Montana’s Rain Maker

by Jaden Urban

A Team Meeting

The University of Idaho women’s basketball team arrives at the airport. The pungent aroma of jet fuel envelopes the cabin as they fill the seats of the crowded plane. It’s the late 90s’ so no electronics or Netflix to binge on. There’s nothing except idle chatter, the flight attendants going over safety regulations and the dinging sound of the seatbelt light. The Vandals are traveling about 2,000 miles to play a non-conference team in the South.

Natalie Weeks-O’Neal, a redshirt sophomore, is seated on the flight. She is the only Native (an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine tribe) on the flight an, at that time, one of a few Native women playing D-1 basketball. Assiniboine was the name Europeans gave the ancestors of the tribe when they came across northeastern Montana. The tribe refers to itself at the Nakoda, as they are one of the Sioux bands.

Weeks-O’Neal grew up in Wolf Point, Montana on the Assiniboine reservation. The town is the home of a couple thousand residents with its two stoplights. Much of her family still lives there. During high school, her family moved across the border to Washington state. Her mother was a nurse for the Indian Health Service and she transferred to the Nez Perce reservation in Pullman, Washington and finished her high school career there.

“I loved basketball,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “My dad was a former basketball player. Native people just love basketball. It’s something, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. There’s a whole history into that.”

Basketball was a big part of Weeks-O’Neal’s life. Her dad, Montana basketball legend Willie Weeks, fueled her passion. Weeks competed against the “Pistol” Pete Maravich and James Edwards. He passed in 2006 before being inducted into the Montana High School Association Hall of Fame the following year.

“He was an All American for Montana State University,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “He had the opportunity to play in the ABA (American Basketball Association). He was a really legit ball player. Pretty awesome guy all around. He was a pretty big influence on me. He’s still listed as one of the tops, for Montana, in history. He was in Sports Illustrated was back in the day for an article on basketball.”

Weeks-O’Neal was getting noticed as well She received significant interest from several schools for her basketball and academic prowess, including offers from several Ivy League programs. She ultimately decided committed to the Vandals, which was only 20 miles from home.

As the flight neared its destination, Weeks-O’Neal prepared for the game (an early season tournament) like any other: studying the playbook and reviewing her assignments.

The day before the game, the players go to practice and then a team meeting. They gather after the long day of travel, practice and meetings to get changed and head back to the hotel. Angie Williams, a Vandals’ assistant, approaches Weeks-O’Neal. The 6’2 star player thinks she wants to talk to her about defensive assignments. However, the look on Williams face suggested something very different.

AB88

Howard Watts, Assemblyman of District 15 in Clark County of Las Vegas, proposed AB88 to the Nevada State Legislature. The bill would require schools across the state to remove any mascot, team logo, song, or any other identifies that is deemed racially discriminatory or contains racially discriminatory language or imagery. If an identifier is from a federally recognized Indian tribe, it can be used if the school gets permission from the tribe.

“This is a conversation hat is happening more and more across the country,” Watts said. “I felt like the time was right to bring forward the bill and make it clear, this is the policy for the state of Nevada and the direction we want to go. We are home to 27 thoroughly recognized Indian tribes. They have seen the use of these both right here in Nevada, and across the country as extremely hurtful. I think it’s a great opportunity for dialogue and for healing so that we can move forward as a community.”

Over the last 35 years, about two-thirds of 3,000 colleges across the country that were using these portrayals of these symbols have been retired. Over the past seven years, about half of the 2,000 K-12 schools have moved on from the use of these depictions as well. The legislature is in session until the end of May, so the bill needs to pass before then.

Weeks-O’Neal felt the enormity of being one of a small number of Native women playing D-1 basketball. She knew she was representing not only herself, her family but an entire community. Local high school kids from the reservation would come to watch her play.

“It put a lot of pressure on me knowing that I was one of only a few,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “To do well, to do a good job, to not mess up because those opportunities are few and far between and so I felt like that it was upon me to do really well for those coming up behind me. When you are one of the only ones, if you fail, that sets up, unfortunately, a stereotype.”

While Williams was Weeks-O’Neal’s coach and the person who recruited her, she was also a guide, mentor and confidant who recognized the star player’s heritage and culture.

“Hey, when you go in there, there things that you might potentially see,” Williams said. “I just want to talk to you about this, warn you, and get you mentally prepared. There are some things you’re going to block out and some things coach (Holt) and I don’t have any control over the other teams’ fans.”

Growing up in Montana, Weeks-O’Neal was familiar with individuals making negative remarks. After the announcer called for the visiting team to step on to the floor, the women run out single file around the edge and corners of the court. As the scoreboard becomes visible, cheers are heard, the lights become brighter, she witnesses what would become one of the most impactful memories that she would carry for the rest of her life.

Deeper in the Cushion

Laurel R. Davis-Delano, a sociology professor at Springfield College, conducted research on the psychological impact Native mascots had on Native students. Three studies demonstrated that Native mascots generate “negative psychological effects for Native students, in particular lower self-esteem, lower community worth, less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves and greater levels of negative affect.”

“I’ve been talking about changing Tribal mascots for nearly 30 years,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission and a citizen of the Walker River Paiute Nation in Nevada. “I absolutely do not see that sports mascots, Native American sports mascots, in any way honor Indian people. It is bad for the self-identity, the self-esteem and the development of young people.

“When the reservations were created, the federal government intentionally put my ancestors in far, out-of-the-way land bases,” Montooth said. “The thought was ‘These Indian people are in the way. They’re standing in the way of progress. Fast forward to 2021, we’re still in those isolated areas.”

The Moment

As so as Weeks-O’Neal’s sole hit the hardwood, she saw and heard everything. She thought that she was good at blocking out external noise and pressure, as that is what she had to do her entire life, but this time was difficult. The stereotypical Indian chant that involves moving the hand from the lips to a couple inches from the face, the tomahawk chops. And the signs: “Go Back to the Reservation,” “Stomp the Squaw,” “Ladies let’s get some scalps.”

“I really wasn’t prepared though to take the level that they were going to take it to,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “We’re not talking tens of thousands of fans. We’re talking hundreds, at best. Things that are going to stick out are a couple of loud fans being, for the lack of a better term, insensitive assholes. We’re talking about a couple dozen, very loud, thinking that it’s funny as a joke fans versus like a packed arena where you wouldn’t even notice it because there’s so many people there you would drown out the sound.”

Weeks-O’Neal goes through the pre-game drills with her teammates. She keeps taking shots hoping that the muscle memory would quell the horrors that were happening. She knew if she reacted or worse, retaliated, it would only reflect poorly on her and the team, but also her family and the Native community. And her performance.

The Aftermath

The final buzzer sounds as the clock ticks down to zeroes. The Vandals won the game led by Weeks-O’Neal’s double-double. The coaches made sure the team got back to the locker room, showered and back to the hotel. The next few months, Weeks-O’Neal had several conversations with her family about what happened. She also visited the campus sports psychologist.

“To my knowledge, no coach or athletic department staff took any action after the incident,“ she said. “I wasn’t interviewed by anyone. It was a different era. I persevered despite their lack of action.”

Weeks-O’Neal played two more seasons before opting out her last year of eligibility. She turned her attention to sports medicine and earned her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. She transferred to California State University, Long Beach and then attended the University of Southern California (USC) where she earned her doctorate in physical therapy. She currently lives in Las Vegas, is married with two children…her oldest following son following in mom’s and grandpa’s shoes, is currently a college athlete.

Currently the director of a physical therapist assistant program at a local college, Weeks-O’Neal helps with the State of Nevada Native Caucus. She is also co-founder of the Indigenous Psychical Therapy Network, which involves Native therapists who work in indigenous communities.

Weeks-O’Neal called into the March 9 bill hearing to give her testimony in support of AB88.

“That’s (the bill) a positive move towards progress,” she said. “Towards improving representation, positive representation amongst the Native youth and Native community. What these kids see, what I saw growing up, often brought such a negative stereotype about you, and it also permits those who see those stereotypes, who are not Native, to treat you a certain way.

“I think it shows the youth that we care,” she said. “That the community, the state of Nevada, the legislature, the people who are in power, are listening, recognizing and acknowledging that we’ve known for decades that these Native mascots are bad for your self- esteem.”

Editor’s Note: AB88 passed after this article was written.

Reporting by Jaden Urban shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

The Reynolds Sandbox showcases innovative and engaging storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab.

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