It's a Wednesday afternoon, and Malia Kipp is on the road, picking up a kid from school -- just like a lot of Montana moms. But she may be the only one with a documentary about her life coming to PBS this November, for Native American Heritage Month.
Playing Native Ball on PBS
Starting Nov. 1, the half-hour Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer, produced by Family Theater Productions -- in partnership with MontanaPBS -- airs on PBS stations nationwide, along with streaming at PBS.org, and at the PBS YouTube page.
It expands on a story told in FTP's Emmy®-winning feature-length documentary The House That Rob Built. Released in 2020, that film profiled coach Rob Selvig, who recruited Kipp to play basketball for the Lady Griz of the University of Montana.
Native Ball also comes from the same production team, including producer Megan Harrington, who co-directed with Jonathan Cipiti.
Check out the trailer for Native Ball:
Who Is Malia Kipp?
A member of the Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation borders Canada in northwestern Montana, Kipp was a true trailblazer.
In 1992, only one of the roughly 5,000 American high-school girls who, that year, received a full-ride Division I basketball scholarship, was a Native American: Kipp. As a member of the Lady Griz, Kipp faced challenges when she left the reservation to go to the city of Missoula.
Kipp had to learn to live in two worlds, but she carried the burden with grace and grit.
In the Showbiz Spotlight
After months of film festivals and screenings for Native Ball, Kipp has also had to deal with a growing public appreciation and celebrity status -- something she hasn't had since her playing days.
"It makes me uncomfortable," she says. "At the time, when this was all happening, when I was going to school and playing ball, I was just going to school to play basketball.
"It's nice to have recognition, and people saying, 'Thank you,' or, 'You inspired me.' And that's really humbling at the same time, as a privilege, as well. But yeah, that's just kind of how I feel about it.
"I never boasted about my accomplishments, what I did. So one thing I always thought of is, you don't have to talk about yourself. If you're good enough, people will talk about you.
"And, so, my mom and dad always say, 'You're too modest.' I'm like, 'What am I supposed to say? Hey, look at me. I did this, and I did that?' No, that's never been who I am."
Making History Just by Living Her Story
Kipp's success on the court and off, in high school and then in college, has inspired many other young Native American athletes -- and earned Kipp the honor of being called a "warrior" by her chief.
But for Kipp, it was about finding what gave her joy.
"Like I said to Megan," she says, "everybody has a story. Everybody has their story, and they're all precious. We all have those hurdles and trying moments.
"No one said that life would be easy, but it'll be worth if, if you do what you want to do in your heart.
"You have those people that are going to tell you, even your family, 'No, I think you should do this.' But if you do what makes you happy, and they can see that you're happy, you will be happy."
Growing up with sports-loving brothers and cousins, Kipp always played basketball, but her parents never forced it on her. She has the same philosophy with her own four children.
Says Kipp, "I've always been the biggest cheerleader for my kids, in response to whatever makes them happy, what keeps them driven, what keeps them in school."
Taking the First Step Into a Larger World
Going from her small town on the reservation to a big university was a culture shock -- but Kipp persevered.
Here's a clip from the PBS homepage for Native Ball:
Regarding how she managed to see it through, Kipp says, "You have to be passionate about it. I was.
"It was something I always wanted to do when I first saw the Lady Griz play, and I was like, 'What?' No one ever, ever talked to me about, 'You're good enough, you can play ball after high school.'
"Even after Lady Griz, I played independent ball every time I had the opportunity to do so.
"With that opportunity, it exposed me to diversity, which is great for everybody, learning about our world and other people."
And one more clip:
Participating in the Legacy of Native Basketball
The Lady Griz aren't the first women's basketball team to catch the attention of Montana, or the world. Back in 1903, the girls' team from the Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School were invited to play at the St. Louis World's Fair.
The girls played fund-raising games en route to St. Louis, often encountering anti-Indian attitudes among the spectators.
At the fair, they divided up for 5-on-5 exhibition games before captivated audiences, while across the street male athletes competed for medals at the Third Olympiad. Late in the summer, when they received an invitation to stage an exhibition game at the Olympics, the girls played before thousands of cheering spectators.
By the close of the fair, the girls from Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School in Montana were being celebrated as the basketball champions of the world. They sealed that title with back-to-back victories against a Missouri all-star team, the only team to brave a competition.
MontanaPBS produced a documentary about the Fort Shaw team, called Playing for the World, which aired on PBS in 2010. You can watch the whole thing here, but if you look closely and also scrutinize the credits, you may see a familiar face and name.
Kipp, a new mom at the time, was recruited alongside her sister and some other Native players to participate in recreations for the film.
"It was hard," she recalls, "because I was still breastfeeding, and I had to go all day in this wool, old-school uniform. Everything authentic. And then, having to shoot the ball like they used to shoot it."
But All This Is Nothing New
As I wrote in this blog earlier this year, talking about Kipp and others being honored at a Nike game in Missoula, part of the company's N7 initiative to recognize Indigenous athletes:
Native Americans have a long association with basketball, beginning with its introduction into government and missionary-operated boarding schools in the late 19th century.
Native players have even developed a fast-paced, specific form of basketball, nicknamed Rez Ball (short for reservation basketball) -- and teen athletes have taken those quick skills into school sports.
Netflix took notice, with the 2019 documentary, Basketball or Nothing, following the Chinle High team in Arizona's Navajo Nation on a quest for a state championship.
Now, a production company owned by NBA superstar LeBron James is working on a fictional adaptation, also for Netflix, called Rez Ball.
In Native Ball, Kipp states, "Basketball? I think it was in my genes."
Says Kipp, "One thing that Native ball really does, is, it's run and gun. We go fast, and we go hard. And defense is number one. You win games with defense. I didn't score a lot of points for the Lady Griz, but I started because I was a good defensive player."
The Importance of Family
Through it all, Kipp had the rock of community and family to lean on, especially her grandmother.
"My gram," she says, "good, solid person. She passed away. I went home and provided hospice care for her.
"She was my person. And I could call her anytime, and it was always when I was down, and she always gave me a pep talk.
"She was really focused, just religious and adamant about it. And she said that, what I stated in my film, is that God doesn't put things in front of us -- or the Creator or whomever -- to break us.
"They can't just ask anybody, they're asking you to do it. That was the mindset that I had, is that I was chosen for a reason, and it's a privilege."
Click here to learn more about Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer and how you can see it on PBS this November.
Image: Malia Kipp/Family Theater Productions
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.