Every November for the last 18 years, Al Redman has unlocked the cage for Wyoming Indian High School's first day of boys' basketball practice. And every year so far, he's found a way to win. The silver-haired Redman has chalked up an impressive record as head coach of the powerhouse Chiefs, including five state championships and a record 50-game winning streak. But it has been eight years since the Chiefs have won a state title, a long time for a team that is the focal point for the community of Wind River, Wyoming.
For senior Beaver C'Bearing, who grew up dreaming of state victory, this year is his last chance. In time, Beaver and his teammates will be part of the audience, and will have to reconsider their priorities, but for the moment the question is what will happen during his senior year?
Wind River Indian Reservation (where the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone were confined by the U.S. government on 3,500 square miles of central Wyoming) is hardly an environment conducive to success. Poverty, alcoholism, racism, and youth suicide are just a few of the challenges the cultures face. But despite all of this - or perhaps because of it - basketball is played on the rez and played very well.
Why are the Chiefs so good? Because they grow up playing together from the time they can walk? Because they come from a warrior tradition? Because they are naturally gifted athletes? Because they play for a school built as an alternative to the non-Indian schools they compete against? Because they attend sweat lodges and observe other tribal traditions together? The film CHIEFS explores the complex factors that contribute to playing an incredible game of basketball.
Success on the court has not always carried over into other arenas, such as higher education and employment. Over the two years captured in the film, however, there are signs that this legacy might be broken, with role models like Assistant Coach Owen St. Clair returning to the community to help out after obtaining his college degree.
Through triumph and heartbreak, CHIEFS shows the whole reservation, from babies to grandmas, coming out to support the team, especially at the state tournament, where as many as 3,000 show up to cheer them on. "Last one on the rez, turn off the lights," has become the slogan at the state championships every March.
Growing up without a father, Beaver C'Bearing turned to his friends and to basketball. Once his career as a Chief ends, though, Beaver finds himself rudderless - caught in the quandary of his friends and so many young Native Americans. It's a scenario Tim Robinson and his classmates want to avoid. They vow to dedicate themselves, both on the court and off, to make their tribe, their families, and themselves proud.
It is a truism that basketball tends to thrive in the direst of circumstances. More than escapism, it provides youth with a sense of belonging and camaraderie, a means of achieving some sort of victory, an opportunity to explore life off the rez. In CHIEFS, we see a group of young men trying to convert the pride and success they experience on the basketball court and move ahead with the rest of their lives. By chronicling the experiences of these young players over the course of two years, CHIEFS shows what it's like to grow up Native American in the 21st century. A PBS Indies / Independent Lens selection.
Topics: Teenagers, Basketball, Native American, Dreams, High School, Team, Coach