Navajo Times basketball writer Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi talking to UNITY on the thrill of covering high school basketball in Indian Country and why the sport matters how much on the Reservation.
1) How long you’ve worked as a reporter and why did you choose sports journalism as career?
I started in journalism at the age of 19, in 2005, when I attended the American Indian Journalism Institute and held six internships within three years while attending the University of New Mexico, including two at the St. Cloud Times, the Albuquerque Journal, Sports Illustrated magazine in New York City, The Santa Fe New Mexican and The Salt Lake Tribune. As a professional I’ve worked at the Osage News and am currently in my sixth year as The Navajo Times Sports Writer.
Growing up with only an older sister, I was the son my father never had and was raised in gymnasiums and ballparks, so when I found my calling as a storyteller it made sense to write about people who just so happen to be extraordinary athletes
2) You have been covering high school basketball on the Navajo Nation for some time now. Why is this sport so popular on the reservation?
It’s a combination of things really, but I would say two prominent reasons are accessibility and talent. As Native Americans we are naturally talented in anything we set our minds to, but basketball has always held a special place for us. When you drive across the Navajo reservation you can’t pass through a single reservation town that doesn’t have a makeshift basketball goal. It’s as simple as nailing an old bicycle rim to a wooden board and attaching it to the street light post, which was the kind of goal learned to play on. It’s cheap, easy and all you really need is a basketball.
Aside from other valuable aspects of the game, basketball is a game of speed. And as Native Americans, we have the speed. Running is in our ancestry, and because of it rez ball, as we call it, is a game of run and gun. To off-reservation teams, rez teams, are best known for their speed and their fast-pace basketball. In my personal experience, growing up on the reservation, I too was exposed to the basketball culture and for me it was very much about accessibility. Going to boarding school for nine years of my life the only sports offered was baseball, basketball and running. No one wants to play baseball on a makeshift field with dirt, weeds and rocks and some, like myself, just didn’t have the desire to run, so basketball it was.
3) How important was high school basketball for you growing up on the Nation?
After boarding school, I moved off the reservation with my family so I didn’t attend high school on the reservation. However, I did attend high school in a border town known for the most high school girl’s state basketball titles in the state of New Mexico; Kirtland Central High School. Basketball in border town high schools are just as competitive as those on the reservation, they were when I was in high school and now as I cover high school basketball.
Basketball has never stopped been important to me.
I was literally on the basketball court before I was even born; my mother was a talented basketball player who played with me still in her stomach well into her seventh month of pregnancy.
Growing up I learned how to play on a makeshift basketball goal my uncle attached to a street light behind my grandmother’s house. On a dirt court with an over inflated basketball, I learned the hook shot and how to take someone to the hoop from my uncle. My uncle Wallace Clah, Jr., or Dehi, as we called him, picked up a basketball for the first time when he was sophomore at Wingate High School, a boarding school in Ft. Wingate, N.M. He stood about 6-feet-4 and had a mean baseline game. He was envied by rival fans everywhere to the point that some would throw bags of rocks at him as he and the team boarded the bus. He often watched me afterschool and would take me out back to teach me some moves, and when we weren’t playing he would make me sit in front of the television and watch Magic Johnson and the Lakers
In high school I played a few years for Kirtland Central before suffering an injury to my collarbone. When that happened, I learned more about the game by watching and studying. Now, as a sports writer for the Navajo Times, basketball is just as important as it was when I was a high school athlete. It’s my busiest time of the year and most anticipated. I go nonstop from November to March.
4) You’ve also covered high school basketball in Oklahoma. How was this different?
Covering sports in Oklahoma was different in more ways than one. In Oklahoma I worked for the Osage News, where I wrote feature and sports stories. The Osage Tribe is a small one. I went from covering 80-plus schools on the Navajo Nation to about less than 12 for the Osage News.
Basketball wasn’t as prominent as in Oklahoma than it was in the Four Corners. But, I did get some experience covering some extremely talent Osage athletes and picked up some knowledge in covering some new sports.
While there I covered a high school state football team, as football is the dominant sport in Oklahoma, it was normal to have Native athletes make up state football teams. In the Four Corners, Navajo athletes don’t share the same interest or success in the sport. I picked up my first stories covering ESPN Friday Night Fights, a national high school pole-vaulter, Osage college gymnast and others.
5) What role did Shoni and Jude Schimmel, the sister stars of the University of Louisville and of the Umatilla Tribe, help bring attention to Native Americans and basketball?
They had an extremely significant role in continuing to show the masses just how talented Native Americans are. I also think that their role extends beyond basketball. Not only did they show what Native America has to offer but they brought attention to the fact Native Americans still exists. Though few people outside of Indian Country knew just how big basketball is to the Native community, fewer knew that Native Americans were still around. The two talented young women have put Native America back on the map, even though we technically never left.
6) How hard will it be for you to walk about from covering high school basketball one day?
I know for a fact that it will be one of the hardest things I will ever have to do. I know this because when I left the Navajo Times years ago, to try my hand at writing for the Osage News, another tribal newspaper, I found it hard to let go. And it wasn’t necessarily difficult just to stop covering high school basketball, but to cover any and all stories of my people, the Navajo people.
Because the Navajo Nation and Navajo communities are set in rural areas, the Navajo Times is the main sources for media coverage in prep sports on the rez. Many of our athletes use our clips for recruiting purposes, without our stories almost none of them would get exposure to colleges and the like. Over the years I’ve developed irreplaceable relationships and have gotten to know many athletes and their families. I’ve also watched many athletes grow up to be successful young men and women. If the day comes when I no longer am able to provide coverage of Native athletes, it will be difficult one. But, I find comfort in knowing that I was able to tell some amazing stories about extraordinary Native American student-athletes.