This is a pre-game photo taken last night, in Billings Montana, before the Southern B Divisional playoff game between the Lame Deer Morning Stars and the Shepherd Mustangs. Prior to tip-off the two teams circled together, competitor next to competitor, arm-in-arm, as a "show of unity." The fans roared. This wasn't the first time in recent days that Native American and white kids linked up on a basketball court. Last Wednesday, at the Northern C Divisional in Great Falls (C being Montana's smallest school classification), four teams—Power, Belt, Heart Butte, and Box Elder—came together to wild applause from the 3,500 in attendance.
The public displays of teenage diversity and togetherness are all in response to—and stop us if this sounds familiar—a bloviating old white man using racial and ethnic invective to promote an ill-conceived and overtly racist scheme to protect his own kind.
Meet Paul Mushaben, one half of Cat Country KCTR 102.9 radio's "Smelt It and Dealt It In the Morning." Sorry, pardon me: the show is called The Breakfast Flakes. On Feb. 21, Mushaben took time out from the regularly scheduled middle school-grade boner jokes and shitty Luke Bryan records to write up a blog post entitled "Indian Basketball." It called for an all-Indian basketball tournament, which would be a separate but (presumably?) equal affair. This was necessary, Mushaben wrote, because the "crowd" is "so unruly and disrespectful of the facility" that "it's not safe anymore."
Mushaben wants you to know his plan for segregation today, tomorrow, and on through the Class AA Finals next weekend, isn't based on race. In fact he loves Rezball. As he wrote, "It's too bad because they are really fun to watch and bring a different element to the game. But enough is enough and it's the kids that suffer." He highlighted a recent "incident," and then offered no evidence about it whatsoever. This is a species of March madness that has nothing to do with basketball tournaments. It's familiar.
Cat Country deleted the post, but the story didn't end there. This is America in 2017, and when you're fighting for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to be a total know-nothing asshole, you double down when you get busted.
"The thing is, had [Mushaben] apologized he woulda likely caught some shit, but the uproar wouldn't be as big as it got," says Billings writer Adrian Jawort, 36, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member who also owns Off the Pass press, and co-founded (with Russell Rowland) the Native American Race Relations & Healing lecture series.
Mushaben went on the air the following morning, complaining of censorship; he told the Billings Gazette, "it seems that the majority of the problems occur when Native Americans play." For good measure, he threw in a little White House race relations 101, comparing the dangerous and unacceptable situation at these games to gang violence in Chicago, which "comes basically from the African American community."
The Montana High School Association issued a statement with full backing of the current system, saying they will not discriminate against participants or fans. The organization even threw a bit of shade on all the complaints they'd received about said "unruly" Native Americans. The MHSA noted no tournament managers raised concerns over the previous weekend, and that no school, community, or facility had expressed that they wouldn't host a tournament because Native American schools were participating.
Official statements are fine, but the real galvanizing effect in this story has come from the kids having their say. Student-led activism continues across Montana. Cal Walks Over Ice, 45, an IT specialist and a Crow tribal member, saw it live last week.
"Lewistown students held up the sign in support of Browning and Hardin, two Native schools. Student athletes coming together to show support for each other is the positive outcome of this story," says Walks Over Ice, who sees it as part of a growing bigger movement. "The morning guy has supporters, but Natives are using the same social media to fight back against outside aggression, contacting the corporate offices to get their attention, and getting inter-tribal about it. Multiple tribes from many parts of Indian Country are united in the cause."
Paul Mushaben was suspended last Thursday by KCTR, and modern America being what it is, a rally was held in solidarity on his behalf. Roughly 40 people marched through downtown Billings carrying signs that read "Everyone Has Two Eyes But No One Has the Same View," "Breakfast Flakes R Awesome," and "Just Because You Don't Want to Hear Don't Make the Problem Disappear."
Beyond the call for a return to segregation—keep the browns, off our boards, and education—it's the "just telling it like it is" idea, the white man with the microphone's "only I have the balls to say so" mentality that really rankles Walks Over Ice.
"He stated he was bringing awareness to fix the problems on the reservation. There is always an outsider trying to tell Natives how to fix our problems. Who do they think they are to come fix problems on our reservations? We are working on our own issues everyday."
He added, for emphasis, "The youth will always be a great example of how to stand up and be heard when faced with these unfounded attacks on our communities!"
Let's leave it where we started, on the integrated hardwood. Where it's the content of your cross-over, not the color of your skin, that counts. Here's Lame Deer guard Mountain Weaselbear with the hoop and the harm, helping the Morning Stars beat the Mustangs 78-55.
State high school tournaments in Montana run through next Saturday.