Jeff Turning Heart: From runner to coachA Lakota basketball journey begins
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Correspondent
nativesunnews.today LA PLANT, South Dakota — Seventeen years ago the big boarding school at Eagle Butte was broken up, and two localized schools were opened on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, Takini and Tiospaye Topa. To this day, Class B Tiospaye Topa, located at La Plant, 32 miles east of Eagle Butte, has never had a winning basketball season. The best they have ever managed is 8-10, and then followed bad years where they had three seasons where they won no games, sandwiched around a season where they won just two. Last year they managed a 7-13 record. The intent behind splitting up the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) big school at Eagle Butte was never to divide the satellite schools into isolated pockets of underfunded mediocrity, athletically or academically. But it has been hard for parents to find jobs, and so the allure of bigger schools, for any students that might be gifted, is strong. On top of that, staffing these schools has been difficult, and most of the staff are not Lakota, and it would be nice if there was a magical potion you could give a Wasicu teacher, so they could internalize and project the positive adult role model these children would find in a fellow Lakota, but there is not, and so most of them, do not. This does not amount so much to intentional mistreatment, but misguided good intentions, followed by frustration, and then, sadly, indifference. In this way, the Wasicu educator copes with a tough job teaching the youth of an alien culture, but bottom line, no matter what spin people apply, it is not good for the Lakota student. Long years ago, Jeff Turning Heart ran for Cheyenne-Eagle Butte High School. He was the champion of everything—cross country, 1600 meters, 3200 meters. He never smoked or drank or got in trouble. He just ran. Almost forty years later, he is the resource officer at Tiospaye Topa, and his job is basically to maintain discipline. Turning Heart continues to run, and he lives on the family allotment, just northwest of Eagle Butte, where he is raising his granddaughter, Kai’len, and commutes to La Plant. He is also the cross country coach for the Tiospaye Topa Thunderhawks, but struggles to find students who want to put in the grueling miles, and work the demanding training regimen it takes to be competitive. Problem with distance running, no matter how good you get, it always hurts if you want to compete. Children raised in rough circumstances don’t want to pile on that kind of pain.
The sport Lakota love the most is basketball, and when he is not running, Turning Heart has been a longtime high school basketball referee. Recently, he agreed to assist with the Fourth Grade and Fifth-Sixth Grade basketball teams. These teams have fared no better than the varsity boys, and when Turning Heart started helping out he found them just shooting and dribbling and applying none of the strategy or techniques necessary to play competitive basketball. Eventually, he said, the boys told him, “We want you to be our coach.” The Wasicu art teacher coach they had, agreed to step aside, and let Turning Heart coach the teams. “I took the Boys job to help them develop confidence and work ethic,” Turning Heart said. “It’s important for me to (teach) discipline on and off the court.” Turning Heart doesn’t have any specialized strategy learned at some Wasicu university. He keeps it very basic: “My job is to be their best friend…don’t be afraid to try…the message I have for them is to be successful.” It is not so much what Turning Heart says, but how he shows them the game, how to work together as a team: “They want to get better. I went one-on-one to (work on) their small skills. We did small drills to benefit teamwork.” As an athlete, one thing Turning Heart never lacked was confidence: “I used some of my mentality to (help them) be confident on the court. The players are all gifted, and with more work they can reach a high level.”
The opposition was expecting the normal Topa team, and so when they lost to Dupree by one, people were surprised. Then they went up to Bullhead and beat them by one. Next came the nearest rival, the Timber Lake Panthers, a team half Wasicu and half Lakota, and up at Timber Lake they take elementary basketball seriously; the coach of their team is their varsity Boys head coach, Cody Lawrence, who was 14-6 last year. “Are we going to be in the paper?” the Thunderhawks wondered, as Turning Heart lined them against the wall for a team photo. Most every Lakota talks about how sacred the children are, but when you see these little boys huddled together, grinning for the camera, you see the charm, the humor, the trusting innocence that makes them the precious resource they are to the Oyate. Turning Heart said the boys want to dedicate the newspaper article to three boys, East Lee, 19, Clinton Farlee, 21, and Andrew Frost, 20. “The boys have bloodline with them,” Turning Heart explained. “They tie their shoes for them.” Last year, Turning Heart said, all three boys were shot dead. To the surprise of Timber Lake, who are extremely well coached, and know their roles, the Thunderhawks take the early lead, and are comfortably in control. But come the second half, the Panthers make their move, and with 3:47 in the game, the score is knotted, 25-25.
After the Panthers take a 29-28 lead, at the 1:53 mark, Kris Meeter, the best player on the floor, sporting a pair of spectacles people keep knocking off his head, and already gifted at slashing deep into the paint, rattles a bucket home and Topa is up, 30-29. The Panthers don’t panic, and with just 1:03 remaining in the game, they retake the lead, 31-30. Twenty seconds later, they drive in with another bucket, and now lead 33-30, with 42 seconds showing on the clock. The Thunderhawks brought the ball back up court, and with 31.2 seconds on the clock, Xavier Charger launched a clutch three-point bomb that swished the net and tied the game up, 33-33. Timber Lake did their best to score, but Meeter got the ball one last time, drove for a layup, and was fouled. He made one free throw, but it was enough to give Topa the win, 34-33. One thing these isolated reservation schools do not lack, is talent, not just in sports, but in art, in math, even in science, something that would seem to have no place in a traditional Lakota world. What these kids need is what Turning Heart and Lawrence are giving them—the best attention from the best people, when these kids are young and need it the most. After the ball game, Turning Heart drove home with his granddaughter, Kai’len, and he wanted people to know, that Kai’len told him, “Lala, if you need help with basketball shoes, I have some they can have.” Turning Heart said, “You’re willing to help us out?” “Yes,” Kai’len said. “You were (raised) the poorest of the poor, so I want to help…I want them to do good. I got three pairs for you.” Once home, Turning Heart made homemade chili and fry-bread, and there may be a person on this earth that can make fry-bread as delicious as Gladys Turning Heart taught her boy Jeff to make, but no person anywhere, can make it better. Turning Heart took some fry-bread and handed it to Kai’len and said, “Take this out for Gramma.” And so there the piece of fry-bread sits on the rail of the front porch, under the sparkling stars of a crisp, November night, and Turning Heart said, “I want to dedicate the season to my precious mom.” He doesn’t say it, but it doesn’t need to be said, the words he would use to describe his relationship with the basketball team, at that moment, take on their full meaning: “Our bond, is taking care of each other.”