Native American basketball players struggle both on and off the court at Wyoming Indian High School.

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
April 1, 2003
90 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2002 Tribeca Film Festival-Best Documentary
  • Director

    Daniel Junge

    Named by Filmmaker magazine as one of 25 up-and-coming filmmakers, Daniel Junge had his feature-length directorial debut with Chiefs, which aired on Independent Lens, and won best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. Junge also directed Reading Your Rights and Big Blue Bear, both of which aired on PBS, and We Are PHAMALy, which screened at the Show more Tribeca and Hot Springs film festivals. He served as creative director for the Emmy Award-winning series Common Good, directing four of its segments. Junge received his B.A. from Colorado College and attended film school at New York University. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, Erin. Junge is currently finishing a new feature documentary, They Killed Sister Dorothy. Show less


    Donna Dewey

    Donna Dewey won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for her film A Story of Healing, which followed a group of volunteer plastic surgeons as they traveled to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam to perform reconstructive facial surgery on children with severe deformities. She has been writing, producing, and directing films for more than 20 years, and Show more her documentaries have screened at film festivals around the world. Some of her projects include House on Fire; Sister's Keeper; Coming to Life, a three-part series documenting the AIDS epidemic in the African American community; Homeboys I, II, and III, a series which followed 10 members of the Crips and the Bloods over eight years; and Elijah's Story, a case history of a 16-month-old boy who was shaken to death by his father in an uncharacteristic fit of rage. Dewey also serves as a commissioner for the Denver Mayor’s Office of Art, Culture, and Film. Show less

    We fund untold stories for public media.

    Learn more about funding opportunities with ITVS.

    The Film

    Every November for the last 18 years, Al Redman has unlocked the cage for Wyoming Indian High School's first day of boys' basketball practice. And every year so far, he's found a way to win. The silver-haired Redman has chalked up an impressive record as head coach of the powerhouse Chiefs, including five state championships and a record 50-game winning streak. But it has been eight years since the Chiefs have won a state title, a long time for a team that is the focal point for the community of Wind River, Wyoming.

    For senior Beaver C’Bearing, who grew up dreaming of state victory, this year is his last chance. In time, Beaver and his teammates will be part of the audience, and will have to reconsider their priorities, but for the moment the question is what will happen during his senior year?

    Wind River Indian Reservation (where the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone were confined by the U.S. government on 3,500 square miles of central Wyoming) is hardly an environment conducive to success. Poverty, alcoholism, racism, and youth suicide are just a few of the challenges the cultures face. But despite all of this — or perhaps because of it — basketball is played on the rez and played very well.

    Why are the Chiefs so good? Because they grow up playing together from the time they can walk? Because they come from a warrior tradition? Because they are naturally gifted athletes? Because they play for a school built as an alternative to the non-Indian schools they compete against? Because they attend sweat lodges and observe other tribal traditions together? The film Chiefs explores the complex factors that contribute to playing an incredible game of basketball.

    Success on the court has not always carried over into other arenas, such as higher education and employment. Over the two years captured in the film, however, there are signs that this legacy might be broken, with role models like Assistant Coach Owen St. Clair returning to the community to help out after obtaining his college degree.

    Through triumph and heartbreak, Chiefs shows the whole reservation, from babies to grandmas, coming out to support the team, especially at the state tournament, where as many as 3,000 show up to cheer them on. “Last one on the rez, turn off the lights,” has become the slogan at the state championships every March.

    Growing up without a father, Beaver C’Bearing turned to his friends and to basketball. Once his career as a Chief ends, though, Beaver finds himself rudderless - caught in the quandary of his friends and so many young Native Americans. It's a scenario Tim Robinson and his classmates want to avoid. They vow to dedicate themselves, both on the court and off, to make their tribe, their families, and themselves proud.

    It is a truism that basketball tends to thrive in the direst of circumstances. More than escapism, it provides youth with a sense of belonging and camaraderie, a means of achieving some sort of victory, an opportunity to explore life off the rez. In Chiefs, we see a group of young men trying to convert the pride and success they experience on the basketball court and move ahead with the rest of their lives. By chronicling the experiences of these young players over the course of two years, Chiefs shows what it’s like to grow up Native American in the 21st century.