Big Horn College, a two-year community college that she helped to found in 1980 (one of the reservation's few bright spots), says, "The white people around here are outdated and outmoded, a bunch of cranky, unfriendly, immigrant bigots."
Colton's approach is evenhanded, but the Indian players clearly face greater obstacles: A college scholarship awaits Tiffany, but not a single recruiter pursues Sharon.
What's more, Colton painfully but dutifully explains the pervasive hopelessness and dysfunction of Crow society. Just a few troubles include alcoholism: "Forty percent of the adult population is hopelessly alcoholic." Diet: typical dinner includes beefsteak, macaroni in a broth, and fry bread, and, for dessert, sugar donuts. Academics: "The absentee and tardy rate for Crows is seven times higher than that for whites." Teen pregnancy: "The teen pregnancy rate on the reservation is nine times the national average."
That said, vital traditions do still exist. Colton is invited to a "sweat" by Sharon's grandmother, Danetta, part of a pregame ceremony for Sharon. In the sweat, which is like a sauna only many times hotter ("It's as if I'm caught in a tunnel and a GI is blasting his flamethrower right down the chute"), Colton hears prayers from men of good medicine, that is, a person of strong character and accomplishment.
Despite the obstacles, the Lady Bulldogs post another two wins in the divisionals, pushing on to the state tourney. They win their first game, Sharon lighting it up for 24 points. In the next game, it's tight, and Colton nervously notes, "Nine times during the season [Hardin has] either been tied or trailed by one in the last minute... [A]nd nine times they have pulled it out." Lives and hopes in the balance, the ending resonates, for players and readers.
With integrity and candor, Colton has "counted coup" in his own way, surviving a season with the Lady Bulldogs, recording an appealing account of two peoples, and even becoming an honorary Crow. And while Colton offers no glib solutions to the deep-rooted problems of the tribe, ultimately he finds hope in Sharon and in the parting image of another young woman, solitarily working on a spin move on the court in the center of town.
John Guida is a freelance writer in New York City.