Brothers on Three: A True Story of Family, Resistance, and Hope on a Reservation in Montana is the true story of the Arlee Warriors, a high school basketball team from the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, and their championship seasons amidst a suicide cluster in their community.
Celadon Books sat down with author Abe Streep to discuss his journey in reporting and writing this incredible story.
In 2018, you wrote The New York Times Magazine feature “What the Arlee Warriors Were Playing For” — about a high school basketball team on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation and their championship win — which was the launching pad for writing Brothers on Three. When did you know that the Arlee Warriors had a larger story to tell?
It was clear from early in my reporting that an article — even an expansive one, with the space the Times Magazine’s editors generously afforded — was only going to be able to say so much. The 2017-18 season, which I chronicled, was astonishing. The team won a championship while three starters were extremely ill. On top of that, using viral videos, the Warriors dedicated their performance to youth who were struggling with depression at a time when the reservation was grappling with a suicide cluster that had directly affected the team. It is hard to overstate what this team meant to the community, the Flathead Indian Reservation and, eventually, places far beyond. The Warriors’ games were gathering places that turned into expressions of pride, community and self-determination in the face of great historical forces. This team was stunning, overwhelming opponents on its own terms. They never lost. Shortly after my magazine story published, some of those historical forces set in — especially when it came to certain players’ college prospects. The team was flooded with attention due to their videos, some of it good, some of it complicating. I see excellence in these kids and I knew the story was not complete. There was also much more to examine about the place we now call Montana, a state that occupies a singular and sometimes misguided place in the national imagination. I was torn. I felt pulled to move forward with reporting and was also unsure if I should do so, given that I was an outsider to this community. Ultimately, I followed the lead of the boys and their families. It became a book when the young men who are at the story’s heart told me they wanted it to be one.
Tell us about your research process and how long you spent with the Arlee Warriors, while writing this book.
I started reporting in the spring of 2017. It was about three years of reporting and writing and another year of editing and fact-checking. I’ve got hundreds of hours of recorded interviews and audio tapes of basketball practices, an ongoing membership to a streaming network that lets me watch old Warriors playoff games, a file of college box scores, a shelf full of 44 reporting notebooks, and a lot of history books and academic papers. The texts about the geologic history of Western Montana it turned out I did not need, but the works by the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee, Debra Magpie Earling, Robert J. Bigart, and Ronald Trosper, to name a few, were essential. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the amount of time I spent in Arlee was miniscule in the grand scheme of things. I could spend my life there and not fully understand. Throughout the reporting, I anchored myself with something John Malatare, the father of one of the team’s stars, told me: “It was about these boys.” I tried to follow their lead, to ask for help, to admit when I messed up and, ultimately, to convey what happened during this short period of time when I was welcomed.
In Brothers on Three, you’re open about the simmering tensions between the reservation community and the press. What was your relationship like with the players and their families, as you were working to tell their story?
There’s an unfortunate American tradition of outsiders misrepresenting Indian Country while simultaneously trying to profit from it. I so desperately wanted to not be, as one person put it, “another one of those.” But that’s not for me to decide. The people I wrote about chose to welcome and trust me, each perhaps having their own reason for doing so. I cannot express my level of respect for the young people — and families — who took this risk with me because they believed the story of this remarkable team belongs in the world. My relationships with the families are close, complex, and ours.
As a long-time journalist, you’ve covered a range of topics from natural disasters and environmental impact to refugee resettlements and minor-league sports. How did the Arlee Warriors’ story impact you differently than the rest?
I’m not sure it’s fair to compare any book to magazine reporting. Reporters leave magazine stories behind at a certain point. For me, that is not the case with Arlee. When I was debating whether or not to write the book, someone I trust told me that, if I did so, it would likely prove to be a commitment for life. That person was right, and I’m grateful for it.
How do you think your New York Times Magazine story impacted the players you profiled?
I can’t and won’t speak for them. I know it increased exposure, and I know that journalism doesn’t exist in a vacuum — there can be a whole spectrum of results that come from that. I hope they felt like the story conveyed some truths, including how powerful this team was.
Although Brothers on Three is rooted in basketball, the story goes far beyond the court. What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I hope that readers in Arlee, Montana, recognize themselves in the book and find it honest, respectful and human. I hope that readers who are less familiar with this place and the issues in the book might find themselves surprised, and that they might question certain expectations or assumptions about success, community, and purpose. I hope people laugh a little bit, because these kids—young men, now—are awesome and funny. I hope certain issues about inequity and representation in college basketball are examined closely within Montana, and that the next generation of Arlee Warriors finds a more level court once they leave high school. And I hope readers enjoy getting to spend time with one of the most thrilling basketball teams to ever take a court. Greg Whitesell, one of the Warriors’ guards, recently said to me that he just feels bad for people who didn’t get to see them play. I laughed out loud. That was nothing but the truth.