Cover Image: Canyon Dreams

Canyon Dreams

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Member Reviews

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

"Nothing about a basketball season is easy. Neither is life," says Raul Mendoza, who has coached "rez ball" for four decades, the only living reservation coach with a state championship ring. He heads the Wildcats of Chinle High School, the largest school on the Navajo reservation in Apache County, Ariz.

In Canyon Dreams, sports journalist Michael Powell recounts time spent with the Wildcats during their quest for a championship. Powell was drawn to the story after living near Chinle 25 years earlier, where he entered a pickup game and ended up feeling that he'd been "caught in the wrong lane with Olympic marathon runners."

Powell merges the profile of Mendoza with that of his players and their environs, set against the backdrop of the community and Navajo history. "The grip of hoops on the Navajo psyche" is plain, and the pressure and hunger to win comes across as an insistent, immutable ache. Some 4,000 people live in Chinle. On game nights, 5,000 crowd the Wildcat Den, seated in a hierarchy as formalized as a royal court.

Mendoza's job is bigger than coaching. He counsels teenagers "perched on that precarious cliff wall" between adolescence and manhood, soon facing the decision of whether to leave their Navajo world. Survival is a question on either side, with reservation life marked by alcoholism, unplanned pregnancies, domestic abuse, suicide and troubling bureaucracy. Powell's immersion in the people and their traditions is heartfelt and lyrical, tied to the land and culture that leave kids to ponder "Can I leave this? I don't know yet. It's my puzzle."
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Chinle, Arizona, Navajo nation where basketball offers much to players and their family, fans. This sport is King here and coaches come and go. They are expected to win. So, yes the sport is a big part of this book, and the authors descriptions of the matches, some of the both exciting. Mostly basketball, but not all. This is also a look at those who live on the reservation, the lives of the players, present and last, and the teachers and others who try to make a difference.

The author does a fantastic job, interviewing a wide range of people. Aunties, uncles, those clinging to the old ways and those trying to embrace the new. Poverty, bad habits, lack of opportunity keep many of these people at or below the poverty level. Despite this, the reservation is their home and many who leave return and some never leave at all.  Cultural practices are noted, the games with possible curses, between the Apache and Navajo are outworldly. Superstition rules!

Also part memoir as the author chronicles his own experiences in Chile, a place and a part of the cou try he came to fully embrace. So, this can't and shouldn't be written off as just another sports book. It is indeed, so much more.
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As a long-time resident of Southwest Colorado I have made numerous journeys through the Navajo reservation. It is a land of breath-taking beauty, and in places, extreme poverty. Isolation, limited employment opportunities, homelessness, and a predisposition to alcoholism can make for a very harsh and bleak life, but basketball unites far-flung communities and provides hope across the reservation. There, basketball is a passion and has been for generations.

“Canyon Dreams” tells the story of the Chinle high school boys basketball team’s attempt to become state champions, but that’s only a part of the story. Michael Powell immerses the reader in a richly detailed exploration of Navajo history, culture, spirituality, and the landscape of this vast and sparsely populated area of the US. He is a talented sports writer, but it’s this immersion in the Navajo world and people that make this book so remarkable. Highly recommended.

My review was posted on Goodreads on 12/12/19
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Canyon Dreams is, on it's face, about the championship dreams of a high school basketball team from Chinle, Arizona, a school that is the largest high school on the Navajo Nation reservation that spans several states in the area. 

What is truly special about this book, though, is the way Michael Powell weaves Navajo history and culture within the narrative of one basketball season for one somewhat legendary coach and his group of teenaged boys. The reader learns about life on the reservation, where alcoholism is still endemic, where many residents do not have reliable indoor water or electricity, and where there are few jobs paying much more than minimum wage. The reader also learns about how European and American colonialism impacted the history and culture of the once expansive Navajo people, from where they live, to the forced placement of Navajo children into far away white schools, to the fascinating way in which many Navajo intertwine traditional beliefs with the many sects of Christianity that have historically attempted to convert the Navajo. 

In the end, I felt this book was beautifully written and I learned so much about the Navajo people. For someone looking for straight sports writing, this may not be what you're looking for, but I encourage everyone to give this one ago, especially if you live in a country where indigenous populations have been subjugated to the will of colonizers and continue to exist.
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Rez ball is the slashing, quicker-than-lightning game played by Natives Americans across the nation… a game of passions, rivalries, and a lot of swagger. Author Michael Powell had spent several years living on a reservation and traveled back to write about this sport and its connection to the culture, its land, and its people. Spanning one season, he writes about the ups and downs of the young men on the Chinle High School team in northern Arizona.

Powell’s lens is constantly changing focus to get context and background for the team and the Navajo as a nation. Land politics, racism, moving off the rez, and alcoholism are just a few of the conflicts he weaves into the narrative. There are the dramatic scenes told from the stands at game time or the beauty of a sunrise told from the bottom of a creosote-filled canyon. Coach Mendoza is a grizzled veteran of the hardcourt who may be seeing his age separate himself from relevancy in his player’s minds, but he finds ways to motivate and connect with his players. And those players have struggles that make it difficult to focus on the game with the many distraction brought on by youth and living in unstable households.

I read Pounding the Rock by Mark Skelton last year and see so many similarities between the books. Vastly different settings and population, but both show the camaraderie and the power of sport in a tough environment that lacks stable homes and economic opportunities. Obviously, because Skelton is the coach he has limited distance from the subject, and Powell shows that it’s terribly difficult to remain objective when one cares so much about his subject. I was not disappointed in the least and thought that this added greatly to the narrative. He cares about these players, their families, the coaches and the whole of the Navajo nation.

Canyon Dreams is an excellent piece of sports nonfiction. Pick this book up for a portrait of resilient young men, a driven coach, and that exciting game called Rez Ball.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley, Penguin, and Michael Powell for an advanced copy for review.
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Basketball has achieved a following across the world and as Michael Powell illustrates in Canyon Dreams, the sport’s influence has managed to seep into the cultural fabric of the isolated and rugged terrain of the Navajo Nation in the American southwest. The book provides a snapshot of life on “the rez” through following a season with the Chinle High School basketball team. Though the basic premise of “a year with a high school team that has some interesting characteristic” is standard for the sports genre, Powell elevates above the mini-genre by taking more of a sociological approach to his subject. Canyon Dreams is really a nuanced and detailed depiction of Navajo Nation life, where understanding “rez ball” and the passion it inspires is essential to understanding Navajo life. 

The central figure in Canyon Dreams is Raul Mendoza, Chinle’s septuagenarian and old-school coach who is equal parts mentor/surrogate father and basketball tactician. He’s certainly not the only high school basketball coach fitting that description, but what makes Mendoza especially compelling is that he has achieved this success largely through coaching undersized teams composed of athletes from local tribes. Not only do many of his players have to contend with alcoholism, drugs, and poverty impacting their families  but they are also generally much smaller than their competition across the state. 

Powell embedded himself in the Chinle community while writing the book and spends plenty of time with Mendova and gets to know everyone on the roster through extended interviews and home visits and accompanying the team on some of its interminable bus rides across the state. Basketball is hugely popular in the Navajo nation (Chinle has 4,500 residents but its basketball gymnasium accommodates 7,000 and is always packed with all members of the community during games), but Powell also profiles former Chinle players and the school’s valedictorian to shed light on the challenges that face those who leave the rez and the pressures many deal with to remain within the community even if there might be brighter prospects elsewhere. There are some long stretches of the book without any basketball action where Powell documents life on the rez, hiking its canyons, visiting the trailers and hogans where most residents live, and driving by the stretches of liquor stores that are pockmarked across its roads, and these were my favorite portions of the book. Chinle’s basketball exploits were reasonably entertaining and Powell writes about them well (though like many sportswriters he occasionally falls victim to some pretty weak and forced metaphors), but he really uses basketball as a springboard to explore greater Navajo culture, and this made Canyon Dreams a particularly engaging read for me. 

Powell is a writer for the New York Times and his book reads much like an extended version of one of the paper’s Sports of the Times columns. This shouldn’t be surprising given the book developed out of a 2017 profile of Mendoza Powell wrote for the New York Times for that exact column. With its broad scope, there is definitely enough quality material to sustain a full book and there wasn’t any padding. Overall, Canyon Dreams is a fascinating look at a culture that will be unfamiliar to most readers and I’d expect it to end up as one of my favorite sports books from 2019. 

8.5/10
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This book is well-written. The author, the coaches, and the boys on the team have interesting stories. It fits in well with other sports-themed books about people outside mainstream reporting. I enjoyed adding this to my list of books about life on the reservations.
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On a native American reservation in northern Arizona, there is a small patch of land where Chinle High School sits. However, nearly everyone on the 17.5 million acre reservation knows about the school because of its basketball team. At the school and the surrounding community, the game and the team are a passion.  The love of the game has been passed down for generations. Journalist Michael Powell follows the team for one season and his observations are the basis for this excellent book. 

Basketball is only a part of the story. Powell intertwines stories from many different Navajo people – young and old, male and female, players and spectators, even the coach himself – in order to illustrate much about life on the reservation for everyone as well as the excellent basketball played at the school and on the playgrounds where it is known as “rez ball.”

The reader will learn about the hardships endured, the traditions and respect for nature embedded in Navajo culture and oh, yes, how important the basketball games are for everyone, not just the players.  The perspectives of the players are also interesting lessons in the conflicts they face – do they work on their games in the hope of gaining a college scholarship?  By doing so, they will have to live life outside of the reservation, something many of them have never experienced, but on the other hand, many see no hope for improvement in their lives if they stay. 

Powell writes with equal excellence about basketball and native American culture, both the beautiful and the ugly. I found this mixture an excellent narrative about the entire culture fascinating and when the Wildcats kept winning and kept advancing, I couldn’t help but cheer them on as hard as I would for my favorite college or professional teams. Any reader interested in native American culture as well as basketball should add this one to their library. 

I wish to thank Blue Rider Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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This story follows the Navajo Chinle High School basketball team.  A place where basketball is a passion.  Thousands of fans and family drive hours to see their team compete.  This moving story is about more than a basketball team.   We get a small glimpse into the enormously challenges the players and their families must face.  We are witness to the struggles the Navajo face. Threatened with cultural genocide and territorial displacement, they struggle to keep their culture, their language, and their people alive.  The boys on the team have difficult decisions to make.  Do they leave their land for college?  Will they survive in a world of discrimination and racism outside of their reservation?  If they leave, will they ever be able to return?  This book is a must read.
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