ASHLAND – Everywhere Shiloh McCormick looks on either side of her multi-limbed family tree, she sees trails of tears – sorrowful tales of Indian greats whose hoop and other dreams flickered and perished amid the societal ills of Montana's reservations.
Drugs. Alcohol. Teen pregnancy.
Most of the names are faded memories now, and for almost all the story is the same.
“I see them start up here,” McCormick says, lifting her right hand – her shooting hand – high above her head before lowering it steadily to waist level. "And then they go downhill."
McCormick is sitting at a desk in a conference room at St. Labre Indian School, where she is four months from finishing an illustrious athletic and academic career. A week later, she will pour in 51 points in a basketball game against arch-rival Lame Deer, yet another highlight reel for one of the most prolific female scorers Montana has ever produced.
“Incredible,” Lame Deer coach August Scalpcane, McCormick's coach her first two seasons at St. Labre, will say of her afterward. “She was everywhere. She can do it all.”
But on this day at St. Labre, the topic isn't just about basketball. It's about school. It's about relationships. It's about social perils and safety nets.
It's about what tomorrow holds for one of the young bright lights from the Crow Reservation.
For as extraordinary as Shiloh McCormick is for what she does, she might be equally so for what she refuses to do – and for what her resolve means to a family and a culture where so many have been on the cusp of breaking a chain of despair before back-sliding.
“On both sides of the family, all of us were right on the verge of making it,” her father, Richard McCormick Jr., says.
“She’s the one who’s going to make it.”
Richard and Camille McCormick are sitting a few feet away from their daughter at St. Labre. In them, Shiloh sees all the inspiration and reinforcement she needs, positive and negative, all wrapped in what Richard candidly describes as "a prime example of what not to do."
Richard, whose father "Papa Rich" won the 1977 state championship with St. Labre, was a flashy guard who led Hardin on an electrifying run to the 1997 Class A title before fizzling out after two years of basketball at two junior colleges. Her mom, known then as Camille Bird, was a three-time all-state cross country runner at Lodge Grass before getting pregnant with Shiloh.
Shiloh saw demons in a bottle lead her parents down a dark path before they dedicated themselves to regaining their footing more than six years ago.
“I look at them," she says of struggles that have plagued every branch of her family tree, "and I say, 'I don’t want to be like that.'"
Such words have been spoken before, of course, even within a family circle that includes such household names as Wetzel, Fisher, Bird, Robinson and McCormick.
But Shiloh, those in her immediate sphere of influence say, is different. Hope rests with her rare package of talent, focus and resolve, all buffered by an ironclad support network.
“The only trouble she gets in,” says distant relative Tommy Robinson of Lame Deer, the unofficial family photographer, “is foul trouble – because she plays so hard all the time.”
Agrees Andy Elkshoulder, the St. Labre girls’ well-traveled veteran coach: “This girl’s got it all. It will take her where kids from here have never gone.”
For that, much credit goes to the school itself.
At St. Labre, where Shiloh is in her fourth year, she has an institutional safety net that envelops hundreds of Crow and Northern Cheyenne students. After three years living in the private Catholic school's dorms, she now lives less than a mile away with her aunt, Sherrell Fisher, a once-promising Billings softball pitcher whose brother Dane was a whirling dervish on the St. Labre basketball floor a decade ago.
Shiloh might have more basketball gifts than all of them.
A shooting guard who can play any position, she is closing in on 1,800 points in her career. She surely would’ve surpassed 2,000 and rank among the top 10 girls scorers in Montana history were it not for missing 11 games with an injury as a junior and four more as a sophomore. Some observers have said she is one of Montana's slickest female passers ever.
Colleges are noticing. Most are smaller schools, and she'll need to hit the weight room wherever she goes, but she’s heard from Nevada and her early favorite, national power Oregon State.
"I want to create a new path," she says, "just like I am now."
That path began on Feb. 27, 1997.
While Camille was giving birth to Shiloh in Crow Agency, Richard, Hardin’s leading scorer, was at the Metra in Billings for a first-round state tournament game against top-ranked Belgrade. Richard injured his knee early, played sparingly and scored only two points, but the Bulldogs pulled the upset and were crowned state champs two nights later.
Camille blushes as Richard adds with a laugh that Shiloh was conceived, fittingly, during a big regional tournament in Denver.
“She was born to be a basketball player,” her father said.
A registered Crow whose fair skin and sandy hair belies her mix of Crow, Northern Cheyenne (from her dad) and Blackfeet (her mom) blood, Shiloh spent much of her early years with her grandmother Nora Ann Little Light Bird. As is Crow tradition with a first-born daughter, she was Nora’s Kaalishbaabite, the two inseparable especially as her parents began to slide toward the abyss. Shiloh even lived during third and fifth grades in Bozeman, where Nora had earned a master’s degree in school administration from Montana State.
“She wrapped me like a baby,” Shiloh remembers.
Her parents’ struggles didn’t mean they had no time for her, though. Richard, then a physical education teacher at St. Xavier, introduced her to basketball in kindergarten.
“I never let her play with the girls because there were no tournaments on the rez,” he says. “She played with the boys the whole time.”
Shiloh played on a traveling team called the No Love Juniors. She and her younger brother, Virgil, also exchanged elbows and screens during pick-up games in gyms across the Crow Reservation, especially the Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier where she attended school.
“I really liked basketball a lot because it just helped me express myself in different ways,” she says. “It lets me release all my anger and stress. I just had a lot of fun with it playing with my cousins and brother, being able to talk smack with my brother, like ‘I was able to shut this guy down and you didn’t.’ ”
Six years ago, Nora, the nurturing grandmother, died of breast cancer – a shattering experience for Shiloh and a wake-up call for her parents.
“We had to step up when we lost my mom,” says Camille, who would go on to earn an associate’s degree from Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.
Ever since, Richard and Camille, who live near Lodge Grass, have been even more engaged with Shiloh and Virgil, who plays basketball at Hardin. Shiloh figured she'd attend Hardin like her father, but he guided her to St. Labre, where students who meet rigorous standards for four years are guaranteed college tuition. Richard even coached the St. Labre girls during Shiloh's junior year before stepping aside to give her breathing room.
“I’ve made a lot of friends here,” she said. “Here I fit in.”
Living with her Aunt Sherrell, Shiloh still has access to yet another one of her passions: rodeo. Her great-uncle, Steven Fisher, was a world-champion Indian calf-roper. Her father is a bulldogger and team-roper. Shiloh is no slacker at barrel racing, breakaway roping and team roping.
“But basketball always came first,” Sherrell said. “She’s been so athletically trained to play like a strong competitor.”
Such strength is essential in avoiding the tri-perils of drugs, alcoholism and teen pregnancy, which are rarely far away. Richard talks to her mostly about the latter.
“Drinking, drugs – it’s never really been an issue in her life. Me and her mom straightening up has helped,” he said. “(But) a lot of Native women have the worst stereotype that they’re going to get pregnant after high school. I tell her, 'Either you’re going to be one of those people or you’re not. It’s up to you.’
"The biggest thing I want for her is to get a college degree. With a degree, you can attain self-sufficiency on the reservation. It’s less of a struggle."
Drugs? Alcohol? Teen pregancy?
“You do get all that peer pressure tempting you, but in the back of my mind I don’t want to be the person to do that,” Shiloh says. “If I did, where would I be compared to where I am now?”
Where she is now, is six months from college. Shiloh, who often tapes her teammates’ ankles before games, wants to major in athletic training and minor in business management.
With degree in hand and four years of basketball in her scrapbook, she then wants to return to the rez.
“I want to come back and help Native youth because we don’t have the opportunities to get training that people outside the reservation get,” she says. "I want to be someone the younger generation looks up to.”
Says Camille: “It would be the most awesome-est thing. I have faith in her. I know she can do it.”
When she does, another trail of tears will no doubt fall from the family tree. But for a daughter who has, as her father put it, “lived the roughest side of life and the most positive side of life,” they will be tears of joy for hoop and other dreams fulfilled.