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Basketball, Water and the Lost City of Elbowoods

Basketball, Water and the Lost City of Elbowoods

[loud applause]
(man) Elbowoods High School 1942 State Class B Champions. [cheers & applause] (Mark Fox)
I think the Elbowoods team was a team that was about 20 or 30 years
ahead of its time. (Donna Taken Alive)
Because Elbowoods was a really
tight-knit community, and it was like Camelot. It could’ve been a dynasty
for so many things, and it was just taken away with the
building of the Garrison Dam. [“russssh”
of the flowing water] (Mike Jacobs)
In a way it’s kind of
a haunted landscape; a very radical change that has
occurred in that landscape. It’s just a whole lot different
than it was. [wooden flute plays softly] (woman)
Funding for “Basketball, Water,
and the Lost City of Elbowoods” is made possible by
the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa,
and Arikara Nation, celebrating our tradition of
resilience, strength, and power, and by the members
of Prairie Public. (Gordon Blake) He was very proud
of the story that took place and at that young age he was
very proud that they made it to state
as Native Americans, and that the ballplaying was
very top-notch. If memory serves me right, it
was like 15 cents to get
in the game. We were poor and didn’t have
15 cents. I wanted to get in. I found a bathroom window
partially open. I climbed
through the bathroom window and
got myself a spot to watch them. The first thing I remember,
they seemed like men really compared to the team
that beat them. And they were good,
they were good athletes. My biggest memory of the game,
they could run forever! (male narrator)
The story of the 1941-’42 Elbowoods, North Dakota
High School Basketball team begins in the fall of 1941, prior to America’s
involvement in World War II. Their story might now be largely
forgotten, except for a bizarre twist in the 1942
State Championship game, coupled with the tragic aspect
of what eventually happened to this small town on
the Fort Berthold Reservation. The story you’re about to see is
one of loss and victory, and 60 years of struggle
and perseverance. A time when people believed in
honesty, a time when perhaps people showed
their feelings less freely, but felt them no less deeply. The town was named Elbowoods which makes a lot of sense–
it’s a very visual thing– an elbow in the woods The Missouri River in that
location flowed southward from what’s now Williston. So the Missouri river was
flowing southward, then it makes that bend
and goes eastward. In that bend of the river then is where the community
of Elbowoods was established. The population probably
would have been maybe 200. Well, the town
of Elbowoods really, I think the best classification
would be an Indian agency was there,
and that was sort of the hub. But it was not incorporated
as such, in that we did not have a mayor
or a city council or anything like that–
it was totally government. My father lost his parents
at a very, very early age, and as a young boy he among
other things, herded horses on
the reservation. He went up to the Indian
reservation and got a job. From that he loved horses
all of his life. In the process of doing that,
later in life he said to me, I want to take you
back up to see the friends I have
on the Indian reservation. We drove to the Fort Berthold
Reservation, and we drove into Elbowoods,
North Dakota. I have memories of it
as a young boy driving into this little town
about the same size as my hometown of Regent North
Dakota, several hundred people. It was quiet,
pretty little community. (Mark Fox) We were the first
farmers of North Dakota– squash, corn, beans. watermelon– a number of crops. We grew them on the fertile
bottomlands. I’ve seen pictures of Elbowoods. I know they had a clinic, a
main street, they had stores. Our grandparents lived around the surrounding area
of Elbowoods. They didn’t have diabetes. Everything was there like coal
to heat their house. They grew their own garden,
they hunted, deer was plentiful. Things were good, the economy
was good, people were happy. And people were lawful, you
know, to me it was like heaven. [drums, bass, & piano
play smooth jazz] (Marilyn Hudson) Leon Wall
I think deserves a lot of attention
because here’s a young man, 27 years
old. They came to Elbowoods
from Washington DC. Although he was
a native Oklahoman. He comes into Elbowoods to the
agency headquarters and reports in because he’s a
federal employee now and he’s going to teach what he thought was math
and science. So when he and his wife
arrive there, the principal says, okay,
you are our teacher. I think school had already
started. It was probably September
by the time he got here. School started early September. He said that only will you teach
math and science, but you’re also going to be the
coach for our athletic team. Although he was only 27 years
old, he was able to combine all of these skills
of these 9 players that he had. He soon
recognized that they possessed
some unusual qualities. There’s something special
about these guys, you know. (Merrill Piepkorn as Leon Wall)
“We were to live in one
of the new dormitories. We were conducted to our
apartment, which was as nice as could be found in
the Waldorf-Astoria, we said. There was one exception–
all cooking was to be done
in the student kitchen. Our meals were to be taken
with the students. In fact, we were to conduct
the dormitory as though we were the mother and father,
and the students were the children
in a home of 20 children. You get this young man
and his wife going way out to a little tiny
reservation, coming from the east coast
and saying they are going to make a difference out
there and teach and work with Indian children,
and the coach brought some new ideas about how
that game should be played. (Marilyn Hudson) Many odds
against them– no money, little tiny gym to practice in, very little support from
the community because the community could not
go to these games. Those were during World War II
years. People just couldn’t travel;
very few people even had a car. (Merrill Piepkorn) “Leon Wall
began coaching the Warriors
right away. He would later comment that the
Elbowoods gym was so small, the free-throw circle
intersected the retaining circle at center
of court! The only room for fans was on
the stage or a small strip less than 1-yard wide around
the edge of the gym.” (Mark Fox) Camaraderie,
they played as a team. I looked over the stats, the
numbers, Sidney, although he was a
freshman, my dad’s younger brother, was obviously, arguably some
people would say, but I will say this, probably
had the most talent. So my dad was the captain of the
team, the leader being a senior. The other two players of great
note was Mr. Charlie Blake, and Harry Grady, I see the stats
where he had some games where he scored a lot of
baskets. But the one that really stood
out, was considered very very good and great basketball
player was Johnny Rabbithead. (Merrill Piepkorn) “Those
Indians just about turned
the gym inside out. With Isaac Fox and
Johnny Rabbithead holding the ball in one hand and waving
it in front of a troopers face, daring him to try
to take it away. With Sidney Fox’s one-handed
hook shots while fading away
from the basket, Charlie Blake’s work on rebounds
and dribbling, and the all-around passing and
shooting of the team as a whole, it was a show! All I know is that he played,
he was one of the guards or forwards, he said you know
what? I scored 10 points in that game. It was a big deal then. at the time I didn’t think it
was a big deal until I started going to
basketball tournaments and I started coaching at different
schools throughout the state. Back in those days the floor
of the gym nowadays, what they had at the time, I guess you might as well say
a Cracker Jack box floor. My dad had a good shot,
a famous shot, so they called him “Johnny off
the radiator!” [laughs] He would jump up, in one motion jump off the radiator and shoot,
all in one motion. That was his signature shot,
so he was pretty famous for that shot back in the days
for the Warriors. My uncle told me that they were
fast, they had a couple tall players, but they were
faster than the other teams. My uncle, in his high school
days, he was the 100-yard dash champ
too for McLean County. So he was real fast at the time. All the guys, they had a real
fast-moving team. (Gordon Blake) He was center and
forward. He played mostly the forward,
I believe. This was right before
World War II. So there was quite a bit
of stir going. The Elbows Warriors at that time
in the state of North Dakota was one of those big events going on
for a championship game. Sydney was well-built; Sydney had really a good
perspective of the game. Some people
are just physical, he had them
both– physical and mental. I thought he was
one of the best high school
players I had seen at that time. He was one of the younger
players on the team. When they went to state in 1941,
’42, he was a freshman. He was definitely a role player,
but they needed all 9 players. He was the 6th man on the team, he was a sophomore
in high school. It was interesting, some of the
stories he would tell me. He had a nickname, they called
him “Turkey.” The reason they called him
Turkey was because his hands were so big. He could palm a ball
in each hand and hold it. The coach nicknamed him Turkey
because of that. He had a lot of good memories
of being able to come in and fill in
as a substitute player and all of the playing time
he received. (Merrill Piepkorn) “The
appearance of the team when
they came on the floor. Did you notice how they fairly
shined– the way Charlie Blake smiles
when they call a foul on him; the way Isaac Fox
agreed with the referee when
they called a close one on him; the way
the entire team was ready to
help an opponent who fell down; the condition of the team,
the way they keep moving while the other team was getting
a minute’s rest. We like to think the Warriors as
our team also.” (narrator)
As the season went on,
townspeople and fans in the area realized the team was special, losing only 2 games
along the way, they not only qualified
for the state tournament for the first time
in Elbowoods’ history, but sportswriters began to write
about them in folk hero terms. (Merrill Piepkorn) “By this time
the Warriors were well-known
in the area and had begun to attract
a fan club. They were the stuff dream teams
are made of. The name that was given to them
was “Dazzling Indian Quint.” The media started calling them
“Dazzling Indian Quint” because they are dazzling,
they are Indian, and there’s 5 on the floor and they’re doing
some amazing things You combine that
with a small gymnasium where a radiator sticks out
on the floor, it was just a fast evolution
of basketball for Elbowoods. They had inferior equipment,
they were not equipped in the football or basketball
or anything like the rest of the schools,
particularly the sneakers. Tattered sneakers, but they won. I remember the one guy pass like
it’s going to be a softball– go behind
his back left-handed–
they love the game! They were flashy, they were the
Harlem Globetrotters kind of, but I never– there was
a sharing of the ball. I think that came
from the tribal culture. You’re talking about
the sportsmanship– they follow somebody,
they would raise their hand, they would pick up somebody
from the floor. A lot of ballhandling was done, and it wasn’t extremely fancy
as you see today. It was a lot of freestyle
type of basketball. There was between the legs
bouncing the ball. Passing wasn’t out of control
or anything, but they were unexpected passes
that they received, and that’s how they scored
some of their points on some of the big teams
that they played. (narrator)
And in perhaps another area where the team was
ahead of its time, the 9 player team consisting
of 7 Native players and 2 white players never
experienced any racial strife. I think what this team did
in becoming the first Native American team to play
in a state championship is, it went so far to show others,
other Native Americans, other non-Native people in
the state and everywhere else that there’s some acceptability,
that these walls of racism are walls of misunderstanding
or prejudice don’t need to be there. Occasionally we did visit about
that, and say, hey Dad, you were kind of a minority
living on that reservation. He says, yeah, we were one of
a few white families. So he says, there would’ve been
some reverse discrimination, but he said he never ever felt
looked down, he never felt he was snubbed by the natives
in any way, shape, or form, in fact,
we had great trust in them, and they had trust in us. We never locked our doors,
they never locked their doors. We were never concerned
about anybody breaking in
in any way, shape, or form. He had a tremendous amount
of respect for the people that he
lived with and worked with. The people were
always welcoming. (Merrill Piepkorn) “In the first
game of the tournament
on Thursday, March 19th, Elbowoods barely
nosed out the new England Tigers 29 to 27. On Friday,
the Warriors squeaked past Sacred Heart Academy of Fargo
29 to 28. On Saturday,
they met the Lakota Raiders for the title game. The gym at Minot High was packed to the rafters
with basketball fans, many of them rooting
for the Warriors A sportswriter of the time
commented that, ‘Even if offered new tires, no
one would give up their seat.'” (narrator)
But on the day of the state
title game against Lakota, Coach Leon Wall faced a dilemma. So happened to be the day of the
championship game that he did turn 20 and he did abide by the North Dakota
High School Activities Association rule,
the eligibility rules, and sat out the game. (Merrill Piepkorn)
In his memoirs, Coach Wall wrote that “Well before the State
Tournament, I received two calls from the North Dakota High
School Athletics Association, calling this, John’s age,
that is, to my attention. I informed them
that I knew about his age and the rule that made Johnny
ineligible and that we did not plan
on using him. This was a blow to our team
as it left us with only 2 substitutes since 8
was a traveling squad. So the coach said we’re a team
of integrity and honesty, and as much as it’s
going to hurt us, we cannot play
Johnny Rabbithead. So he was not allowed to play
in the championship game. And in that championship game, one of the Fox brothers
fouled out, and it was a matter of just
one or two points going to the free-throw line
and making that free throw, Elbowoods had led the entire way except for the last minute
and 30 seconds, I believe. So that changed the outcome
of the game. My uncle Sidney would say this
forever until the day he died If Johnny had been allowed to
play on championship night, they could’ve played all their
players and the two refs, and there’s no way they were
going to beat us. They ended up beating Elbowoods
by one point. Sydney fouled out, my dad
with a severely sprained ankle, and no Johnny Rabbithead–
there’s 3 of your top players, and we lose by 1 point
in the final minute of the championship game;
led the whole game. And lost in last minute by
a free throw– one point. (Merrill Piepkorn)
Sidney Fox wrote a letter to the editor of the McLean
County Independent, which read as follows. “Dear Mr. Daly… So they lost to the game
by one point. The thing that’s really, I
think, remarkable about it is, there were no hard feelings. In fact, Sidney Fox said, well, we are just delighted to come
back with a second-place trophy. I mean, they were totally happy
with the second place. (narrator)
But the one point loss
in the title game would not be the end of things. Several months later,
Coach Wall received a letter from the Lakota Superintendent
stating that Lakota starter
Orlin Billings was 20 years old at the time
of the championship game, and had actually played the
whole season as a 20-year-old, meaning they had to forfeit
the state championship and their entire season for
using an ineligible player. So the High School Sports
Association commended the school for having been timely,
forthright, and of course, it made a difficult decision for
everybody– the title came, now what do we
do next? Immediately after that it was
actually awarded to Elbowoods. And said Elbowoods deserves, and they will be the champion
at that point in time. Now depending on who you
talk to, some complaint came forward
in particular about some of the teams that lost to Lakota
in the semi the first night, and their argument I understand
is being made– why are you making Elbowoods
champion when we lost close ones to the same team that was using
an ineligible player as well? One team out of deliberation
follows the rules, and the other, and I don’t know
what the basis is, if it was ignorance or choice,
free will, the other team chooses to play
a person that is 20 years old. And hence, the controversy. They did a good job, and then
were not sure. I mean, there were no hard
feelings, I don’t think. But you know what I mean?
They sort of took it with a grain of salt, and
figured well, they did well. But it got taken away. And even though given
to Elbowoods a year later after the
tournament, they made a decision to take
the trophy and the title away and make a declaration that
there would be no champion
in 1942. (Steve Martens) It was kind
of a way of avoiding having to make
a decision. It does only seem fair in
retrospect that a team that had fought their way through
the other side of the bracket and won all of their games by
slim margins competitively wouldn’t automatically
receive consideration as the default champion. I remember getting those
booklets. And I knew the truth
because my dad, because of people telling me
what happened in ’42. But we open up that Class B
booklet, and you go down and see who won championships
since the beginning, and you see that 1942,
and there would be a notation in there saying
“No Championship.” And you know what? It’s easy
to look at it that way, but a lot of people in seeing that
would say, well, World War II, you know, bombing of
Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, We got into World War II, they must not have had any
basketball team and no season, and it must’ve been interrupted, and things change, and no
tournament– we were at war. Well, that’s not the truth. You just create the
misperception in the public eye that they see that 1942,
no championship awarded. Everyone has assumed for years that that meant it was
because of the war that there was not
a championship played. That’s almost more of a
disservice to the players on both sides of the bracket,
the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place teams,
and so forth, to deny that what they did was really
pretty significant. You had 9 players on that team. The 7 tribal members, recognized
tribal members on that team, every single one of them became
veterans of World War II. And I think that’s something that in discussing
Elbowoods 1942 team that should never be forgotten. (Donna Taken Alive)
And you think of the coach
Elbowoods had, Coach Wall, he made the decision
not to play his best player
because of the rules. So he was ethically really
strong, and he was morally strong; he had really
excellent character. He also taught the young men
of that basketball team what it means to follow
the rules and be fair. I think one of the things that
came into play is because it was
a Native American team. And it was the first
Native American team to win the championship
in North Dakota. So then they should have been
declared as soon as it was recognized that there
was an ineligible player. (narrator)
As Elbowoods continued to thrive
through the 1940s with more talented
basketball teams returning
to the State tournament, a ticking time bomb signaled
an end to a way of life. (man) Behind this sign
lies a story, a story of the greatest land and
water development in the world. A story of the role this
tremendous dam will play in the overall taming of the Missouri River. It is a big job–
an earthen dam being built across the Missouri
on the big bend where it turns south
towards Bismark and Mandan. Garrison Dam will be the largest rolled fill earth embankment
in the world, with the main purposes
of providing flood control, hydroelectric power, irrigation,
and recreation. The straw that broke the camel’s
back was the Garrison Dam. (man)
But let’s go down to the job
for a closer look. To build big dams
you need big contractors, and this is no exception. (narrator)
The pleasant 1950s narration about the building
of the Garrison Dam which in turn created
Lake Sakakawea belies the impact and ruin
which came because of it. Elbowoods was in
the direct path of the project, and would have to be
flooded out. Pick-Sloan was a big plan
by big thinkers. The Missouri River would often
flood, no question about it. The water comes rushing
out of the mountains, and if they have too much water,
it comes rushing down through the Missouri,
the tributaries and so on, and overflows its banks. It was Mandan and Bismarck,
virtually everywhere including on the reservation
you would see flooding. Through the big communities
up and down the Missouri they decided we want to try
to control flooding. What we want to do is build
a series of main stem dams along the Missouri River
that will be able to keep water
when we don’t have enough, then use it through the stowage
or try to retain water when we have too much
and try to overcome some of the serious flooding
problems on the Missouri. The Native Americans bore
the brunt, they were required to bear the cost, but they had
precious few benefits from it, And frankly among other things,
that Garrison Dam and diversion project, it
flooded the riverbottom lands where the best berries
and fruits and crops were able to be planted
and grown and produced. So the Native Americans had
to move to the highlands, a vastly different environment,
different diet and so on. So it imposed
significant amounts of costs on the Native Americans
who lived there. Because we had crops, we were
self-sustaining. We were able to not depend on
the federal government. We were able to grow our own
crops, raise our own cattle, eat our own food, live humbly,
but very well. The Pick-Sloan program that
created a series of dams to be built along the Missouri
River for a number of purposes, primarily for generating
electricity. They claim flood control–
we’ve all realized that plan don’t always work so
well when it comes to flooding. They did it for a number
of reasons, recreation and other things,
so they justified it. Almost every Sunday in summer
after the dam was closed, we would drive down, half an
hour drive maybe a little more, to watch the water come up
in places that he remembered. When the water got to Elbowoods,
it was a place that he very much wanted to see
and to remember. He’d spent time there as a boy
and a young man, and really even as an adult and father
of my older siblings. So we would drive down
most Sunday afternoons and essentially watch the water
creep into the town. It took almost a year before the
water actually got to Elbowoods. Then it didn’t rise all of a
sudden, it was a slow flood. So you could live comfortably in
the town while there was water coming up in the streets
and the low places. So people didn’t leave
until they had to. And I think there was a sense
that what they were going to was nowhere nearly as good
as what Elbowoods was. It was difficult for my
grandparents who raised me. We stayed down, Elbow is not on
a hill, but on a flat. Then there was
a little layer where we had a lot of log houses around,
you know. And that last year in the spring
the water started coming up. And people started moving
out higher, to other land
and stuff like that. We have stayed there until,
there was a little house in Elbowoods behind
the grocery store. We moved from there
into that house. (Dale Brown)
It was not as pronounced
to me then as after I met people in the Indian community
from there later on in life– hear the pain and the anguish
and the fear. And how the con job they got– what they were supposed to get
they didn’t get. I remember driving when
the water was coming up I can remember seeing that,
and thought where are they going to go,
what are they going to do? Are they going to be in tent
cities or what? And how would we feel if
all of a sudden they’re coming
in and flooding our homes? And as you mentioned, the
project is never finished. How many millions or billions
does that cost? Our family had pigs, they had
livestock, they had chickens, and one way
we found out when they moved, the allotment
movement, we have a receipt of everything that was moved
of our grandparents. And the government
paid them to move. So when our dad
went to college in 1950,
’51 and played football, he came back to help them move,
and when you think about that, all those young athletes, when
they played at Elbowoods, it was a dynasty for basketball, and they went to the state
tournament I believe 6 times out of the 17 years
they were there. Then they get drafted, they go
off to war, they come back, and they come back to where
their land is being taken away, their homes are
being taken away, their livelihood is being
taken from them. It must’ve been
a feeling of betrayal. (Mike Jacobs)
Dad always insisted it was the best farmland
in North Dakota. And he wasn’t exempting
the Red River Valley. I don’t know that that would be
scientifically the case, but yes, it was good farmland. And of course, the tribes
can speak for themselves. These were agricultural people,
they knew about growing stuff. The agricultural base was
taken away. It shattered familiarity. That’s basically what
human nature is about. And when you leave something there’s emotions
that are involved. There is the process of
facing up to it or denying it. It’s painful, or you go and then
you face yourself individually. And I’m sure all of them did
individually. It was a new beginning, but yet
there was the familiarity of the lifestyle and culture
was being given up. So it was an unknown journey
to begin with. And a lot of people were affected by that
psychologically. There are no shortcuts
to healing. There’s just the process of
going through the hurt, the recognition of it, the
digesting of what takes place, then trying to put it in its
proper place in your lifetime. So that’s like what took place
with the Garrison Dam. (James Odermann)
Dad had some heartbreak over
that because his home was gone. I remember him telling me
going back there to an Elbowoods reunion
and a family reunion, and they got out in a boat, and they went over the top
of Lake Sakakawea there, found where their homestead,
where Elbowoods was. You could look down, and the
water was clear. You can see some of the town,
landmarks. So I look at the Southwest
Water Pipeline project, I look at the Northwest Area
Water Supply project, I look at the Western Area
Water Supply project– that is what has really kept
people in these rural areas. So from that perspective
it was good. From the perspective of the fact that the best bottomland
in the world, and I might be probably embellishing it
when I say in the world, But that’s now under water, never to be used
in the cultivation state so that we can produce food
for the world. When you lose not only
your homes, you lose not only your ability
to raise crops, you lose not only a school
system that was now thriving, that had a great reputation
and was on the map, as my uncle would say, but if you think about it, when you have to go
and dig up your relatives, those that you can get to and rebury them
on high ground– the emotional and spiritual
impacts to our people
were very devastating. [wooden flute plays softly] (man)
Garrison Dam will make
the Big Muddy really settle down
and go to work. It’s all a part of the big job. (narrator)
By 1953 the Dam was
ready to be dedicated, and families had been relocated, and a new town, called
ironically New Town, was built as a new center of the
reservation, and a town where former Elbowoods area
residents could settle. (Mark Fox)
To be honest with you,
as the leader of our nation, we’ve been in a recovery mode
ever since that time. And we’ve been trying
to build out of what was done to us
beyond our control, what was done to us
beyond our choice. We didn’t agree to it;
we didn’t want it. There was at that time
politically a conflict of factions–
one said keep fighting, the other said we are not going
to win, let’s make hay of what we can get and try
to survive through this. It was very controversial,
and very intense time to accept this happening. I was in the last graduating
class out of Elbowoods. I was 16 when I graduated. The year President Eisenhower officially came
to close the gates and officially declare
the Garrison Dam operational, was on June 11, 1953, the day that I turned 17. So that’s how I remember
that date so well. In fact, a delegation
from Elbowoods of veterans went to meet
President Eisenhower because he was a World War II
hero; he helped win the war. It made sense in the context
of the time. It does not make sense in
the context of today. If such a thing were proposed
today, it wouldn’t happen. But partly it’s because this
did happen, and it didn’t work. The whole Garrison
diversion dream turned out not to be viable. (man)
The rolled-earth dam
under construction near Garrison, North Dakota is
one of the key structures of the Pick-Sloan plan
of 105 dams. Well, the Garrison Diversion
plan was a plan that was part of that big
Pick-Sloan plan. On this main stem dam,
the Garrison Dam, the issue was a diversion, and
the diversion was for irrigation but also to divert water
when there was too much and keep it and store it
when there was too little. and control flooding. I think it’s safe to say
the benefits from it were real in terms of helping resolve the flooding from this untamed
river; that’s one thing. Second, the money
that the state received in order to build water projects
all across the state, rural water projects,
that money came from money that I and others put in the
appropriations process in order to force the federal government
to live up to its promise. Because we
didn’t get the one-plus million
acres of irrigation– that just didn’t happen. Why wasn’t it finished? Why
wasn’t it completed as promised? A very big
water project like that becomes controversial
in Congress. The environmentalists
became very, very upset about something called
the Lonetree Reservoir which kind of became the
hood ornament on this project. So the issue of moving water from the Missouri to the Red
when it was necessary, if the Red would run dry,
that didn’t happen. The irrigation that was
promised, that didn’t happen. (Scott Davis)
I encourage all North Dakotans and visitors
that come to North Dakota to really look deep into
that history of that lake. As beautiful as it is,
the scenery, and the recreation that goes
in and out of that lake, there is a deeper, deeper story. There is a deep spirit
within that lake. (Byron Dorgan)
Was Garrison Diversion
successful? In part, because it succeeded in
taming that river where we didn’t have these
unbelievable floods that came and visited our state
for some time. But much of it that was promised was not something that was
experienced by our state. The costs however, were
experienced by Native Americans living on the Three Affiliated
Tribes Reservation. You’ve seen the picture of the
Tribal Council, the weeping. I think that speaks
pretty powerfully. (narrator)
In the years after
Garrison Dam was built, the memories of the little town
underneath Lake Sakakawea began to fade,
but there was still one more piece of business
left unfinished. The 1942 title
and who it really belonged to. The State Class B program, if you look in the back, they’d have a question mark
in 1942. (Mark Fox) In the 1990s my uncle Sidney was really
heavily involved. I myself was in college,
I came back, and I got really busy
with my career, so it was mainly Sydney, and he
was going about and doing interviews, and he had
asked the high school board, talk to media, he had gone to look
for the trophy. It really became his drive
to right this wrong. And unfortunately,
when he passed away in 1999, his life ended without achieving
his dream which was to bring that title back,
rightfully back to Elbowoods. (Sherm Sylling) It affected so
many different pieces that they were scared
to open it up. Where would you start and where
would you stop? I think that was the biggest
thing the board was dealing with. But when they focused
on that game, then I believe they did
the right thing. I think initially I met Mark Fox
at one of the tournaments. Then if I remember correctly,
he came to my office where we started discussing
the real detail of this. Basically
it was my responsibility to set the agenda. I know it had been brought up
before, and it had been denied, I think more than once actually. But Mark made just
a fantastic presentation. He had legitimate statements
that were made, and he basically convinced me
in the office at that time that it’s the right thing to do. Around 2001, I began
to reach out, I began to talk to people I even talked to a couple
Board members on the Board and said,
what do you think about this? That’s when the invite came,
and said get your documentation together,
you’re more than welcome to present to the High School
Activities Association. That was in January of 2002. And myself along with a friend and also a fellow
council member, Austin Gillette, we went to the High School
Activities Association Board, and we made the plea. Yeah, I think the most
compelling was, if it happened today,
what would you do? That was a pretty challenging
question, and our bylaws answered that,
even though they probably weren’t in place then,
they could be applied, and that’s what
the Board chose to do. So I placed him
on a future agenda, Then he came
to the Board meeting
and represented Elbowoods. He represented them very well. (Merrill Piepkorn) “It took
almost 60 years, but
Elbowoods is finally getting some respect
in the record books. The North Dakota High School
Activities Association approved a motion recognizing
Elbowoods as the 1942 State Class B Basketball
Champion at its Saturday meeting, ending nearly 6 decades
of waiting by the squad. ‘The standard today is to
recognize the runner-up team, and that’s what should be done
here,’ said Mark Fox from the affiliated Mandan,
Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. The decision was made a long
time ago to declare no champion, and that’s just doesn’t seem
right to me. Of course, it wasn’t unanimous. There was two or three
that said, disagree, and keep it that way. Don’t want to overturn something
that was done a long time ago And they had their reasons. But the majority said yes,
it’s come time. And Sherm Sylling became
a very good friend. Sherm was the executive director
of the Association at that time. He was really a strong advocate
of saying we need to resolve here,
this is really important. It’s important the state
of North Dakota, it’s important
to your tribal members, it’s important to
a lot of people. It’s important
to Class B Basketball that they do this right, and we’ve all been so
appreciative of Sherm. I think it meant the world
to them. Very proud people,
and they were denied as a result of a rule violation. I can only imagine
if I was the recipient of that how I would feel,
and they were elated. (man) Ladies and gentlemen,
the North Dakota High School Activities
Association has recently declared that the Elbowoods
High School Basketball Team will be officially recognized as the 1942 State Class B
Champions. And those original Elbowoods
Warrior team members or their representatives are
with us tonight. And at this time we’d like
to acknowledge them. [cheers, whistles, & applause] We have Leon Fox represented by
Gerald Fox. Duane Charging represented
by Steve Charging. Harry Grady represented by
Arnold Grady. John Rabbithead represented by
Delvin Rabbithead. [cheers, whistles, & applause] Charles Blake represented
by Gordon Blake. [cheers, whistles, & applause] Sidney Fox represented
by Leon Fox. [cheers, whistles, & applause] Isaac, Ike Fox represented
by Mark Fox. [cheers, whistles, & applause] The two living members of that
team are also with us tonight. They are Ray Weikum
and Harold Odermann. (James Odermann) When he got
the call that they were going to be
awarded the title, that was especially uplifting to him
because he said, we worked on this for 60 years,
and we finally get the title. And he says, I am a member of
a state championship team. There was a lot of excitement
for him, then of course, Mark Fox and the Three
Affiliated Tribes put together an outstanding recognition
and celebration for this event. For me it was really kind of sad in a way because most of the
people, the players, the young athletes had actually
passed away. And 60 years later after you win
a state championship, you know that you won it, and your
community knows, is a long time. It was amazing to hear the crowd in that state tournament
in North Dakota. Everybody was cheering
in that gym, so you know that it was finally accepted
by the state of North Dakota that they were declared
the champions of 1942. Those athletes in the 1940s
and early ’50s had children, and they had children, so even though the school is gone, even though everything is
flooded out, you see these awesome, awesome, that same blood of those Elbowoods players, what
we now call the Elbowoods lore, almost everybody that is
an enrolled member can trace themselves back to those amazing athletes
at Elbowoods High School. (man) Oh, look at that steal! (Gerald Fox) Now it’s a bragging
right to that, Elbowoods is
the champion there. Even though they never won
the other years they went, but they still had that
championship, 1942 you know. And to have a relative
on the team today is real good, you know. We always wish that they could
have been here, knowing that
they were the champions. I think they would have too,
feel the sense of pride that they really accomplished
something. My dad and the others,
they would talk about it. They were honest, and we
should’ve had that title, but they were humble men. [loud cheers, whistles,
& applause] What they would talk about is
many issues, but always, always a little boy sitting in there
trying to be nosy and listening. They would always at some point
in time talk about and say, Whatever happened to Elbowoods, did they ever get
that trophy back? Did they ever acknowledge
and recognize that team? And the discussion would be no,
they never did. The comments would always be that’s just not fair,
that’s not right. And they would talk that way
all the time. And I would listen to the little
boy and always remember that, that it meant so much to these
elders and these people talking. And in my own heart I knew
that someway, somehow that needed to be addressed. You have
an event like this, and it
really brings it back to life. You just feel that spirit, that
very strong spirit, you know, those players in the room,
they were definitely there. And most of all just the joy, the joy behind that was the most
powerful I’ve experienced. But boy, credit to those guys
who never gave up, again, what an amazing story. Call it unfortunate, call it
cheated out of their title, a technicality, call it
whatever you want to call it, but making it right
was obviously the right thing to do,
and they achieved that. My one wish is, I would’ve liked
to have seen the championship game and all the
other games Elbowoods played. That would have been so fun. It’s like the Elbowoods team
showed us the ability and skill to succeed in sport or in any other area in life
you want to pursue. It’s similar to what
our Chairman Mark Fox said. We can do it they did. The Elbowoods team was
displaying positive role modeling to us without probably even realizing
it at the time. They were
giving us hope, getting us excited
and passionate. We need that to persevere
and not to give up. I think it’s an important story
that is really worth telling, and worth telling the whole
context of it and the implications of it. If it would be a short story,
it wouldn’t be very interesting for anybody to say, well, the title was vacated,
and nobody was champion and to realize that good
can come of this process
I think, as well. That all of these people have
a right to be proud of their contributions,
their achievements, the things that they did
with their lives and how that reflects on the families and the
communities that they come from. (Marilyn Hudson)
It was a sense of
achievement for everyone. The students need to understand that there was a place called
Elbowoods. Most students today look out at
Lake Sakakawea and think it was always there. I’ve done some work in schools,
and I tell students that where I was raised
and went to school is under the water in the lake,
and they don’t believe it. All of those things happened
at that time and had never happened before,
will probably never happen again because it’s a time
that’s well past. The credit would go to Sidney
and Ike and John and Charlie and Harry and Leon
and Harold and Raymond for an unusual bunch that
happened to be together at that particular time in the
history of not only, like I say, the history of Elbowoods,
but the history of North Dakota. They moved from victim
to victory. And once you continually have
excuses, and the excuses are valid
in many cases, what they do is,
they shackle you for life, and at that moment
they broke from it. There’s a spiritual portion
to this. This isn’t just about the town. It’s not just about a few homes
and a few businesses. It’s about the spiritual
understanding of where you come from,
where you grew up, who you are,
where you are headed. I mean, people forget kind of
the spiritual connection. You can put that whole town
underwater, many many feet of water
on top of it it can never destroy the spiritual connection
of people who lived there or the ancestors of people who
lived there and have heard the stories
about that– that’s spiritual. That’s what makes this ’42 team more special than just getting
on a hardwood floor and playing a game
of basketball. With what happened and the
history and everything else, the uniqueness and the
specialness of this team and those to follow,
shouldn’t be forgotten. [cheers, whistles, & applause] (man) Elbowoods High School 1942 State Class B Champions. [wooden flute plays softly] [wooden flute plays softly] (woman)
Funding for “Basketball, Water,
and the Lost City of Elbowoods” is made possible by
the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa,
and Arikara Nation, celebrating our tradition of
resilience, strength, and power, and by the members
of Prairie Public. To order a DVD copy of “Basketball, Water, and
the Lost City of Elbowoods,” please visit Prairie Public’s
on-line store or call,,,

3 thoughts on “Basketball, Water and the Lost City of Elbowoods”

  1. What a wonderful program, so glad this story is finally being told! My mother's family was moved from Elbowoods as well because of the dam. Thank you for sharing this, I will certainly be sharing it with friends and family.

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