People like to say the Lakota Nation Invitational isn't really about basketball, but don't tell that to Tyrell Salway. "This is one of the best basketball tournaments in all of South Dakota, maybe the whole U.S.!" the Pine Ridge High guard declared in 2002 when, as a senior, he lifted the Thorpes into the championship game with a last-second, three-point shot that beat Standing Rock (N.Dak.) High. "Every kid growing up on the reservation dreams of playing in the LNI. And being in the LNI championship game, well, that's like being on a pro team. It's a dream come true."
Salway's teammate, guard Elton Three Stars, had to change schools to realize that dream. After averaging 26.1 points as a junior in 2001-02 at Bennett County High—a school that opts not to play in the LNI—he moved 45 miles from his hometown of Martin to the Pine Ridge Reservation and lived with Sal-way just so he could play for the Thorpes and experience the LNI once. "To see," he says, "if all the hype was true." His verdict? "It's a rush. It's the crowds, it's the goose bumps, it's the honor, it's...it's hard to explain."
Part tournament, part powwow, part youth festival, part cultural showcase, the the annual Lakota Nation Invitational, the 27th edition of which is being held this week at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, defies nutshell description. At its heart it's a highly competitive 16-team high school boys' basketball tournament—and starting this year, a 16-team girls' tournament as well—made up mostly of schools from the state's nine Sioux reservations. (Sioux is the name that French trappers gave the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people several hundred years ago, but Lakota is the preferred identifier.) There's also a wrestling tournament; three competitions that test students' knowledge in general academics, Lakota culture and the Lakota language; a hand-game tournament (a traditional Native American guessing game that uses bones and sticks and is accompanied by drumming and singing); a Native American art show and enough youth seminars to fill every nook and cranny of the Civic Center.
Among the awards given to the standout performers in all the competitions are LNI jackets and handmade pottery and, for the winning basketball team, a full-sized canvas tepee bearing the handprints and signatures of every LNI player that year.
However, the LNI's most spectacular moment is never a rim-rattling dunk (those are rare); it's the Grand Entry under the spotlights in the Civic Center on Friday night. Tribal chiefs and ceremonial dancers don headdresses, hairpipe (bone) vests, leather pants and moccasins and, moving to a drumbeat, lead the athletes and other participants in a colorful procession around the hardwood before the semifinals. By incorporating ceremonies such as this, LNI organizers have helped revive interest in the Lakota Nation. "We're exposing our culture not only to non-Indians but also to our own people," says LNI director Bryan Brewer. "A lot of our students aren't aware of our culture. When we had the first Wiping of the Tears [a centuries-old ritual that was first performed at the LNI in 1999 to honor former participants who had died during the year], for many of the Lakota people, that was the first time they ever saw that ceremony."
McLaughlin High coach Hank Taken Alive believes the LNI serves another important function. "Our battle is to beat the stereotype of the drunken Indian and to be recognized and treated as equal citizens of this country," says Taken Alive, a two-time all-state basketball player at McLaughlin in the mid-1970s. "We have to get our kids to believe that they're capable of competing in the dominant society. Maybe on the basketball floor, maybe in the classroom, maybe for a job. This tournament is about making our kids proud to be Native American."
To be sure, there was a time when the LNI was only about basketball. In 1976 the Pine Ridge Reservation was still roiling from the American Indian Movement's 1973 occupation of the village of Wounded Knee and the series of violent skirmishes between Indians and whites that had preceded it. "It was almost a civil war on the reservation," recalls Brewer, who was coaching boys' basketball at Pine Ridge High at the time. "The community split between those who supported AIM and those who didn't. No other schools wanted to play on the reservation because of the violence. Even some of the Indian schools from other reservations didn't want to come."
Brewer couldn't get a full schedule together that season, and neither could his childhood pal, Dave Archambault, who was coaching at nearby Little Wound High. So the two decided to hold their own tournament at Pine Ridge High in February 1977 To fill out a field of eight, they lured Indian schools from Nebraska and Kansas and were thrilled when the Rapid City Central junior varsity joined the field in '78.
The first two tournaments filled the 1,200-seat Pine Ridge gym. After the Rush-more Civic Center opened in Rapid City in 1977, the LNI moved to that arena, which seats four times as many fans. The field was expanded to 16 teams in 1996, and the event has become arguably the most competitive basketball tournament—outside of the state tournament—in South Dakota. Last year's field featured five of the state's top 10 Class A boys' teams. This year organizers are expecting 2,450 student participants and 650 adult coaches and officials for the various events, most of them from West River, as the half of the state west of the Missouri River is called. Only eight of the 32 teams are from non-Indian schools. "It's important to have non-Indians participate," says Brewer. "One of the things we really try to promote is reconciliation."
That's the movement started in 1990 by then governor George Mickelson to ease the racial tensions that have existed between Indians and non-Indians in the state since the 19th century. Probably no white coach in South Dakota better embodies that movement than Larry Luitjens, who's in his 31st year as the boys' coach at Custer High, a five-time Class A state champion that's playing in its 17th LNI this week. In the late '70s, when no other non-Indian team would set foot in Pine Ridge, Luitjens, who was raised in eastern South Dakota and had, he says, "no preconceived notions about Native Americans," took his Wildcats to play there. "Indian people will always appreciate that about Larry" says Brewer. "They have a great deal of respect for him and his teams."