A Season of Hopes, Hoops, and Dreams on the Navajo Nation
New York Times journalist Michael Powell follows a powerhouse high school basketball team to document the challenges and opportunities facing generations of Navajo
Michael Powell just wanted to shoot some hoops.
For a few months 25 years ago, Powell, his wife Evelyn, and their two young children lived on the Navajo Nation. Their home was a trailer, and in a moment of restlessness the native New Yorker grabbed a basketball and went looking for a court. He came upon seven young Navajo shooting baskets, asked to join the game, and was quickly schooled by their relentless pace. “It was akin to being caught in the wrong lane with Olympic marathon runners,” Powell writes in Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation. “Up-and-down, stutter-step, now-you-saw-it-and-now-I-did-not dribbles and whiplash passes, a juking and endless vengeance of a game.” Powell had just discovered rez ball.
Decades later, Powell was in Arizona to cover the Super Bowl for The New York Times and was looking for an escape from the media mayhem. He called a friend from his days on the reservation, hoping to watch some rez ball. That led him to Chinle (pop. 4,518), the Wildcats, and coach Raul Mendoza. One-quarter Mexican and three-quarters Tohono O’odham, Mendoza was a 700-win state champion lured out of retirement by Chinle to turn around its basketball program. Since he took over in 2016, the team has been a perennial contender for the state title. Mendoza has also become a mentor and lifeline for his players—ambitious, talented young men who sometimes struggle to see a life beyond the reservation.
Mendoza and his players are the backbone of Canyon Dreams, an honest, challenging view of life on the Navajo Nation, especially the difficulties students face when their dreams are met by the reality of their circumstances—at home, at school, and on the court. (The team is also the focus of the Netflix documentary series Basketball or Nothing.) Powell spoke with The Elective about rez ball, life on the reservation, and how the Navajo experience fits into larger conversations about opportunity and education.
Why is basketball the sport that found its place on the Navajo Nation, as opposed to soccer or football?
I explored that with a couple of people and no one was completely sure, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a combination of things. One is distance running. Rez ball is this very fast, quick, free-flowing kind of game where they never stop running, and that very much fits with distance running, which more broadly goes deep into Native American history. It was a combination of that and basketball playing into this kind of communal, working together, nonstar culture. And then, starting in the very early part of the last century, like 1900 or so, the Bureau of Indian Affairs started taking Native kids and putting them in boarding schools where, as they put it, they were going to basically try to kill the Indian inside them. And one of the things the Navajo there embraced, along with many other tribes, was basketball. So when you put all those together, they kind of took basketball and then turned it into their own thing.
Is rez ball strictly a Western thing?
At the risk of being mistaken about one or two reservations, it’s not an Eastern thing as much. For the Iroquois and Mohawks, my sense is that lacrosse is very much their sport. But in the West, rez ball, they play it in Montana, they play it in Wyoming. It’s a style of ball, and they have these rez ball tournaments each summer that pull together teams from across a whole bunch of reservations.
Rez ball is a juking and endless vengeance of a game.
How did you decide you would follow this season?
Once I met Coach Mendoza, I knew right away that he was the kind of figure I wanted to write about. I liked the fact that he was both inside and outside. I knew that pretty much every year would be interesting. He’s a very, very good coach. I wanted to write a book that was about sports but was not a sports book. So what I wanted to have, which I was lucky enough to get, was a nice through-narrative, and then I wanted to use that as a window onto all kinds of aspects of the culture.
How much arm-twisting did you have to do with Coach Mendoza and the school to allow yourself to be embedded in this community?
It wasn’t that difficult at all. He’s a really good guy and an interesting guy. I had gone out there and done a couple of pieces for the Times the year before, so we kind of bonded then and got along very well. He knew that he wasn’t going to want to kill me halfway through the season. The other one that I had to get the okay from, of course, was the superintendent, Quincy Natay, and he was very open. He felt they had a good story with their high school, that they were starting to make some real changes, and he saw that basketball was such an important part of their culture. He is a Navajo. So it was remarkably easy, but it was certainly helped by the fact that they could look at two pieces I had done. That let them know that I’m going to try to show the culture in its complexity.
Did it help, too, that you and your family had spent so much time there?
Yes. I certainly felt like it personally helped me in understanding it. There’s been a lot of changes since we were there 25 years ago. There were no computers, no TVs. Very little of the outside world intruded there. Now, it’s still a very, very different place—at school everybody has a computer, I would say, 80% of the kids have cell phones, and that kind of stuff, and that just leads to a different experience.
How did the kids and their families take to you being around?
It was fine, it just took time. It’s a very nonlinear place. If you go there expecting things to happen in a day or a week or whatever, then you’re in for a lot of unhappiness. But if you just take your time—and I had the luxury of a season, I went to every practice, I went to every event—then eventually you become part of that place. And as long as you make it clear that you want to listen and you want to hear. In the end, it was great. When I got invited to a meal with a family, usually that was like 25 people because they have these huge families with aunties and uncles and everything. They’ll make mutton stew and just sit around and talk for long periods of time. It’s wonderful. It all worked out in the end, but it just took a long time. Things like, “let me schedule you for next Saturday,” that didn't happen. That didn't work.
Home's going to be a beaten-up trailer at the end of the long dirt road, with no electricity and no running water and they're going to try to type their essays maybe on a phone or by candlelight.
You said the reservation is a nonlinear place. You also use that term in the book to describe education and how learning happens there, putting it in opposition to this world of data capture and testing. Could you talk about what nonlinear learning means in a place like the Navajo Nation?
Our modern, obsessive testing, chart-everything approach ... I should say I don’t think this is solely a problem for dealing with Native Americans. I think that’s a problem when applied to inner-city schools. I don’t think it’s healthy for upper middle class kids like my own, but I think it’s more deeply problematic [in those communities] because my kids can learn how to swim in those currents, even if I think it’s kind of disastrous. Whereas I think when it’s applied to a kid like Keanu Gorman, the valedictorian I write about in the book—as it turns out, he did fine, he was accepted to Harvard—but he’s raised by a grandmother and a great grandmother who speak Navajo, no electricity, no running water. Things are going to happen at a different pace in a different way and learning’s going to happen in a different way.
I write about one AP English teacher, Parsifal Smith-Hall, who was tough, very rigorous, and it wasn’t like the class was just reading Native American novels or anything like that. But there’s also an awareness that some of your kids are going to spend two hours getting home and home’s going to be a beaten-up trailer at the end of the long dirt road, with no electricity and no running water and they’re going to try to type their essays maybe on a phone or by candlelight. And that they’re going to have all of these different family pressures, that they’re going to come sometimes from fractured homes, they’re going to have older kids raising younger kids.
And then the culture—it’s not framed around linearity, like, “this has to happen now, this has to happen then.” And it isn’t to say that you should then condescend, but if you’re going to succeed as a teacher there’s got to be an awareness that you’re in a very different culture. And it is all-encompassing because it’s the size of West Virginia. I admired the fact that the better teachers there had rigorous standards. It’s a tough act, but some teachers do that very well. And I think that a lot of the testing and metric-driven culture is just irrelevant to the point of damaging.
Angelo Lewis, a member of the Chinle Wildcats basketball team, encourages a teammate in a scene from the Netflix documentary series "Basketball or Nothing."
You write that these boys were “migrants in time.” Could you unpack that a little bit
By “migrants in time,” I meant a whole variety of things. One is just in their sense of traditional belief, which is still very powerful there. And there’s the sense that the membrane between the immaterial and the material is thin to nonexistent—of magic and dead relatives and living relatives and, in some cases, interacting with all of those. And that you’re kind of carrying the memory, which is the many oral tales, with you. And these kids are, at the same time, kids. They’re on Facebook, they listen to Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z and all this kind of stuff. And it also comes down to language. Certainly their grandparents and, in most cases, their parents speak close to fluent Navajo. Most of the kids, I would say, did not speak fluently at all, but they understood it. It reminded me of growing up on the Upper West Side with a lot of my friends who were sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors. The parents all spoke Hungarian and Yiddish and my friends understood it, but didn’t really speak it.
But I think when it comes to education, all of that’s reasonably profound. If you’re a teacher, you need to be aware of that. One thing I didn’t have a chance to fully flesh out in the book was that there was a teacher who had been killed in a car accident. A number of school administrators wanted to bring in a medicine man to have a ceremony in his classroom. And the principal is quite good—a Mormon, a white guy, and quite sensitive to their culture—but I could tell, in part because he’s Mormon and in part reflecting church–state stuff, he was reluctant to do this. There was a lot of pushing that, “no, kids are going to be uneasy if you don’t do this ceremony.” And those kinds of things would come up. It would come up sometimes in teaching. Like I mentioned in the book, the snake is a very potent symbol for the Navajo, and not a good one. It’s a worrisome thing. So if you talk about how in your class somebody behaves, like, “What a snake,” that’s going to resonate very differently for these kids even though they’re very much like teenagers everywhere. But they also really carry those kinds of cultural signifiers with them.
You share some statistics, like unemployment on the reservation at 45%, and realities like a lack of running water and electricity. That will sound familiar to anyone paying attention, but for others I imagine that will all be shocking, especially when we talk about 21st-century America and an economy that’s close to what economists would call full employment. You write that “modernity had drained this beautiful Canyon of a way of life,” and with those facts, the Navajo Nation sounds similar to how people have talked about Appalachia. Does the Navajo experience fit in the larger context of this rural story that the United States is grappling with now?
I think very much so. They don’t, thank God, at least at this point, have an opiate problem, but in almost every other respect, there are a lot of similarities. Years ago, I worked in northern Vermont, and if you went up to the Northeast Kingdom, the most rural part of that state, you’d find lines of similarity, culturally and then in the new economy. But then there are particular aspects of the Navajo experience that present their own challenges. The Navajo government is very preoccupied with not losing any of its land to outsiders, but as a result they make it enormously difficult for businesses to open and operate. The amount of permitting you have to go through is mind-boggling. There are a lot of very successful Navajos who work in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Phoenix. I was talking to one in Albuquerque who is the publisher of Albuquerque Magazine—he’s a developer, he’s done very well for himself. He grew up on the reservation and he had wanted to give back. He had wanted to build a little office building and use it to do Navajo startups and stuff. And he got a series of Navajo investors together from off the rez. And after three years, he gave up because he just couldn’t ... There’s a fear of change, in particular for the older generation. I very much get it, as did he. It’s also unfortunate. The Navajo are quite entrepreneurial. I mention in the book, you’ll drive around and you’ll see auto repair, tire repair—which is a huge thing because the roads are in terrible shape—and you’ll see hairdressers, but that’s all the informal economy. None of those folks are in the formal economy. And that is a real problem.
Ultimately, they’re going to lose their most entrepreneurial kids to the outside world. They’ve got to figure that out. There’s a Navajo think tank at the community college, and they’re very frank in talking about this. They say this is one of the big, cultural, political challenges they have. Right now you have 160,000 or so who live on the rez and about the same number who live off the rez, and you’re going to see more and more of their young leeching away if you can’t solve a 45% unemployment problem. That’s not to put it all on the Navajo. There are all sorts of reasons we can get into that our problems are imposed on them. But these are also some problems internal to the Navajo Nation. And to other reservations, by the way. These are not dissimilar from things affecting other rez. It unfortunately plays out on too many reservations. And it’s not at all to slight the other problems, but it is to say some are kind of self-imposed and it’s a tragedy. In the case of the Navajo, you have a diaspora that is quite willing to do stuff, but you’ve got to figure out some ways to loosen up land regulations to let people build houses instead of just putting trailers everywhere. And all of that is incredibly difficult there.
Houses on Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona.
Since finishing the book, have you stayed in touch with any of the kids or coach Mendoza. How’s Keanu doing in school?
I’m pretty regularly in touch with Coach Mendoza and the athletic director, John Martin. I went back there to do a story on Mike Budenholzer, the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, who comes from a border town there, and I used the occasion to drive up to Chinle and met with a bunch of the families. So, yeah, I feel as much in touch as I can be.
Keanu’s doing great. I had dinner with him recently, up in Harvard Square. He said it was difficult, and that first year in particular is such a culture shock. This is a kid who had never been to Albuquerque, never been to Vegas, never been on a plane. And now he’s at Harvard. But now he’s a liberal arts major and I think leaning toward literature history. He’s doing really well.
Each year, Chinle High School sends a couple of kids either to Ivy League or the equivalent—Stanford, Berkeley, Tufts, whatever. And the kids, almost without fail, finish. They finish in four years. And it’s apparently always, and maybe not surprisingly, the same sort of a pattern: That first year is a bear—the culture shock and everything else—and then they’re up and swimming. All the data shows that if you just get through, get that degree, doors open in a lot of different ways.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.