Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » From our exchanges: “Basketball and the Culture-Change Process”

From our exchanges: “Basketball and the Culture-Change Process”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 20, 2008

Kendall Blanchard. “Basketball and the Culture-Change Process: The Rimrock Navajo Case,” Council on Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 5:4 (Nov. 1974), 8-13.

This is a truly odd little piece. To begin with, “Rimrock” is a pseudonym; I’m guessing that “Rimrock” is Fruitland or Kirtland in the northwest corner of the state, based on statements in the article that “Rimrock” is in close proximity to the Navajo Reservation, with 95% of its 1300 Anglo inhabitants being Mormon.

The author’s stated purpose is “the description of basketball and its role in the changing Rimrock Navajo community.” Blanchard’s “other” against whom he contrasts the Navajo community and which he sees as attempting to change that community is Mormon – not generic Anglo, not generic American, but specifically Mormon. His outsider’s estimate of the importance of basketball to the Mormon community strikes me as comically absurd. Is this really what cultural halls/basketball courts, and “Church Ball,” and the lazy ward’s Young Men’s program, look like to non-Mormons?

From a lay perspective, the Mormon element in Rimrock, which comprises about 95% of the town’s Anglo population, views recreation in general and basketball in particular as having necessary spiritual dimensions. The Saints further assume that the Lamanites (Book of Mormon for Native Americans), by their participation in athletic events, undergo a vital process of religious education in addition to learning to play the game. Basketball is also seen as a significant preliminary adjustment to the world of White Mormondom as one is taught the importance of aggression and winning, the value of team effort and sportsmanship, and the spiritual significance of a healthy body and general wholesomeness. For these reasons, the game is an important phase of LDS mission activities. [internal citations omitted]

He outlines the historical development of basketball in the area: Mormons have played it since the 1920s. By the 1940s, following their experiences in government boarding schools and the Mormon Indian Placement Program, Navajos picked up an interest in basketball, replacing more traditional Native games. Elementary age children played basketball during recess, and high schoolers played both in physical education classes and on intermural teams.

By 1970, the Navajos at Rimrock had organized two men’s teams (the “Warriors” and the “Onions”) and a woman’s team (Blanchard doesn’t tell us their team name), made up of young adults, generally of post-high school age, who played virtually every night the school gymnasium was available. Sometimes they played visiting teams; generally, the two men’s teams played against each other.

Blanchard itemizes the traits he “isolated and defined as Navajo basketball behavior” and contrasts that with a team of Anglo Mormon men who compete in area leagues and tournaments. He notes that the Navajos use less complex strategy than Mormons, relying on individual prowess rather than teamwork; they are less aggressive players; bad calls by officials tend to disturb Navajos to a lesser extent; team members do not obviously encourage each other with banter and backslaps to the extent Mormons do; and they avoid authority positions of manager, captain and coach, preferring to consult, seek consensus, and defer to the status of team members in their community and kinship standing rather than in their team roles. Navajo players use English words for basketball vocabulary, but otherwise communicate on-court in Navajo.

What Blanchard identifies as the most significant difference between Navajo and Mormon play again relies on what I think is a grossly exaggerated interpretation of the importance of basketball in Mormon culture:

Perhaps the most significant differential … is to be seen in the area of purpose or meaning. The Mormon group sees the sport as primarily a serious, though recreational, contest within which one receives a moral and spiritual education as well as a lesson in the realities of Western economic survival. On the other hand, the Navajos see the event as purely a pleasurable pastime and put a greater emphasis on having a good time than winning.

Blanchard explores other facets of Navajo life that may factor into the approach to basketball, which I will not summarize here.

Blanchard concludes from his study that Mormons have failed in what he assumes is a conscious effort to remake Navajos in the Anglo Mormon image (“despite their obvious fascination and obsession with the game, the Navajos, spectators, and players alike, are not internalizing the meaning intended by the local Mormons who have taught them the fundamentals of the sport”). Instead, Navajos play basketball merely for physical recreation – “basketball is providing recreational and entertainment opportunities for members of the Navajo community without forcefully subjecting them to the Wall Street ethic of White America” – which is the assumption I would have started with, rather than assuming the game was imposed on the Navajos as a deliberate attempt at cultural subversion.



  1. Oops, Ardis. The Indian Placement Program didn’t begin until 1947 (see Genevieve DeHoyos’s article here (was this taken from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism–I can’t be sure of the references), so there’s not much possibility that the handful of students who participated during that decade had much effect on basketball among the Navajos in the 1940s.

    Blanchard is nuts about the cultural meaning of basketball. It’s (1) an easy way out for YM leaders, (2) a great way to release energy and aggression, which teenage boys seem to have in abundance and (3) all about winning-why else the whining about bad calls by officials?

    Life is really tough for those who have to find the secrets to life in basketball or in the relationship of people to their dogs.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 20, 2008 @ 7:23 am

  2. The “oops” is my too general summarizing — Blanchard does refer to the Placement Program in context of the “late” 1940s and the 1951 opening of the local high school, so it’s just possible that some very early Placement students did help to introduce b-ball, which caught on very quickly in “Rimrock.”

    Where do you suppose Blanchard got his ideas about the significance of the game to Mormons? His location is given as Middle Tennessee State University, so I’m guessing that unless he was an unlikely western transplant, whatever he learned about Mormons was learned simultaneously with whatever he learned about Navajos during his 1970-73 field trips to “Rimrock.” I’m wondering what he could possibly have heard or read by Mormons that would have shaped his thinking. He has quite a lengthy bibliography for an article this short, and the only item with any obvious Mormon focus is Thomas F. O’Dea’s 1953 Harvard dissertation, “Mormon values: the significance of a religious outlook for social action.”

    I agree with you about the dog thing. My cat tells me that’s nonsense.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 20, 2008 @ 7:49 am

  3. “Rimrock” was a pseudonym for Ramah in earlier studies performed by O’Dea and others.

    Comment by Justin — June 20, 2008 @ 8:35 am

  4. Justin comes through again! Thanks. Ramah is quite a bit further south than my guess of Fruitland, but it’s just below the southern edge of the Rez so makes geographic sense.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 20, 2008 @ 8:56 am

  5. The following is from a news release issued by the U of Georgia system when Blanchard was named Interim President in 2006 (he’s apparently now dropped the “interim” from that title):

    Blanchard holds a Ph.D. and a master’s degree, both in anthropology, from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in 1971 and 1970, respectively. He also earned a master of divinity degree in religion studies and anthropology from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1968, and a bachelor’s degree in English, history and philosophy from Olivet Nazarene College in Kankakee, Ill., in 1964.

    No clues there, at least not for me. Anybody familiar with the Vanderbilt anthropology/religion faculty in the late 1960s? The likelihood of a SMU connection seems small, but, who knows?

    Comment by Mark B. — June 20, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  6. I didn’t make up that stuff about the dogs. Here’s an excerpt from one professor’s list of publications:

    Inu no teikoku: Bakumatsu Nippon kara gendai made (Empires of Dogs: From Bakumatsu Nippon to the Present), trans. Motohashi Tetsuya (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, in press

    “Fascism’s Furry Friends: Dogs, National Identity, and Racial Purity in 1930s Japan,” in The Culture of Japanese Fascism, (Durham NC: Duke University Press, in press)

    “Rassismus züchten: Das imperiale Schlachtfeld des ‘Deutschen’ Schäferhunds” (Breeding Racism: The Imperial Battlefields of the “German” Shepherd), in Tier in der Geschichte (Animals in History), ed. Dorothee Brantz and Christof Mauch (Paderborn: Schöningh, in press)

    “Can the Subaltern Bark? Imperialism, Civilization, and Canine Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” in JAPANimals: History and Culture in Japan’s Animal Life, ed. Gregory M. Pflugfelder and Brett L. Walker (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2005)

    I couldn’t make this stuff up.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 20, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  7. Somebody really ought to do a serious study about Mormons and basketball. I’m certainly a victim, not a gifted athlete at all, but as they say, you can’t coach tall, so being over 6 feet from about age 14, I was always hauled in to play on our YM teams.

    Our standard building plan for ward and stake buildings include a basketball court, and our “Sage” plan building here in Washington recently had the carpeted gym floor replaced with hardwood.

    I still play several times a week in my 50’s, wherever I can, including pickup games at our church. I’m still no good, but it’s fun, and no one seems to mind my lack of skills if I just show up.

    I’m not sold on Blanchard’s analysis, but my church hoop friends and I have long referred to basketball as the “Celestial Sport”, as every building has hoops. As to it improving the moral character of the players involved, suffice it to say I have seen more fights at church games than anywhere else, and otherwise normal, sane, TR bearing church members totally go bezerk at a blown call, or the frequent elbows to the chest by their best friend.

    I am aware of using hoops as a missionary tool, or a reactivation tool, though. That’s pretty common.

    Comment by kevinf — June 20, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  8. Playing church basketball was very important to me, and was one of the blessings I assoicated with being a member of the church. Now that I live in a small and spread out ward, I really miss that interaction.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 20, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  9. When I was growing up in the Church in the 50’s / 60’s basketball was a very important element of activity / activation / and missionary work. Attendance in Sunday meetings was required for participation.

    The goal was to make it to the “All Church” tournament in SLC (missed out by one game two different years – did go to All Church fastpitch softball through)! We would recruit the best non-members we could entice to play on the team to increase our chances.

    One recruit did join the Church because of his introduction through basketball(or was it his LDS girlfriend)?

    One of the biggest shocks I ever experienced in Church was going into the Lakewood Washington Stake Center shortly after it was built and seeing carpet on the floor! That was sacrilidge!

    I have also taught school and lived on the Spokane Reservation where basketball is the king of sports. They were able to accomplish this feat without the benefit of sponsorship from the Church though!

    Comment by Lem's Thoughts — June 20, 2008 @ 11:37 am

  10. I grew up in an very underprivileged chapel, no basketball hoops. Our explorer advisor was forced to have us play volleyball every mutual night for 2 years. As far as intensity and fights, last winter my daughter’s boyfriend, who plays football in the NFL played on the ward basketball team and came over one night after ward practice and had been taken back by two guards on the same team nearly getting into fistacuffs and ended with one throwing the ball at the other.

    Comment by Steve Jones — June 20, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  11. Well, we’re certainly documenting the significant place of basketbrawl in our cultural life and memory … but I’m still not hearing the spiritual dimension Blanchard writes of (not to mention its connection to Wall Street ethics!)

    Keep the stories coming!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 20, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  12. I have not yet read Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890-1940 by Richard Ian Kimball (University of Illinois Press, 2003) but the blurb says:

    …Kimball explores how Mormon leaders tapped the potential of using recreation programs to ameliorate the problems of the city and inculcate morals and values in LDS youth. As well as promoting sports as a means of physical and spiritual excellence, Progressive Era Mormons established a variety of institutions such as the Deseret Gym and camps for girls and boys, all designed to compete with more “worldly” attractions and to socialize adolescents into the faith.

    In the Amazon “Search Inside” excerpt, Kimball seems to describe a pretty self-conscious theory of recreation (I only read a few paragraphs). Maybe Blanchard found a hold-over from the earlier period?

    Comment by Edje — June 20, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

  13. IME, Church basketball was designed to provide a place for perfectionists to get all that pent-up frustration out of their systems and beat on each other in an acceptable way – and that was just the YW’s teams.

    Comment by Ray — June 20, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  14. on the spiritual side. While serving on my mission in the Southern States Mission our ward in Decatur, Ala. won the stake, region and the southeastern USA and went to the all church tournament in SLC. At that time the closest temple was in Mesa. One of the players was a recently returned missionary who was getting married in the SLC Temple. Four of his teammates were being sealed. They were in the temple so long they missed their first game of the tournament. They returned home saying that their time in SLC was the best experience of their lives in spite of going immediately into the losers bracket because of forfeiting the first game.

    Comment by steve jones — June 21, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  15. My ward growing up had a strong basketball program. I was lousy at it, and never felt like I fit it with the other young men because of that deficiency. Of course that wasn’t the real reason, but not measuring up to that yard stick was a significant barrier to my fitting in. In retrospect I see how having a common activity was an opportunity to develop close meaningful friendships. Regretfully that isn’t how it turned out.

    btw. I love the stories too. Keep them coming.

    Comment by BruceC — June 21, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

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