I’ve seen my students playing Rez Ball, the no-holds-barred game of basketball that combines unspoken dreams with hardscrabble reality. Now you can read about it.
I’ve seen giant senior boys play Knock Out with tenderness against first graders a third their size. We’ve sat in the stands and watched teams of white kids from far-flung Christian schools in northeastern Arizona mutter under their breath about having to play ‘those Indian kids.’
My colleagues and I strive to make our school a safe haven where Native kids can learn, grow, and thrive. But we can’t protect them all the time. They’re gritty, scrappy, proud, and have old souls in young bodies. Rez ball doesn’t just describe the way they act on the basketball court. It’s a metaphor for their lives.
If you have the courage to join them, order a copy of Rez Ball. Set aside your expectations for how you think teens should talk; parents should parent, and coaches should coach. Come alongside Tre and his friends, and expand your cultural (and generational) understanding. Be an antiracist and an ally.
By Byron Graves, Heartdrum, September 12, 2023, 368 pages, ages 16+, R (for language)
Somewhere between eighth grade and the end of his freshman year, Tre Brun morphed from a short, dumpy, nerdy Ojibwe gamer to a 6’4” basketball player. After working hard all summer to hone his fitness level and perfect his shooting skills, Tre hopes to make the Red Lake Warriors’ varsity team.
His best friend Wes thinks Tre has the potential to make the team, get a Division 1 college scholarship, and make it to the NBA one day. Wes loves filmmaking and convinces Tre to let him start a documentary about Tre’s basketball dreams. But first, Tre must make the team.
Despite his hard work and ball-handling skills, Tre doesn’t make varsity—he’ll have to spend another year playing with his friend Nate on JV. Having a new friend (a girl who loves gaming) makes the loss easier to bear. Friends and family members make life on the Reservation bearable.
You can’t compare life on the Rez to living in any place else. Tre knows from personal experience how death stalks every family on the Rez. Nobody offers counseling to kids at Red Lake High School when one of their own meets an untimely death. And no one trains the cops in the nearby towns on how to treat tribe members with respect instead of racial profiling them.
When Tre gets called up to Varsity at the last minute, he has no idea the pressures he will face as he tries to fill his brother’s shoes, nurture his friendship, navigate peer pressure, and keep his grades high.
Maybe it’s more than anyone should expect from a Warrior.
What I Loved About This Book
Graves, an Ojibwe debut author, captures the dichotomy my students face. Ninety-nine percent of them live on a Rez, and I hear and read their stories about racial profiling, family loss, poverty, and forgotten dreams. Fifty percent of my students don’t have running water at home, yet they love social media, gaming, and basketball.
Rez Ball joins the growing body of literature for and by Native American youth: Books such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Warrior Girl Unearthed, Firekeeper’s Daughter, and the middle-grade Mighty Muskrat series.
As an educator, I applaud publishers and marginalized writers for bringing more honest, gritty literature to life. The dialogue sounds authentic, although heavily laden with expletives. Trust me, I hang out with my students enough to appreciate the accuracy of teenage Rez slang.
Teachers, parents, librarians, teens, and privileged white folks will want to grab a copy of this book. Everyone but the teens will probably get knots in their knickers from the language and the underage partying. But if you want to understand a slice of Rez life, you need to read Rez Ball.
You’ll find yourself cheering for Tre and the rest of the Warriors as they fight for hope against the demons of Rez life, white prejudice, and bad referee calls on their way to the championship game.