Leroy Seth: Nez Perce Leader, Basketball Great, Historian, Dancer


Nez Perce tribal member Leroy Seth has been a tribal elder and leader in various ways throughout, but he’s gotten much acclaim as an athlete, most notably as a basketball player.

Seth’s stack of MVP and All-Star awards is beyond amazing.

He began life in Spalding on the reservation, where he realized his passion for shooting hoops. A childhood friend, the son of a fisherman, lived nearby. The boy helped his dad repair fishing nets, but he and Seth would make wire hoops out of hangers then attach nets and hang them on a wall to use as baskets.

“We’d shoot at them with tennis balls and make ‘swishers’,” Seth explained.

That was the beginning of a sport that took him around the country and influenced his life greatly for another 60 years.

School was tough for him at first. He could understand both the Nez Perce and Yakama languages, but English was difficult. Basketball got him through high school and into college.

He started college at Washington State and made the basketball team, but studies were still difficult. He  then transferred to Lewis and Clark State in Lewiston, where the team won the Northwest District Championship. While there, Seth also competed in track and field, and a coach from Eastern Washington offered him a full scholarship to come and be part of the track team.

He competed in high jump, broad jump, hurdles, and javelin, which enabled him to go to the small college national tournament two years in a row.

He was also asked to try the decathlon, a 10-event contest over two days. He missed going to the 1960 Olympics by only 10 points in the tryouts.

Seth continued playing basketball for a semi-pro team sponsored by Rainier Beer. They traveled to Lethbridge, Alberta, and won the championship. The list of athletic accomplishments and awards continued to grow.

After graduating from Eastern Washington, he was drafted into the army, spending time at four different U.S. bases. He most enjoyed the opportunity to go to paratrooper school and jump from planes.

“It was an extra $55 in the monthly pay.” This was during the Vietnam War era, but he was fortunate to never leave the U.S.

Returning to the reservation, he served first as a community building director at Lapwai. He then decided to run for a spot on the tribal council, won, and served for 2 ½ years.

Shortly after, his life took a major turn when he jumped at the opportunity to attend the University of Montana to study art and anthropology. The artwork allowed him to visit Minnesota on college expense to meet new artists. Anthropology studies provided education about tribes across the U.S.

“It was pretty awesome,” he said.

Since then, he’s been creating drawings for the tribe, primarily for cultural programs. He also has illustrated stories about Coyote legends.

But basketball never ended for Seth. He played for the Nez Perce National Team and recalled a tournament in Seattle where he got to play against Michael Jordan. Seth’s team won the tournament, and he was picked not only as an all-star but also as a tournament MVP. His list of awards continued at big tournaments at Yakama, Browning and elsewhere.

“It was one of the best times of my life,” he said. “I was MVP four times and an All-Star about 10 or 12 times.”

Seth quit playing real competitive basketball in his mid-50s and got into tournaments for people 50 and over.

“At a Fort Hall Tournament, I played in a 60-and-over division,” he said. “Talk about aches and pains after the games! I was about 65.”

Dancing can also be an athletic event, especially if you’re a tribal “Fast and Fancy” dancer. As a younger man, he competed in Fast and Fancy dancing, involving a lot of jumping and spinning. He won championships in dancing as well as sports, placing third in the world championships in California. “I tell everybody I had a little more bounce back then.”

Another trip as an elder took him to Connecticut, where he took fourth place in traditional dancing—and won $1500. Traditional dancing, what he does today, is a less physical, more sedate form of dance, and he still continues to dance.

But life is more than athletics for Seth. He has been involved in tribal life and traditions for many years, serving 21 years as the Health Educator for Indian Health Service in Lapwai.

“It was enjoyable for me. I got to work with a lot of people and explain a lot of things I’d learned, which help keep people fit. You are what you eat and what you do and where you live and what you see,” he said. “My most enjoyable times were when I was talking about spirituality and the circle of life: the spiritual, mental, emotional, and the physical—all four areas.”

“Later I tried to learn about the different forms of spirituality other tribes practiced. I got to participate in the Peyote religion, and I’ve gone to medicine dances, healing ceremonies, during Winter Dance. There are beautiful songs you never hear except during these ceremonies. It’s really awesome. The spiritual power is just amazing.”

Using these experiences and various forms of spirituality, Leroy worked another 11 years for the tribe as a patient advocate. He even gave lectures to tribal police from two reservations on how to relax and get rid of stress.

Seth now is a member of the Circle of Elders. This group works largely with cultural aspects: history, language, traditions, and rituals, many of which he learned as a youngster.

Upon meeting Seth, one would never guess him to be in his 80s. He looks, acts and talks like someone much younger.

Some people make a great impression at first meeting. Leroy Seth is one of those people. ISI