Class of 2017 high school graduate Kiah Charlie has made Scammon Bay history. She’s the first student from the Yukon village to receive a college basketball scholarship and to sign a letter of intent to play with a college team. The accomplishment comes after a decade of hard work from Kiah and her community.
“My dad called me out of one of my classes and told me to go see him in his office,” said Kiah, describing the day she signed her letter. Her dad is the head of maintenance at the Scammon Bay school.
“And then he let me read the contract, and he was like, ‘Okay, put your initials here, here, and here, and sign.’ And I started laughing, and then I signed it, and he said, ‘You’re all set, I think we made a wise choice.’”
She signed the contract at the end of April, a few weeks before graduating with a 3.59 GPA. In the fall she’ll be heading to Skagit College in Mount Vernon, Washington. There she will be one of many, but in Scammon Bay she is the first in history to go to college on a basketball scholarship.
“I was really excited, thinking, 'How can I be the first one?'' she said. "And then I started thinking how the young kids could look up to me and could eventually get a full scholarship, too. You just have to work hard for it.”
Kiah’s dad, Richard Charlie, says that he’s in “awe” of his daughter.
“Everything is paid for except room and board, and that usually doesn’t happen that way for any kids out here," he said.
Kiah had a choice of which school to play for. Offers came from Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington. In the end, she chose the one closest to home.
Steve Epperson will be Kiah’s coach at Skagit.
“I’m graduating seven of my top eight players," said Epperson, "and both of my point guards, and she’s the best point guard I’ve seen this year.”
Epperson watched multiple films of the 5'4" player and recruited her for point guard and shooting guard. He says that his assistant coach was in the bleachers in Anchorage this spring, watching Kiah lead her team to win a consecutive state championship.
“She’s a great ball handler, a really good passer, and just a terrific shooter. She’s got all the tools necessary to be a really good player in our league,” said Epperson of his new recruit.
These tools came from a decade of Kiah working hard on the court and in the classroom. They also came from a strategy that the community of Scammon Bay committed to a decade ago to make their kids better basketball players.
Assistant Principal and High School Boys basketball coach Harvey Sundown led the movement.
“Because we got our butts kicked up at Point Hope when we went up there one year. So in my mind I said, ‘No more. No more of is this going to happen,'” said Sundown, telling the story of how it all began.
Sundown started summer basketball camps, bringing a college coach to Scammon Bay every July to lead them. The Traditional Council and other community groups provided funding, and Sundown encouraged the surrounding villages to develop their own camps. Many of them did.
“It would better their play, and it would better our play, because we’d play against very good competition,” he said.
Sundown would leave the gym open at night during the summer so kids could practice. He’d take teams to Phoenix, Arizona for the Native American Basketball Invitational to expose them to more competition.
The strategy worked. The teams got better. Much better. This year, the high school girls won state for the second year in a row. The boys were runners-up and have won the district championship seven times. And of course, Kiah was offered and accepted a college basketball scholarship.
It wasn't just Kiah. As team members got better on the basketball court, they also got better in the classroom. Sundown says that the Scammon Bay's graduation rate rose to more than 90 percent.
“We’re very proud of athletics, especially basketball, being a tool to keep our students motivated,” said Sundown.
Now that they’ve developed strong players, Sundown says that the difficult part is getting them seen. It’s not easy selling students from a rural Alaska village to college coaches in the lower 48.
Sundown worked hard to promote Kiah, sending highlights and films of her to various schools. In the end, he said that Kiah’s scholarship fulfilled a lifelong goal for him.
Kiah says she’s nervous about living away from her home. She’ll miss her teammates, who she’s been playing with since fourth grade and has been leading as captain of the team for the last three years. But she loves basketball, and she has another dream.
“I want to become a detective,” she said.
Kiah plans to study criminology. She’s been job-shadowing Scammon Bay’s Village Public Safety Officer, learning how to handle people who’ve been drinking in the dry village and how to issue court summons.
Kiah will start her first day of classes and basketball practice at Skagit on September 18.