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NCAA star inspires Crow Creek youth

Shoni Schimmel, middle, an NCAA basketball player for Louisville, meets with members of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe on Wednesday morning at the Community Center in Fort Thompson. (Luke Hagen/Daily Republic)

FORT THOMPSON -- Shoni Schimmel signed autographs, posed for pictures and re-lived basketball memories.

For the rest of this week in Fort Thompson, the starting guard for the Louisville women's basketball team is the biggest celebrity on the Crow Creek Sioux Indian Reservation. But more importantly to her, she's a role model -- especially to American Indians.

"Just to come off the reservation and to have the native people behind me, it's awesome to be a role model for everyone," she said Wednesday at Fort Thompson's Community Center. "It gives them something to look up to and a light in their lives to strive to, and not only to be like me, but to be better."

As part of the Crow Creek tribe's celebration of its 150th year in Fort Thompson this summer, Schimmel and her parents were invited to town for the first of three days to share their message, "Enjoy life and follow your dreams."

The Schimmels' visit, which lasts until Friday, also coincides with a "Back to School Bash" in which locals are preparing for the start of the upcoming school year by bringing the community together.

The Schimmels were brought to Fort Thompson in part by the work of Donita Loudner, who helps run Crow Creek Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention.

Suicide has been a problem at Crow Creek, as on other reservations. The suicide rate for Buffalo County, which includes the Crow Creek reservation, was 63.5 per 100,000 population from 2007 to 2011. That's more than five times the national rate for the same period of 11.8, and more than four times the South Dakota statewide rate of 15.3.

Wednesday, about 75 people attended a morning video that showed the Schimmel family's journey from the Umatilla Reservation in Mission, Ore., to Portland, Ore., their current residence. The video, a documentary, is called "Off the Rez," and was shown on The Learning Channel.

"They're a big thing in Indian country," Loudner said. "They make everybody really proud.

"The reason I brought them here is to be motivational for our kids. We need to set our goals and remember later on that there's something out there for you."

For the past three years, the Schimmels have traveled across the country to reservations to share their message and talk about their lives with other Indians. They said within the last two weeks, they've spoken to about 5,000 people.

"We get something out of this very much," said Rick Schimmel, Shoni's father. "We get to meet people and go to other reservations and learn their history."

In March, Loudner contacted the Schimmels, asking if they would come to South Dakota. After their visit at Fort Thompson this week, they will go to the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations.

"Our biggest message is not to give up, and have faith," said Ceci Schimmel, Shoni's mother. "We visit a lot of reservations and a lot of people are struggling. I think Shoni and Jude give people hope, because they come from a reservation, too. When you look at all the reservations, you pretty much say they're the same, and they are. We hope to give a good inspiration to help the native people."

Shoni and her sister, Jude, both play for Louisville, which went to the NCAA Final Four in March. Louisville shocked the tournament's No. 1-overall seed Baylor earlier in the tournament in what some consider the most important victory in Louisville women's basketball history. Shoni made a highlight-reel play in the 82-81 win over Baylor, dribbling the ball from one end of the court to the other and making a tough shot over 6-foot-8 post player Brittney Griner, who went on to become the top pick in the WNBA Draft earlier this year.

After beating Baylor, Louisville lost to the University of Connecticut in the national championship game.

Shoni, who will start her senior season this fall, led the Cardinals in scoring last year as a junior at 14.3 points per game. She was also named to the Big East Conference all-first team as a sophomore and was a second-team selection as junior.

When she's in school, basketball is one of her top priorities. But during the summer months, she's happy to visit reservations.

"I tell people to follow their dreams," said Shoni, also a member of the USA Women's Basketball Team that was crowned world champion earlier this month. "I was 4 years old and had a dream and now I'm living it, so I don't ever want anyone to give up on their dream."