EDGE OF AMERICA
SUBJECTS — Sports/Basketball; U.S./1945-1991; Diversity/ Native American & African-American; New Mexico;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Leadership; Teamwork;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Respect; Caring.
AGE: 12+; No MPAA Rating — PG;
Drama; 2003; 135 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
Loosely based on actual events, “Edge of America” presents the classic Cinderella sports team story with a unique racial twist. The basketball team is from a Native American high school on a reservation in the Southwest. It has a new coach. He’s young, he’s a hard taskmaster, and he’s black.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
2003 Daytime Emmy Awards: Outstanding Performer in a Children/Youth/Family Special — (James McDaniel); 2006 Directors Guild of America: DGA Award: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children’s Programs (Eyre); 2006 Writers Guild of America Award: WGA Award (TV) Children’s Script – Long Form; 2003 Daytime Emmy Awards Nominations: Outstanding Performer in a Children/Youth/Family Special (Timothy Daly).
James McDaniel as Kenny Williams, Irene Bedard as Annie Shorty, Delanna Studi as Carla McKinney, Misty Upham as Shirleen, Eddie Spears as Franklin, Cody Lightning as Dwayne, Geraldine Keams as Mother Tsosie, Michael Flynn as Homer Horton, Fraya Aspaas-Montoya as Francie, and Trini King as Alvina ‘Baby’ Tsosie.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Like many other sports team stories, this movie allows children to vicariously experience and work through the issues of trying hard against intimidating odds, the need for self-discipline, the need to work together as a team, the exhilaration of victory, and the despair of defeat. It shows Native Americans as three-dimensional characters with hopes, strengths, weaknesses, talent, and a culture of their own. It describes the difficulties that a basketball coach from the dominant culture experienced in learning to work with Native American girls. The movie is a story, ultimately, of racial harmony. It also shows men who don’t like each other resolving their differences peacefully. Finally, “Edge of America” presents a girls’ sports story.
MINIMAL. This movie contains several words of profanity.
This film is entertaining for all ages. Parents will serve their children well by watching the film with them, taking its lessons seriously, and telling them the story of the Lady Chieftains. See the Helpful Background section. Immediately after the movie, or at odd times over the next week (for example at the dinner table or in the car on the way to school) bring up one of the Discussion Questions, starting with the Quick Discussion. Don’t worry if you can only get through a few questions. Just taking the film seriously and discussing it is the key. Allow your children to watch the movie several times on their own.
Shiprock High School is located on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Before 1980, its girls’ basketball team, the Lady Chieftains, had a lackluster record. That year the school hired Jerry Richardson, a young black man from Texas, to coach the team. Mr. Richardson was a hard taskmaster and brought with him a drive to succeed.
In 1980, Shiprock, New Mexico was economically depressed. Unemployment was 50% and half the families lived below the poverty level. Almost half the homes had no telephones or running water. Girls’ basketball had been something to pass the time. The Lady Chieftains were infected with the spirit of their location. About half the girls dropped out each year.
Coach Richardson was an outsider on the Navajo reservation. It took four years to get the girls to trust him. “He was never satisfied, as if we were never good enough,” one player recalled. Another added that “We are Navajos. Our feelings can be hurt very easily.” Ford Foundation Report – Winter 2003 from the documentary “Rocks with Wings”.
Over time, the team improved until it made the state championships in 1987. On the night before their championship game, the girls confronted Richardson about how he had been treating them. In a late night team meeting they came to an understanding. The next morning, the team played with a new spirit and team effort. They lost, but by only one point. Coach Richardson came back the next year with a better understanding of how to relate to the team and the Lady Chieftains won the next three state championships.
Cheryl Lee, a player on the 1987 team, recalled that “The girls didn’t know how to react to someone who required so much of them.” Referring to the confrontation the night before the last game in the 1987 state championships she said, “It all boiled over and fizzled like a shaken bottle of Coke, and the pressure got released, and the next year we were able to play more as a team than we ever did.” “Glory Days of Navajo Team Relived” by Janie Magruder, Arizona Republic, April 25, 2006.
After a few years Richardson moved on to coach college basketball. He was killed in a car accident in Florida in 1996.
The first movie about the Lady Chieftains was a documentary called “Rocks with Wings” directed by Rick Derby. It is not easily available but it won a few awards and hopefully it will come out on DVD. Mr. Derby described his reasons for making the film: “When Jerry arrived in Shiprock he was a young fella – you don’t just walk into a Native American community and completely resurrect the place . . . . I knew they’d have to go through some sort of process to thrust off this cloak of victimization or defeat or fatalism and Jerry was the person who helped them do that.” Mr. Derby described his film as a “story about transformation – people living in one set of circumstances and desiring another but not quite knowing the path to that.” BBC 4 Storyville, Interview date: August 12, 2003.
Shiprock Peak in New Mexico is the remains of a solidified lava core
of a volcano that has been dormant for 40 million years.
Many cultures recognize the Earth Goddess or Mother Earth. She is the bountiful embodiment of the Earth. This is what a Navajo website has to say about Mother Earth:
Mother Earth nurtures us and gives us all things including the mountains, trees, our animals, grass, food, and the herbs to heal us of our infirmities. We are the children. All things are alive to us. The Holy Ones taught us how to take care of Mother Earth. We honor them in our delight to take care of her. Many peoples of Mother Earth are now hurting her. A future day will come when the peoples of the Earth will come to us, the Navajo, to teach them how to care for Mother Earth. When that day comes, we will be ready. An Introduction to the Navajo Culture.
The divine feminine is minimized in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
2. What do you think of the character of Mother Tsosie? Have you ever known anyone like her?
Mother Tsosie is a traditional weaver and a spiritual leader of the community. She seems to be in touch with herself and can change when she realizes that change is for the best. For example, she allows her daughter “Baby” to play basketball, even though Mother Tsosie knows that it will erode the traditions that she holds so dear.
3. Mother Tsosie refers to “Mother Earth” — What is “Mother Earth”?
Mother Earth, or the earth goddess, is the bountiful embodiment of the Earth. See Helpful Background Section of the Learning Guide for a Navajo description of Mother Earth.
4. What do you think about the following dialog? Is Annie Shorty right to reprimand Mr. Williams?
Kenny Williams: Then you tell me why I’m pissed off.
Annie Shorty: Because you’re a black man in America.
Kenny Williams: That’s right, I’m good and pissed off.
Annie Shorty: Well then get over it! You’re talking to Indian people here! Get over it, get on with it, or get the hell out!
There is no one correct answer to this question. Some points to make are that the human rights of both African Americans and Native Americans have been violated on many occasions by the white majority in the U.S. Black people were taken from their homes in Africa and enslaved. Later, during the time of segregation, blacks were not afforded equal rights. The effort to provide equal rights to Black Americans is an ongoing struggle. Native Americans were decimated, their land was taken away, and their cultures severely compromised. The character of Kenny Williams was accustomed to relating to a culture dominated by white people. There was no basis for Mr. Williams to be angry at Native Americans who had suffered great oppression from the whites.
Black people in the United States are an integral part of the mainstream culture. Native Americans on the reservations are not. Gambling enterprises are now making many Native American tribes rich at the expense of white and black Americans. [At TWM we call the Indian gambling casinos the “white man’s fire water”. Many people in the mainstream culture are unable to curb their urge to gamble, as many Native Americans were unable to deal with alcohol.]
5. Mr. Williams says: “Basketball never did a … thing for me that a book didn’t do better.” What did he mean by this and what is the significance of this comment for most people?
Education, which primarily comes from books, is a better way to get a reasonable standard of living for all but the lucky and talented few who can succeed in professional sports or who can coach. Mr. Williams is speaking for the vast majority of successful people in the U.S. who make their living based upon education or training in an occupation other than sports.
6. Mr. Williams told Mother Tsosie that every time Baby set foot on a basketball court she had perfection within reach. Mother Tsosie replied that: “I weave my whole life and soon I make mistake but I make it on purpose. My spirit would be trapped in a perfect design. A flaw lets it out. Flaws keep our feet on Mother Earth.” What are the advantages of the drive for perfection? What is mother Tsosie talking about?
The drive for perfection can inspire people to achieve things they wouldn’t normally be able to achieve. However, as Mother Tsosie points out, the drive for perfection can confine us to a limited focus that virtually imprisons us. There are, for example, many things in life other than basketball or sports. A person who focuses all of his or her attention on becoming perfect at basketball or any other sport, will ignore much of the rest of life and miss it.
7. What’s going on with Franklin?
Franklin has no family. He is angry and rebellious as many young men are, but especially because he is Native American. He resents this man (Mr. Williams) from the mainstream culture (a “white man” to the Navajo) coming into his community and changing things, taking time away from his girl.
8. Mr. Williams was rough with the girls and demanded that they meet high standards. Why did he do this? There are at least two reasons.
High standards were necessary for the team to win. It would be good for the girls to learn discipline and that they could be successful if they tried hard.
9. What was the importance of what happened to Mr. Williams in Texas when his car broke down and a man pulled over to give him a hand? He said, “I had the whole world worked out black and white. I knew exactly who my enemy was.”
The man who stopped to help him was white and was killed while he was trying to help. Mr. Williams realized that not all white people were his enemy.
10. The movie shows how much Mr. Williams was a product of the mainstream culture in the U.S. Give some examples.
Here are two: his drive to win (to become perfect as he describes it to Mother Tsosie) and his intolerance of Native American culture.
11. What did you think of the character of Carla’s father?
He was white, which is ironic, because he was the only alcoholic character in the movie. (Alcoholism is a problem for Native Americans and most people believe that the rate of alcoholism is higher on the reservation than in the general population.) He loved his daughter. He was in mourning for his wife who had died recently. He eventually supported Carla’s efforts at basketball. He took responsibility for bringing the beer into the car when he and Franklin were stopped by the police.
12. Why did Mr. Williams help Carla’s boyfriend get out of the jail?
There were several reasons. First, it was the right thing to do. The boy’s infraction didn’t merit staying in jail for a week and he had no family to help him get out of jail. Second, Mr. Williams wanted to support Carla. She was on his team and he had promised that he would be there for her if she needed help. Franklin was her boyfriend and helping Franklin was a way of caring for his team. Mr. Williams also wanted to defuse Franklin’s anger at him.
13. Was the loss really the coach’s fault for telling the girls to slow the game down and play for one shot? Does it matter?
There is no one correct answer to the first question. If it was the coach’s fault, he was owning up to his responsibility. If it wasn’t his fault, he was taking the blame to make sure that the girls didn’t blame themselves. But there is another way to look at it, that the team played a great game and a great season. The loss was no one’s fault. The other team was just one point better on that particular day. The entire season was a great triumph for the girls and they deserved to think of themselves as winners. And of course, this is what the town (undoubtedly led by Mother Tsosie and Cuch) thought.
14. Close to the end of the championship game, Annie Shorty said that she really wanted to beat the other team’s coach. Then she said, “God help me, I want to beat that … Tell me this is still about education.” What did she mean by that?
She meant that high school sports should not be about winning, it should be about educating the kids. Winning is secondary. Her comment recognizes that sometimes it’s hard to keep the competitive spirit from getting the upper hand.
15. In a basketball game decided by one point, is one team really better than the other, or is it just the luck of timing that makes the winner?
This will be the subject of debate. The very competitive will say that the one point matters and the less competitive will say that it doesn’t. TWM votes with the latter.
16. Were the people on the reservation right to treat the girls as winners?
Absolutely. They had done better than ever before. They had played better than anyone expected. They had played at the top of their abilities.
17. Cuch, the wise man/auto mechanic/bus driver, was forced to go to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. The first thing they did was to cut his hair. For a Native American, this robs him of his individuality and humanity. But in the movie, Cuch is much older and on his own. He has had plenty of time for his hair to grow back. But he keeps it cut relatively short. In addition, Cuch makes his living working on cars, the quintessential representative of the mainstream culture. These two elements of the story are symbols. But of what? Here’s a hint: they relate to the decision of Mother Tsosie to allow Baby to go back to school and to play basketball despite the fact that Mother Tsosie knows that playing on the team and going to school will dilute Baby’s Native American traditions. What theme of the movie does this relate to? What does Cuch’s short hair symbolize?
A theme of the film is that Native American culture must adopt some of the ways of the mainstream culture. Cuch’s hair and his job are primary symbols for this.
The next two questions are based on the following dialog:
Mother Tsosie: You like having things your way.
Mr. Williams: Sorry if I insulted you in the locker room. I’m not against you Mother Tsosie. I’m just for your daughter finishing school.
Mother Tsosie: Baby missed five days last December to go to my sister’s sing. They threatened to suspend her. Then she gets two weeks for Christmas. We don’t celebrate Christmas. Baby reads and writes … works numbers. What does she need with school?
Mr. Williams: They can take her to college.
Mother Tsosie: More school. Then what?
1. Was the school right to threaten to suspend Baby for attending her Aunt’s sing and then keep her out of classes for two weeks on the Christmas break?
No and maybe. The sing was an important family and religious observance. Baby should not have been penalized for attending. If most of the students were Christian, a break for the Christmas/New Years holiday makes a lot of practical sense. Most of the school would be out for Christmas. However, if most of the school adheres to the Indian beliefs and the families don’t celebrate Christmas, having an extended holiday at that time is just another imposition of mainstream culture on a conquered people.
2. Do you agree with Mother Tsosie that Native American girls don’t need to go to college? Or do you agree with Mr. Williams that going to college would be good for Baby?
There is no one absolute right answer to this question. The American way, which many think should apply to all in the U.S., including Native Americans, is to retain traditions but learn to navigate in the mainstream society. This usually means learning English and getting the best education possible. Inevitably, after a generation or two, the kids will adopt the mainstream culture with the ethnic culture becoming secondary or it will become lost entirely. However, there are many Native Americans who believe that they are a culture apart from the mainstream and that they need to keep their traditions strong and primary. Mother Tsosie was the exponent of this but gave way when she realized that her love for her daughter was the most important value. Mother Tsosie realized that Baby really wanted to play basketball and, overall, it would be good for her.
3. Mother Tsosie said “Basketball takes her away from our traditions. It’s the women keep the old ways alive. The women keep the history.” Mr. Williams responded that: “Sometimes you gotta make history.” Who was right? Suggested Response: This dialog expresses the tension between old and new. Do you maintain the old traditions and restrict your life avoiding new influences or do you grow and explore new areas? There is no one right answer to the question.
4. Why did Mr. Williams make the team stay after one of the games, making Carla shoot the ball and then making everyone run the court?
He wanted Carla to pass the ball. She had been hogging the ball and was not being a team player.
5. Could the Lady Chieftains have won without teamwork?
No. Teamwork is essential for a winning basketball team. This is true in all team sports.
6. Did Shirleen, the girl who got pregnant, let her team down? How should the team have treated her after she got pregnant?
Yes, she let the team down. However, pregnancy had so many important effects on the girl’s life and was probably very upsetting to her. These were more important than the fact that she let the team down and the team members should have treated her as they did, with love and compassion and continued friendship.
7. How does the coach make a connection with the girls and get them to join the team?
He tailors his approach to each girl. He talks about college to Shirleen (the girl who was a waitress). He plays ball with Carla. He apologies to Mother Tsosie.
8. What did you think of the terms of the contract that Mr. Williams had the girls sign?
It’s fairly standard.
9. Give three good examples of leadership exhibited by Mr. Williams in the movie.
We can think of five possible examples: 1) his drive and high expectations for the team, insisting that they work hard and perform up to their abilities; 2) going to bat for the team with the referees; 3) after the team meeting, racing back to the reservation and bringing the team their new manager; this showed that he would listen to his team, that he cared about their feelings, and that when he was wrong, he’d change direction; 4) taking the blame for the defeat; and 5) helping Franklin.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
1. Cuch, the man who fixed Mr. Williams’ car, said that when he was sent to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) they cut his hair. What is the significance of this?
Cutting the hair of a Native American is like taking away their identity. It showed a lack of respect for Native American culture.
2. What was the importance of the scene in which Mother Tsosie called Williams a “white man”?
It shows that in relation to Native American culture, blacks and whites are pretty much the same. They had no respect for Native American culture.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
3. Have you ever tried to do something that most people thought was impossible? Have you ever seen anyone else do something like that? Describe what happened.
There is no one right response to this question.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
4. When Mr. Williams berated Shirleen, the pregnant girl, and kicked her off the team, did he do the right thing? Remember, the assistant coach objected, saying “She is not an example! She’s a 17-year-old girl!”
He was right in many things that he said. She had let her teammates down because she could no longer play. The problem was the way he said it. He was angry and failed to realize that being pregnant was deeply upsetting to Shirleen on many levels. He probably should have let her be the manager right away. The problem with his reaction was that he compounded the hurt she already felt by his anger, when Shirleen needed love and compassion instead. Just the fact that Shirleen could no longer play and acknowledged that she had let the team down was enough to show the rest of the girls that getting pregnant at 17 was a bad idea. Mr. Williams and Annie Shorty could also have pointed out that the pregnancy and the child was going to make it difficult for her to go to college, something she had wanted to do.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
BRIDGES TO READING
- Red Hot Hightops by Matt Christopher, Little, Brown, 1987, (Normally fearful of playing basketball in front of a crowd, Kelly becomes a confident and aggressive player when she dons a mysterious pair of red sneakers that she finds.) [grades 4 – 7]
- Sue Bird: Be Yourself by Sue Bird with Greg Brown, Positively for Kids, 2004 (Positively for Kids creates consistently readable and engaging sports biographies, choosing to focus on articulate and personable stars like Sue Bird.) [grades 4 – 7]
- Basketball (Or Something Like It) by Nora Raleigh Baskin, HarperCollins, c2005 (Three boys and one girl form a friendship while playing on a middle school basketball team, and write of their pressures both on and off the court.) [grades 5 -8]
- Hoop Girlz by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Holiday House, 2002 (When River is not chosen to play on the A Team for the local basketball tournament; she organizes her own team, the “Hoop Girlz”, and with her brother’s help, enters the tournament.) [grades 5 – 8]
- Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws by Janette Rallison, Walker, 2004 (High school freshmen Josie and Cami try to remain best friends as they compete for basketball awards and boys.) [grades 6 – 10]
- The Rhyming Season by Edward Averett, Clarion Books, 2005 (A high school senior and an eccentric English teacher team up to try to lead their small town basketball team to the state championship.) [grades 9 – 12]
- Girls Got Game: Sports Stories and Poems, Sue Macy ed., Henry Holt & Co., c2001 (Sue Macy, a noted sportswriter, has compiled a fascinating collection of stories and poems focusing on women and sports.) [grades 5 – 8]
- Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry Colton, Warner Books, c2000 (A journalist charts a girls’ basketball team which carries the hopes and dreams of their small town on the Crow Indian reservation during the course of their winning season.) [grades 9 +]
This listing compiled by Marilyn Taniguchi, Collection Services Manager, Beverly Hills Public Library
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
SITES RELATING TO THE LADY CHIEFTAINS OF SHIPROCK HIGH
- Belief in self gives ‘Wings’ USA Today, 12/10/2002;
SITES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS
- The Indian connection – African American and Native American racial mixing American Visions, August-Sept, 1996 by Mary A. Dempsey;
- Double Homecoming/American Indians with African Roots Return to the “Rice Coast”;
- The Director’s Website for this film; and
- Review from Indian Country Today.
The websites cited in the Learning Guide.
This Learning Guide was last updated on December 9, 2009.