“Some say basketball is a metaphor for life,” mused NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson during an interview about Montana’s Class C girls’ basketball tradition, “but it’s bigger than that. It’s . . . joy.”
For the first half of the twentieth century, Montana’s young female basketball players knew that joy—sprinting full court in front of enthusiastic crowds. In 1904, ten girls from Fort Shaw Indian School drew enormous Great Falls crowds and beat all rivals at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Phil Jackson’s mother captained her 1927 Wolf Point girls’ basketball team. Patricia Morrison’s 1944-45 Fairfield High girls’ team beat the boys, playing boys’ rules.
But by 1950, mainstream sensibilities and school funding limits had corralled Montana’s exuberant female athletes. Their opportunities became limited to tamer intramural activities—often characterized by cast-off equipment, unskilled coaching, and poor facilities. It took congressional action and a court fight to bring equal opportunity in all sports to Montana’s young women athletes.
The question, of course, was never about girls’ physical prowess or fearlessness. Instead, the issue was equal access to resources. In response, Congress enacted the Education Amendments of 1972. These regulations covered many educational issues, but the best-known section reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Though it prohibited gender discrimination in all areas of education, Title IX’s most far-reaching impact occurred in women’s sports.
Montana cowboys say that rodeos weren’t born; “they just growed” out of custom and necessity. Montana has bred some of the best cowboys and meanest mounts as well as some of the West’s most famous women riders. Four bucked their way to renown. Fannie Sperry Steele, Marie Gibson, and Alice and Marge Greenough were world-class champions, tough to top. Each wore her laurels with a grace and dignity that belied her chosen path.
Fannie Sperry was born in the Prickly Pear Valley in 1887. Her mother taught her to ride almost before she could walk. Sperry cast aside Victorian decorum and rode astride in a divided skirt, rounding up wild horses. Local ranch kids gathered on Sunday afternoons for neighborly competitions. In 1903, sixteen-year-old Sperry awed spectators with such a ride on a bucking white stallion that onlookers passed the hat.
Fannie Sperry earned a reputation for courage, skill, grit, and sticking power on the backs of the wildest broncos, and in 1907, Sperry began to ride in women’s bucking horse competitions. At the Calgary Stampede in 1912, her ride on the killer bronc, Red Wing, earned her the title “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.” She earned the title again in 1913.
Amid the ruins of the Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School, a metal arch and granite monument honor ten Native American girls who overcame separation from their families and forced estrangement from their Native cultures to become the finest female basketball players in the country. Declared the “World Basket Ball Champions” in 1904, the girls from Fort Shaw also deserve praise for having triumphed over extraordinary life challenges.
In 1892 the federal government opened the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School. Such off-reservation schools were designed to break the chain of cultural continuity by removing children from their tribal communities. The schools’ paramount educational objectives were cultural assimilation and English language fluency. Students were trained for employment in domestic services, industrial labor, and farming. Classes in music, theater, and physical education rounded out their instruction. Continue reading Champions: The Girls of Fort Shaw→