Off The Rez: The Shoni Schimmel Story

By now, we all know Jonathan Hock as one of the best filmmakers when it comes to documenting sports. One only needs to rhyme off several films from his résumé to prove the point: "Through The Fire," "The Best There Never Was," "Unguarded" and so on.

In 2011, Hock premiered a sports documentary he wrote and directed titled “Off The Rez,”1 which chronicles the life of high school junior Shoni Schimmel, the star basketball player on Franklin High School’s women’s basketball team in Portland, Oregon. As with everyone in her position and with her skill set on the court, she faces the decisions of deciding where — or whether — to attend college, how to position herself for a professional career in basketball and at the same time weighing the choices against leaving her family behind.

As with all of Hock’s films, the traditional narrative is replaced by something more than the clichés we’re inundated with in sports. Shoni is not just your traditional high school basketball talent, not when she grew up in Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. Not when her mother leaves the rez with Shoni and her seven other kids to go to Portland to coach her daughter at Franklin, while her husband stays behind to make enough money to make ends meet. And especially not when the film is set against the backdrop of the Native American struggle and how Native Americans have been shunned by society — something that is evident in the Shoni Schimmel story when you realize that her father is Caucasian and her mother is Native American, and the difference between the parents has caused a divide across the families.

On the court, Shoni is both demanding of herself and her teammates. At times that comes off as selfish or arrogant, but it’s all part of the learning curve as a high school phenom whose on-court performance may dictate her future in basketball.

As of 2012, among 10,151 players who played basketball at the Division 1 level, only 25 identified themselves as American India/Alaska Native. But two of them play on the Louisville Cardinals women’s basketball team: Shoni and her sister Jude. The Cardinals made a run in this year’s NCAA tournament all the way to the Finals, and at the Final Four, many Indians from different tribes were in the audience to show their support, with signs that said “Rez Girls Rock,” “Native Pride” and “Never Give Up”.

In the film, there are many reminders that Native Americans from past generations — including Shoni’s mother — have not fully realized their talent whether due to personal choices or the circumstances of growing up on a reservation.

The film highlights Shoni as a potential to find a different path, a more successful and rewarding ending. As of right now, it looks like she’s well on her way there.


1 The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and has aired on TLC and Discovery. The film is not yet available on DVD, but you can find out more information about it on their Facebook page. The film was discussed both on Slate’s Hang Up And Listen podcast and NPR in 2011.

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