Basketball, Empathy, & Enlightenment

By: Brendan Gallagher

basketball-court

Left: Cheyenne River Youth Project Basketball Court

Spending a week at the Cheyenne Indian Reservation wasn’t nearly enough time to fully comprehend and grasp the full culture. Life on the reservation was certainly different from life back home, but not nearly as different as I had wrongfully anticipated. The reservation’s headquarters are located at city of Eagle Butte, South Dakota consisting of a total of over 1.4 million acres. Poverty is beyond prevalent on the reservation, in large part due to some heavy federal regulations and imbalanced economic assistance. Despite numerous massacres, land seizures, and settler invasions over centuries, the Natives continue to prevail to this day.

Sympathy is defined as a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. As the leader of the Youth Program stated on the first day of our service week, the tribe does not want sympathy. The Native Americans have been against the odds for years and a group of teen volunteers aren’t going to make any significant differences in the matter of a week. They accepted the help we offered and we were able to assist in various areas across the youth center, particularly in the warehouse and garden. It was satisfying to contribute in any way necessary and better understand the drastic contrasting lifestyle of such a determined community. This service week in South Dakota gave me the opportunity to reflect on how easy my life has been thus far and how grateful I truly ought to be. However, there were many simple relatable aspects that I could connect with the teenagers about, especially basketball.

I have played basketball since when my dad introduced me to the sport at age six. So when Tammy-Joy informed the Gap group that basketball was the most beloved sport, I was thrilled. I spent my first night hanging out at the basketball gym which was adjacent to the Cheyenne River Youth Project building that we slept in. A couple of the girls in the group were designated to hang out with the teens during this time period also, and they were understandably uncomfortable for a brief period of time. They were not experienced in the sport of basketball and it was fairly difficult to initiate conversation with a group with such discrepant backgrounds and life circumstances. However, these few Gap girls were able to open up to some of the female Natives and discover individuals who weren’t too different after all. The males, who were the overwhelming majority of the basketball players, were also extremely welcoming and inviting to us. We were able to join their intense, fast-paced pickup games as unknown strangers at the time. They were certainly accustomed to regular service groups, but it amused me at how accepting the teens were of us coming to play on their home court. I played pretty well after having some time off from ball, but these younger teens quickly proved their skills after managing an early win against us pretty handily. Their athleticism, competitiveness, and passion for the sport was admirable to say the least. Basketball is such an entertaining sport and i am so thankful there was such an easy bridge of common ground between myself and the Native Americans.

Although I was able to delve into many serious life difficulties like poverty, suicide, and alcoholism on the reservation, the beauty of simplicity within the sport of basketball allowed the connection of an outside group and a family at home. The sport provided an escape from many of the daily hardships for teenagers and afforded an outcast group of college students access to dialogue and formation of new bonds. I enjoyed my time on the Cheyenne River Reservation but it is crazy how quickly a week can fly by. As a group we learned a significant amount from a discriminated society, while I personally was granted the opportunity to play one of favorite sports with a squad of talented athletes.

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