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Former Lady Griz Malia Kipp's trailblazing story still inspiring for Native American teammates

Malia Kipp
Posted at 7:25 PM, Nov 28, 2023

MISSOULA — Malia Kipp graduated from Browning High School in 1992.

A few months later, she broke barriers at the University of Montana, becoming the first Montana Tribal member to play NCAA Division I women’s basketball on a full-ride scholarship.

“Her initially being Native American just paved the way for all of us,” said Shanae Gilham, who is Kipp’s cousin and eventually followed in her footsteps from Browning to the Lady Griz. “Seeing her being a Native American female that makes it at a DI level, that just opened up a whole new door for all of us.”

Kipp played four seasons for the Lady Griz, wrapping up her college basketball career in 1996. But her story has outlived her playing days and was recently commemorated and celebrated in the documentary, “Native Ball: Legacy of a Trailblazer”. The award-winning film is co-produced by former Lady Griz basketball player Megan Harrington.

“I always think about how awesome it is for Malia to be able to reflect on her story being seen, of her journey being told and people being able to experience it,” Harrington said. “To see her story go out into the world, for Native Americans — especially for these ladies who I love because they’re part of the Lady Griz family — to be recognized, for me, it really doesn’t get any better, I don’t think, than to see all their efforts be rewarded in a film.”

Still, Kipp is a reluctant hero, preferring to deflect praise and instead recognize the people in her life who helped her be successful.

“I had teammates that were really supportive and then people back home that would drive all that way (to games). My mom and dad didn’t ever miss a home game,” she said. “And then kiddos and families from other reservations that were close, I would always see them in the stands. That helped me a lot.”

Many of those kiddos looked up to Kipp, who as a young adult was showing them what was possible for a child who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.

And it wasn’t just about opening the door at Montana — it was about kicking it down and finishing what she started with the Lady Griz.

“It didn’t really hit until maybe my junior year that I was like, ‘OK, you need to continue.’ I kind of found my voice and my confidence at that point, so just continuing to represent and be a good role model for whoever,” Kipp said.

Kipp started a pipeline from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to Missoula, with three players following in her footsteps: Simarron Schildt played for the Lady Griz from 1998-2002, Tamara Guardipee from 2005-09 and Gilham from 2012-15.

“It just put it as a possibility in my own head,” Schildt said. “And I think one of the best things you can give another human is hope or inspiration, and that’s what she was to me and to the entire reservation.”

For the “Native Ball” documentary, Kipp met with Schildt, Guardipee and Gilham for a roundtable discussion. While talking about their experiences at Montana, they mentioned the challenges of living in two worlds — the familial, inter-generational community in which they grew up on the reservation and the lack of understanding they felt in the bigger, unfamiliar world at Missoula.

“It’s like having to be two people, and nobody understands, because growing up on the reservation is so, so, so different. It was like an island in itself,” Schildt said. “And you leave that environment and it’s a shock, and so you still have that part in you and you also have to exist in this new bigger world that doesn’t make sense at all. It felt very isolating to be playing as a freshman. Yeah, I had a really hard time. It was shocking culturally, emotionally, geographically.”

“No one knew what we were going through, but everyone before me went through it as well. Now I know I wasn’t alone,” said Guardipee. “It was awesome. Awesome feeling to know that I wasn’t the only Native American lost on the university the first year, so it was nice to know that.”

The university has done more in recent years to honor Native American athletes and their heritage, including hosting its first N7 basketball games last year. The N7 program is a Nike initiative that aims to inspire and enable Native American youth to participate in sports.

“That game was super impactful to me,” Schildt said. “That experience changed something in me, and I’m not sure why. It felt like it was like a ceremonial thing, like we were accepted in. I can’t explain it, but something in me shifted being able to be recognized with my other Native teammates, and it was a huge honor. It was amazing to be part of.”

From the basketball court in Missoula to the screen for “Native Ball”, Montana’s Native American athletes are getting the recognition they’ve earned. Not only did “Native Ball” stream on PBS.org throughout November in recognition of Native American Heritage Month, cities across Montana held screenings to engage the public and showcase Kipp's impact.

“It’s been a blessing,” Kipp said. “I feel really privileged that Megan chose — everybody has a story — but Megan chose to tell my story, and how she told my story, I’m really proud of it.”