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.