Montana State University News Service
Some of the women from the 1904 Fort Shaw basketball team. Pictured in the front row, are Genie Butch, Belle Johnson, and Emma Sansaver. In the back row, from left, are Nettie Wirth, Katie Snell, Minnie Burton and Sarah Mitchell.

Before Schimmel: The Indian Women Who Became Basketball Champions

Jack McNeel

Tip-off to basketball season is right around the corner. Shoni and Jude Schimmel are back at the University of Louisville, poised for another run at the national championships. Two years ago, Tahnee Robinson became the first Native American woman to be drafted by the WNBA and last spring, Angel Goodrich became the second. Indian girls are playing at many schools across the country and basketball reigns supreme throughout Indian country.

But Indian women and basketball are not as new as many think. In 1904 the women’s basketball team at Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School in Montana were world champions.

This arch at the site of the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School proclaims the team as World Champions. (Jack McNeel)

Basketball was in its infancy, but rez ball was born.

James Naismith invented the game just 13 years earlier, so it truly was a new sport. Even during those 13 years it had evolved to something more resembling the game today. The clock didn’t stop, so the scores were lower and field goals only counted for one point, but the young women ran the full court as they do today. The uniforms could better be described as bloomers and the ball was slightly larger back then.

The History Museum in Great Falls, Montana contains a display of items and photos from the 1904 Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School basketball team including uniforms. (Jack McNeel)

The young women on the Fort Shaw team came from seven tribes throughout Montana and Idaho. Some of the girls had played shinny or double ball, but had likely never played this new sport. Their first game was against a high school boy’s team in Great Falls. The young ladies rode 40 miles in horse drawn wagons to play that game, winning and actually doubling the score of the boy’s team.

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That was just the beginning. They beat the men’s teams at the University of Montana and Montana State by scores of 25-1 and 22-0. At halftime they entertained with songs on the mandolin and violin, recited poetry, sang and did Native dances. Teams didn’t want to play them.

A granite monument below the arch contains a photo and the name of each team member along with a steel basketball. (Jack McNeel)

The 1904 World’s Fair was held in St. Louis, Missouri. Fort Shaw Indian School Superintendent Fred C. Campbell arranged for the team and other Fort Shaw students to attend and live in tipis at the Indian Exhibit. They performed dozens of times showing their basketball talent as well as musical talents to raise money for the trip.

Missouri had put together an all-star team—their coach studied Fort Shaw and spent the summer preparing for them. They thought they were ready. It was a best of three series. The score in the first game was 24-2 in favor of Fort Shaw. Missouri requested a several week delay before the second game—the final score of which was 17-6, again in favor of Fort Shaw. They were declared world champions.

Fort Shaw was to close as a boarding school in 1910. The basketball team members went their separate ways, but their story continues to be told. PBS produced a movie called, Playing for the World. In 2004, Happy Jack Feder wrote a book called Shoot, Minnie, Shoot! Another movie was produced with that same title. In 2008, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith produced another book titled Full-Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School Basketball Champions of the World.

Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene tribal member, played the role of Minnie Burton in the video. Jordan was a basketball player through four years of college at the University of Washington so the role came naturally. Minnie Burton was also an Idaho resident and a member of the Lemhi Shoshone Tribe.

“There was a lot of pride in playing the role of Minnie,” Jordan said. “I felt a strong relationship to Minnie who was a leader on the team. She was a natural, tall like me, and strong. She was a full-blood Indian. They were not just winners, but gracious about it. They kept winning and every time the hate became less… began transforming into respect. I believe that team had influence on the popularity of basketball into tribal culture that lasts to this day.”

The Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School no longer stands, although a couple of small stone buildings still occupy the site—but the basketball team has not been forgotten. A large steel arch has been erected with the words: 1904 World Champions. Beneath the arch is large granite stone with a steel basketball mounted on top with a photograph of the 10 young women on the team and the names of each player engraved in the stone. It’s a wonderful tribute to an incredible team that shocked the world in 1904.

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Gina Pocan's picture
Gina Pocan
Submitted by Gina Pocan on
Thank you. I swear I learn something new all the time reading Indian Country. Things I should have been taught as a child, but was never told. Gives me great pride. Thanks for sharing this. Blessing to you.

Amy G Stevens
Amy G Stevens
Submitted by Amy G Stevens on
There's Great Grandma Belle holding the ball It would be cool to go back in time to see what she was like. Happy Hack Feder is fictional, I would highly recommend Full Court Quest. Linda Pevy and Ursula Smith were wonderful ladies and they did lots and lots of researches and interviews.

Ella Dunigan's picture
Ella Dunigan
Submitted by Ella Dunigan on
that goes to show what the Native woman are capable of even now there are so many with talents that are not written about much less make the national news,we are just proud of who we are "Standing Tall'.

Hazel Zimmerman's picture
Hazel Zimmerman
Submitted by Hazel Zimmerman on
My mother played basketball at Arnold High School in Arnold Nebraska 1913 to 1916. Their uniforms were middy blouses and bloomers similar to the Fort Shaw girls' outfits. The school didn't have a gymnasium, they played outside on a dirt court. They competed favorably against mens' teams. My mother was only 5'2" tall, but she was fast and aggressive. She lived to be 103 years old.

Gloria Vigil's picture
Gloria Vigil
Submitted by Gloria Vigil on
I thoroughly enjoyed the article. I am going to share with my Granddaughter. She LOVES basketball. Thanks!

Troy Travis Fields 's picture
Troy Travis Fields
Submitted by Troy Travis Fields on
I am glad that they got there Honor and they showed every One that they could do what that set out to do . They stud to as One But the mine thing was They stud to gather as a Team . They should have Left the School for to show how far that the Children have come from They Deserved that they are the Best at what they done . When they was all put in a Place that they did not ask to be at they want to be with there Family's and they wanted to learn ways of the People that was take a way from .

Barbara-Marie Grant's picture
Barbara-Marie Grant
Submitted by Barbara-Marie Grant on
A wonderful incredible team!! Their graciousness about their wins, would win out over the hate and become respect. Awesome girls!!! And thanks and blessings to those who shared this story.

bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
As I look into the eyes of this heralded team, I see humble beginnings and steadfastness to tribal traditions. Fate has a way of bringing people together and their shared journey etches historical notes long after it ends. As a footnote, it would be 50 years after the Ft. Shaw girls basketball team were declared World Champions that the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation. I think this historical sports achievement would make a fabulous theatrical presentation. It could be done in 2 or 3 shorts acts and presented in communities next year and thereby marking their 110th championship anniversary.

Cheffrey Sailto's picture
Cheffrey Sailto
Submitted by Cheffrey Sailto on
What?! Paullette Jordan was in a movie?! I didn't know that. Way to represent the Coeur d'Alene people. Good job!

Jim Morris's picture
Jim Morris
Submitted by Jim Morris on
Great story, I grew up in Montana and it brought back fond memories of great people who did great things.

Linda Goforth's picture
Linda Goforth
Submitted by Linda Goforth on
So glad to see this and to share it. My great, great grandmother was Cherokee.

Linda Goforth's picture
Linda Goforth
Submitted by Linda Goforth on
So glad to see this and to share it. My great, great grandmother was Cherokee.

Linda Goforth's picture
Linda Goforth
Submitted by Linda Goforth on
I am looking for appropriate material to reference in my book on history of the Pajarito Plateau in NM. I have a list of items that were happening in history while history of one family was developing from 1899-1926 here. This article is something I would like to reference as an unusual and notable event in the lives of people, especially native people at that time. I would like to share it without Historical Society too. How do I get permission?

wobblies's picture
Submitted by wobblies on
Ella Dunnigan~ Are you related to the Ella Dunnigan who ran a stage coach station in Idaho City in the 1870's. I am asking because I am trying to find out about this relative. David Elliott