Basketball players at Taholah High School dream of success on the court while staying true to tribal traditions.
THE SONG IS about power, the kind that burns from within.
Legend tells of a Quinault ancestor who danced within the fire, who rolled around in the flames. He could pick up coals, brilliant orange with heat, and eat them, too. His power came from that fire in his belly, hot embers forever smoldering beneath the surface.
That’s the story Levi Jackson tells before each game when he tilts his head back and bursts into song.
Fifteen minutes before tipoff of every Taholah High School boys basketball game, Jackson’s teammates circle tightly around him, collective energy rising from the moment he hits his first note. On the road, the ritual is treated with curiosity — sometimes even with suspicion. Inside their home gym, though, it is as much a part of the Taholah hoops experience as the Chitwhins’ run-and-gun offense.
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Even for those without an understanding of the Quinault language, the emotion in Jackson’s song is obvious. It is guttural, rhythmic, evocative. Students take videos on their cellphones. Some family members clap along to the beat, and others close their eyes.
On a night in late January, fires sufficiently stoked after Jackson’s song, the Chitwhins defeat Lake Quinault, 100-14, on Senior Night. The comically lopsided final score serves only to embolden murmurs already building around the village: that this team, with its 17-2 record and earlier takedown of defending champion Neah Bay, might be the group to finally win a proud program’s first state basketball title.
Their pursuit is only part of the story.
TAHOLAH STARTS WITH four seniors in its lineup, each of whom stands with a bouquet of flowers, surrounded by a semicircle of family members during Senior Night ceremonies.
Jackson, whose white headband holds back a flowing mop of dark hair, is the unquestioned leader. He’s the player teammates look to whenever they’re in trouble. Terrance Jones, No. 23, is the big man, notable for his wide smile and high basketball IQ.
Tom Anderson, the point guard, is distinguished off the court by his clam-digging skills. He and Jackson often go hunting and fishing together to break up the monotony of small-town life.
“If that ain’t happening, there’s nothing much to do,” Anderson says. It’s a sentiment echoed by most of his teammates.
Brett Orozco is the only senior starter who didn’t grow up on the Quinault Reservation. A member of the Squaxin Island Tribe, he and his little brother bounced around the foster-care system from Bellevue to Shelton before being adopted by a family in Taholah. The others, having played next to each other almost from the time they could walk, were skeptical of the outsider at first. Then they saw him shoot.
The experienced senior core is vital, a trademark of small-school contenders everywhere. You can see their hard-won chemistry in the way they play off each other, in the cross-court passes to wide-open teammates.
They reached the state tournament in Spokane in 2016 but were knocked out by Neah Bay in the first round, a new taste that left all of them desirous of more.
Junior forward Zach Cain, the fifth starter, is a reason state-championship talk is more than just a far-fetched adolescent pipe dream. Cain is tall and lanky, assets that are precious commodities at the Class 1B level. He spends most of the second half of the Lake Quinault game trying out a series of increasingly outlandish breakaway dunks.
If second-year coach Mike Rose has a cause for concern, it is that this team has been fattened up by an easy schedule during a down year for its league. He’s worried about his players’ ability to find that fire when they’re forced to dig deep against better teams. He wonders whether he’ll be able to rein in their freewheeling instincts when it counts.
Up 97-14 with less than a minute to go, Rose calls a timeout to pre-empt yet another Cain breakaway dunk. The coach breaks his huddle with a simple message: no three-point shots. We’ve already embarrassed these guys enough.
Off the inbounds pass, sure enough, one of his substitutes immediately lets fly from well beyond the arc — nothing but net. Rose just shakes his head. Amid the wild celebrations on the bench, only Orozco looks at all conflicted about how the visiting Elks must feel about all of this.
“I guess I just have a soft heart,” Orozco says.
Taholah wins five straight after the Lake Quinault game, including a 29-point victory over Naselle in the regionals that books its ticket to the state tournament. The Chitwhins won a small-school, eight-man football championship in 1997, but for all their consistent success on the hardwood, they’ve never so much as played in a title game.
“That’s been all of our dreams,” Orozco says. “This year could be the year.
“Ah, man. It would be amazing. Everybody would be so happy. There would probably be a parade.”
SENIOR NIGHT IS an ending of sorts, and the beginning of something else. It’s a time for both celebration and introspection.
Orozco plans on attending Grays Harbor College this fall. He wants to be a carpenter or an electrician, working with his hands. Though he’s starting in Aberdeen, one day he hopes to end up in Olympia. Anderson and Jones also plan on going to Grays Harbor: Anderson to major in criminal justice or environmental protection, Jones to study HVAC work.
Jackson plans to take a year off to work for his dad’s construction company before going to school in Portland in pursuit of a heavy-equipment operating license.
They share a common goal: leaving Taholah, at least for a little while.
Physically, the town is breathtakingly beautiful. Located on the western edge of the state, its streets back up right onto the beach. The Pacific Ocean spreads wide in front of you, with rocky outcroppings jutting from the shore.
Taholah is also isolated: 30 miles of winding highway north from Ocean Shores, the nearest town of any consequence. There is but one restaurant in the village, built into the back of the general store and with a specialty in fried fish. Though the residents take pride in their self-sustainability, options for making a living here are scarce.
“It’s definitely very peaceful,” Jackson says. “For me, I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’m kind of bored of it. I’m tired of it being peaceful. I want to get out and see the world and try something new.”
Carl Jackson, Levi’s father, understands the impulse to get out and expand horizons beyond the boundaries of the Quinault Reservation.
Carl joined the Marine Corps after high school, seeing action in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1990, and also at bases all over Southeast Asia. His first two years in the service, he thought he was going to re-enlist.
“Then my last two years, I just wanted to come home,” Carl says. “You grow up in a little village like this, all you want to do is get out and see the world. I did that and realized, you know, what we have here is pretty special.”
Carl says he missed the natural wonder of the place, the woods where he hunted during his youth and the waters he used to fish. He missed Taholah’s community spirit, the feeling that everybody has everybody else’s backs.
More than anything, he longed for the unique culture of his people — the singing, the dancing, the canoe trips and the potlatches. Basketball is part of all this, too, as evidenced by the outdoor hoops sagging over just about every side street in town.
That cultural appreciation was something he was careful to instill in his two boys, first Cleve and then Levi, who then inspired a similar appreciation in their classmates.
“As these kids grow,” Carl says, “they might branch out a little bit. But that part will always be there. At some point, something will click in their head.
“They’ll be reminiscing about some game, and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, remember when we used to sing before those games?’ ”
THIS GROUP OF Chitwhins is more culturally aware than most of its predecessors.
To some extent, that’s to the credit of Carl’s generation, which helped stoke a revival and then passed those passions on to their children.
“It has really lit a fire again on who we are,” Carl says.
It’s also due to the fact that the school’s league disbanded rather than keep playing against Taholah while this current senior class was in middle school.
Citing unsportsmanlike conduct and safety concerns for traveling fans and athletes while playing at Taholah, four of the six schools in the Coastal 1B League opted to voluntarily disband and become independent in December 2012. They also voted to exclude Taholah from postseason play for a calendar year.
The WIAA overturned that playoff ban on appeal. A few months later, the Quinault Indian Nation filed a complaint under the Civil Rights Act, alleging racial discrimination.
“We felt that it was prejudicial against us,” Rose says. “They didn’t want to play us. Maybe it was because they were getting beat so badly by us all the time.”
Though the league has since reconsolidated, lingering hurt feelings from the ugly episode remain. This current group of players remembers having to travel hours at a time to Yakima or North Seattle just to get middle-school games.
“Most of it was due to racism from those other schools,” says Keanu Curleybear, a former Chitwhins player who is now an assistant coach. “It definitely picked up our intensity.”
Put it this way: When Levi Jackson is bellowing his pregame song in unfamiliar territory, he and the rest of the Chitwhins are acutely aware of how they are being perceived. Rather than mute the differences that make them stand out from most of their opponents, Taholah’s players take pride in them.
Their jerseys have a feather pattern etched up the side as homage to their native art. Instead of toning down the high-octane style of play long characteristic of reservation basketball — an uncompromising stance that Rose feared could prove their downfall at the state tournament — they push tempo from start to finish.
That 86-point rout of Lake Quinault might seem excessive. But few in Taholah have forgotten that Lake Quinault was one of the four schools that voted to blow up the league to avoid having to play in Taholah’s gym.
“Most people just represent their school,” Orozco says. “We represent our school. We represent our community. We represent our families, and we represent the tribe.”
THE MORNING BEFORE the Class 1B state tournament, a team bus inched out of Taholah full of players dreaming about the celebration that would greet their triumphant return. The parade route would snake through the few streets that make up downtown and edge past the mercantile before coming to a rest at the edge of the Pacific.
The bus came back from Spokane a few days later with little fanfare.
The tournament draw had been unkind. Taholah, the No. 9 seed despite its 22-2 record, thanks to its weak league competition, would have to face top-seeded and defending champion Neah Bay. The loser was out.
But hey, hadn’t they knocked off the Red Devils back in December? And if there is one thing this team does not lack, it is boundless self-belief.
Taholah kept things close for the better part of a half. In the third quarter, though, its shooting went cold. Anderson and Orozco struggled to establish their usual rhythm, and Cain was held mostly in check. Neah Bay raced out to a big lead the Chitwhins would never make a serious dent in.
They were left with much of the final quarter to come to grips with the inevitability of their 66-51 loss, but elimination still came suddenly. Especially for seniors, the end feels a long way off until the moment it rises up to meet you.
“You’re never going to feel the same way you did when you played high-school basketball,” Levi says. “Nothing is going to be the same after that. You’re never going to put the jersey on again. And that’s what breaks my heart the most.”
And yet, even in a sleepy little town like Taholah, life moves on.
Levi is the defending 1B state champion in the javelin, and he’s thrown himself into track and field this spring. This year’s senior trip, coming up in July, is to Cancún. That ambitious plan was unsurprisingly concocted by Levi, who also has taken a leading role in fundraising for it.
Soon enough, whether he realizes it yet or not, he’ll have moved on — both from his high-school basketball career and Taholah itself, carrying lessons from them both.
“It made me realize that if you want something, you have to go get it,” Levi says. “You have to work for whatever you want. That’s what I’m doing now — I’m working to be a successful young man, to get out of here, do something with my life and make my people proud.”
HARD AS IT might be to imagine now looking at the prideful, confident young man he’s become, Levi used to be too shy to sing in public. His role in the pregame ritual was sort of thrust upon him by Cleve’s graduation before Levi’s freshman year.
Getting comfortable on a more public stage is something of a rite of passage in these parts.
“They can all sing when they’re by themselves,” Carl says. “It’s getting them to that point of being OK with who they are in front of a crowd.”
The most powerful visual from Taholah’s brief stay at the state tournament wasn’t in the postgame tears, but in a pregame ritual on as grand a stage as the Chitwhins have ever performed.
Hundreds of miles from Taholah’s tiny gym on the coast, head back and chest puffed wide, Levi looked right at home.
“These kids are embracing who they are,” Carl says. “And they’re not ashamed of it.
“That’s the proudest moment: when they can stand up and show the world who they are, and it don’t matter.”
The song is about power, the kind that burns from within. And even if that fire shined for only one night in Spokane, each of the Chitwhins will carry part of it with him for the rest of his life.