In 1968, Phil Homeratha (Otoe- Missouri) was the only American Indian among the 900 students at Tarkio College in Missouri. At the start of the final game of his college basketball career, he went to the locker room for routine last instructions. Coming back onto the court, he noticed how calm the gym had become. Thinking he was late for the anthem, he glanced toward the stands. The fans, plus Homeratha’s teammates and coaches, were all smiling at him.
Then he saw his uncle and grandmother sitting six rows behind the bench. Though he was co-captain of the basketball team and All American in football, Homeratha’s family had never seen him play high school or college sports. His grandpa, his biggest influence and first mentor, hadn’t lived long enough to see him play.
The crowd had guessed the newcomers were his family. Uncle Lee wore a straw dress hat with a small feather in the beaded hatband, a bolo tie, and cowboy boots. Homeratha’s grandmother had a colored scarf over her head and a bright shawl around her shoulders. Homeratha leaped over the chairs toward them. With tears in his eyes, he joyfully embraced them.
Despite a distinguished career as an athlete and then a coach, Homeratha recalls that moment as the highlight of his athletic career. Homeratha, 67, retired this year after 40 years working at what is now Haskell Indian Nations University (Lawrence, KS) as an instructor, athletic director, and coach.
Homeratha’s uncles and brothers had attended what was then called Haskell Institute, so when he was in the eighth grade, he knew he was going there, too. In 1957, the 14- year-old, 105-pound young man took the train from Ponca City, OK and then caught a cab to Haskell.
“For many of us Haskell offered many firsts: indoor plumbing, showers, individual rooms, and three meals every day,” he says. “We were very clean; we washed and ironed daily. We dressed like James Dean and Elvis, pressed Levi’s, thin white belts worn on the hips, pressed shirts with collars turned up, flattop haircuts with fenders, and penny loafers. The girls wore skirts, bobby sox, and had that ‘ratted’ big hair, and they were nice.”
He also recalls the very first person he met: Scotty Harjo became a mentor and friend for life. Bob McDonald became Phil’s “big brother.” His first English teacher and coach was Rupert Thompson. “He was Indian, yet he saw to it that we spoke and wrote English properly and correctly,” he says, “understanding it was the best survival tool he could give his students.” Homeratha also found his first love at Haskell, a beautiful girl from Oklahoma City.
Haskell athletic teams had become part of the Kansas State High School Athletic Association in 1949, and during the 1950s, they dominated Kansas athletics. The period from 1950 to 1961 represents the golden years of Haskell athletics, and Homeratha considers himself fortunate to have been a part of them. The teachers and coaches of Haskell’s glory days were instrumental in the development of his teaching and coaching philosophy.
Although he had many mentors throughout his lifetime, he learned many of his most important lessons at a very young age. In second grade, Homeratha moved to Red Rock, OK, to live with his grandparents on 80 acres of allotted Otoe land that his grandpa farmed. Homeratha roamed the 80 acres with their five dogs. He would hunt and fish, and whatever he brought home (rabbit, squirrel, snapping turtle, or fish), his grandma cleaned and cooked. He spent the majority of those early years with her, and she became the major influence in his life.
His grandparents spoke Otoe to each other, but they spoke English to him, whom they called Sonny. They wanted him to understand English and have the advantages they had lacked. They told him what they had done to survive and what their grandson should know —life teachings — how to live, act, show respect, and be safe.
They told him, “Sonny, always take them water.” This meant that when visitors came to their home, especially elders, he should greet them politely and then always bring them water.
“Only now do I fully realize that they were preparing me for life without them and preparing me to leave the reservation,” he says. “Grandpa told me there was not a lot of future on the reservation as times had changed. Hard times had driven the small farmers out of business.” While his grandpa got a job working for the county road department, the majority of rural families depended upon government commodities for food during the Dust Bowl and Depression. Many sold their land, mineral rights, and just moved away.
Homeratha graduated from Haskell Institute in 1961 as a brick mason, which led him to a brick-laying job at Tarkio College. His boss, Wayne Jimboy, convinced him to apply for college there. After graduating and working as a teacher and coach elsewhere, Homeratha joined the Haskell faculty and developed several successful academic and athletic programs.
The Haskell women’s basketball teams that he coached earned third place nationally in 1999-2000, and his team went to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division 2 Tournament in 2009-10. Also, five players made the Midlands Collegiate Athletic All Conference team the past two years. Three Haskell players were selected to the NAIA All American Women’s Basketball teams.
Asked about this success, he says, “I recruit for speed and GPA! My players are students first, and they must want to be at Haskell Indian Nations University.” This philosophy has worked for him, as witnessed by the four Academic All Americans in 2009- 10, with two repeating this year.
Homeratha says his upbringing, culture, and mentors paved the way for his success. “It’s especially gratifying to me that I was able to spend the past 40 years giving back somewhat to the great institution, Haskell,” he says, “by honoring my grandparents’ teachings to always take them (my students) water…the water of perseverance, of knowledge.”
Looking back, Homeratha concludes, “I came with a plan, knowing I would always represent the underdog, coaching the underprivileged player and the underprepared student. Yet, I have always walked away saying, ‘I did the best I could; I played as hard as I could, and it came out pretty good.’ I can live with that.”
Trish Reeves and Lorene Williams teach in the English Department at Haskell Indian Nations University—and both credit Phil Homeratha as having influenced and inspired them for many years.