I grew up in Oklahoma – no secret there. And Oklahoma, the literal end of the Trail of Tears means "Red People" in Choctaw. As a native Okie, these are things that you learn about when you take Oklahoma History, a required course in the junior high curriculum. But for other folks in other states, these things might be overlooked – like most of the small native population is.
Despite being in this country well before any of my ancestors, the Native American population is relatively small in the United States. Natives account for 0.8 percent of the population in the 2010 U.S. Census, but in Oklahoma the number is a "whopping" 8.6 percent. That makes the heartland of America (as some call the state) the fourth-most populous when it comes to identifying as American Indian/Alaska Native behind Alaska, New Mexico and South Dakota.
So when I was watching the NCAA women’s basketball tournament regional games in Oklahoma City, where a pair of Umatilla Indians were busy knocking of the No. 1-ranked team in the country en route to the Final Four, I wasn’t entirely surprised when the camera panned to a large contingent of smiling faces rooting for Jude and Shoni Schimmel. But then I started thinking – those Native Americans weren’t all Schimmels from Oregon – they couldn’t be. I started a quest to find out who they were and what – beyond the basketball – draws them to root for Louisville.
Among those rooting for the Schimmels in the Final Four is Kansas Jayhawks senior Angel Goodrich, a college basketball star in her own right, who understands the cultural significance that this year’s tournament has had on the native culture.
Even though her own journey in the tournament ended in the Sweet Sixteen, the fact that three Native Americans were seen doing high-profile things throughout March Madness was not lost on the Cherokee Indian.
"I think it’s amazing having three Natives in the tourney, and for Shoni and her sister to make Final Four is awesome," Goodrich said. "I am absolutely positive there are tons of Natives out there that are so proud of them. They are doing great things for themselves and the Native people. And I wish them the best of luck in the Final Four."
Goodrich is right: as shown by the turnout for Louisville's games in Oklahoma City, the Schimmels have a large contingent in their corner.
The story of the Shimmels’ journey was popularized among women's basketball fans after the release of TLC's documentary "Off the Rez". For people like Natalie G., who lives on the reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina, it was about more than a basketball story - the movie reflected struggles to leave are very real and very present.
"In the documentary, her momma said you need to get away: 'Don’t spend your life on the reservation because there’s nothing here for you'," Natalie said. "And we have so many talented athletes, so many that will go off to college and then after their first semester they come back home and do nothing. It’s a culture shock. Growing up they’ve got the whole support of the community. But when they go off the reservation there’s nobody there to support them, there’s nobody to encourage them to stay in college, so they come home where they’re comfortable."
So despite being four hours away from Louisville, many in the community of Cherokee make a point to go to home games to support the Schimmels and be their encouragement away from home.
"We have a lot of friends and family that are willing to make that four-hour commute just to go and watch Shoni and Jude play. If they play in Knoxville, I’ll be making the drive to watch them play there too. We hope it helps. We want to see them succeed and they have total support. Hopefully, they’ll set an example and these other kids will say, 'If they can do it, I can do it.'
"Very few of our kids on the reservation go to college. I really want to contact the Schimmels and say, come to our school and talk to our seniors because you always want your family to be successful and follow their dreams. All Native American country – I know – is standing behind these girls and supporting these girls."
And as easy as it is for basketball fans like Troy Littledeer to get behind the David and Goliath theme of Louisville's improbable run, as a Native American that cultural interest in the Schimmels is at the forefront of his mind.
"There aren’t very many popular culture role models out there for Native Americans. How many can you name?" asked Littledeer, a fan of women's basketball well before the Schimmels hit the scene. "Ask anyone that question, Indian or not, and you’re probably going to get the same few Indian celebrities. But people like Angel Goodrich, the Schimmel sisters, and groups like The 1491’s are finally starting to break the boundaries of those ‘unwritten rules’ that maybe, just maybe, plant seeds in the Indian youth no matter what Tribe they hail from."
I pondered the question, and I’m sure I came up with the same Native American names that you might – and the list is indeed short. So adding a few new faces to the list is important to Littledeer.
For more background on the 1491s, check out this article at Coilhouse.
"The Shimmels wear the same face as we do," Littledeer said. "When people see something or someone that’s just like they are, they usually discover that maybe they can be successful, too. Truth is - they can. These kids are inspirations. In a lot of small Indian communities - and I’d suspect it varies from tribe to tribe and region to region, but here in Stillwell, Okla. - there are a lot of unspoken rules that Natives apply even if they don’t know they’re doing it. It’s those rules that sometimes stifle ambitions. Angel and the Schimmel sisters are examples of what can be if you do go after your ambitions, follow your dreams, work hard and never give up."
That feeling of cultural pride is even shared by at least one fan of the California Golden Bears, who will face Louisville in the Final Four tomorrow.
Sean Nordwall, a Keetoowah Cherokee, Chickasaw Pawnee and Ojibwe by blood, and a California Golden Bear by school affiliation also finds himself swayed the cultural significance of the Schimmels' run.
Although you might think that the pull of his college bond might make the rooting interest in the Final Four a slam dunk for the ladies from Berkeley, blood is thicker than a degree for Nordwall.
"I root for every Native athlete that I can," said Nordwall, who will be rooting for the Shimmels rather than the Bears this weekend. "I understand the culture shock that Natives experience going to college and am proud when they take the chance to go away from home. Shoni and Jude are the only reason I am rooting for Louisville. I want to see some Natives win the championship."
The cultural thread that binds Nordwall with the 0.8 percent of the U.S. population that happens to include the Schimmels is a strong one. And the pride he feels is evident when he talks about changing the public perceptions of Native Americans.
"It's always important for each community to have positive role models to look up to. Angel Goodrich and the Schimmels are very good at what they do, and it just goes to show that a Native can meet and exceed people's expectations," Nordwall said. "I celebrate all Native achievements because the world needs to understand we are as diverse as anyone else and are not stuck in the past. But moreso for my own community, as long as we are proud of who we are and we are doing great things, I don't care what others think about us."
It sounds like this Cal Bear will also be rooting for the Schimmels on Sunday, joining the likes of counterpart Angel Goodrich, basketball fan Troy Littledeer, and Natalie G.'s community.
The two Louisville women who share Troy’s face, and Natalie’s community, and Seth’s heritage, and Angel’s basketball skills have a quite the cheering section as their ongoing quest for a championship continues.