The Salt River High School volleyball team was already out of its element entering the playoffs.

With their 9-4 record, the Eagles were set to play away from their home court on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian reservation, in Mesa, Ariz. So they boarded a bus on Oct. 22 and drove about 45 minutes to face off against Caurus Academy, a secular charter school in Phoenix’s northern suburbs.

The game got off to a respectful start, witnesses said, as both teams vied for a spot in the quarterfinals of their league tournament. But then one player from the Eagles, who are all Native American, dived for the ball and missed it.

A group of boys seized upon the fumble and began mocking the away team, witnesses said. They imitated Native American dances and rituals. They mocked tribal war cries. They yelled out, “Savages!”

The taunting got to be so bad, according to the Arizona Republic, that the match was called off by the Salt River coach in the middle of the fourth set to ensure her players’ safety, in an episode that has rippled across Phoenix and beyond.

Arizona has one of the largest concentrations of Native Americans in the United States, with a population of more than 300,000. But those communities have frequently been on the receiving end of hatred and bigotry — and have often been ignored as they try to seek justice. Reservations have seen their land seized and used as internment camps during World War II, or more recently, for sale to mining companies. Violence has disproportionately affected Native American women, who suffer from a rate of rape 1½ times the national average, and a rate of violent crime even higher than that.

Last week’s match, parents and students said, was another ugly chapter in that canon. In addition to taunts that mocked Native American culture, Salt River players and supporters were frustrated that the league declined to punish anyone in the case.

Early on, Eagles parents approached officials from the Canyon Athletic Association, the league’s governing body, about the slurs and gestures, as packs of Caurus fans performed “tomahawk chops.” So did the charter school’s cheerleading team, which also joined in the taunts.

In response, however, the referee told them, “Boys will be boys,” one person who witnessed the game last Tuesday afternoon told the Republic. After Eagles Coach Kyronna Roanhorse stopped the match, officials from the athletic association held a phone conference and an in-person meeting to determine what exactly had transpired. But no conclusion was made.

Wendy Davison, Caurus’s assistant principal and athletic director, said while “something” happened to the players at Tuesday’s game, the incident was not caught on tape and had not seen by administrators.

“Those are the facts and we apologize for the fact that there was a disruption or the fact that anybody felt that they could not move forward with the game,” she added.

However, Roanhorse told the Republic that the comments and taunts coming from the bleachers were not a mystery.

“They heard some things they probably shouldn’t have,” Roanhorse said. “You can’t make this stuff up."

It wouldn’t be the first time. From 2008 to 2018, High Country News tallied more than 50 instances of racial harassment against Native American athletes, coaches or fans nationwide, a sign of growing racism against sports teams that often form the backbone of their rural or reservation communities. Among them: Hockey fans pouring beer on Native American students on a field trip. High school students getting turned away from a basketball game because they were Indian. Threatening graffiti that read, “Go back to the rez.”

In professional sports, the so-called tomahawk chop has been subject to what seems like perpetual controversy, as a number of teams hang onto Indians as their mascots, and Indian symbols as their stadium. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Braves moved to end the gesture, following complaints from St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Taté Walker, a spokesperson for Salt River Schools, said in a statement to the Republic that the volleyball incident is part of a larger trend of bigotry faced by Native American students, both on and off the court.

“Tuesday’s events go beyond one volleyball game and are indicative of systemic discrimination problems that are difficult for many to acknowledge across the education landscape,” Walker said, “especially when it’s so much easier to claim ignorance. … There are more conversations to be had."

Roanhorse echoed those sentiments.

“We have to learn from this situation going forward, and that’s the biggest step,” she said. “It’s not acceptable, but at the same time, we can all come together to make it work.”

The match was eventually rescheduled for Friday at a neutral location, where Caurus ended up defeating Salt River, 15-9, in the fifth set, as security guards looked on. And while the Eagles did not advance to the quarterfinals, there was a silver lining of sorts for the team.

“I’ve never had such a big turnout for one game,” captain Sialik King said. “It was very nice to see that us, as indigenous people, could come together for this game.”