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Lakota Nation Invitational brings unique energy to Rapid City area

Forty-fifth tournament now includes esports, Lakota language competitions, traditional competition

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The Lakota Nation Invitational logo
Courtesy of the Lakota Nation Invitational
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EDITOR'S NOTE:  This story can be found on  South Dakota Searchlight's website. South Dakota Searchlight provides free news and commentary on critical issues facing the state.

RAPID CITY — Ask Sage Brings Plenty what basketball means to Marty Indian School, and the boys varsity coach will give you a blunt answer.

“If we did not have a basketball program, I don’t know if we’d have enough kids to have class,” said Brings Plenty, who also serves as the school resource officer. “I keep track of attendance rates and things like that, and everything shot up these last few weeks.”

Brings Plenty’s players “live and die in the gym” alongside the teammates who double as relatives or lifelong childhood friends. The game is an escape from stressors and poverty and trauma that touch so many of the players’ lives.

Basketball is an escape for reservations and schools with a wealth of Native talent across South Dakota, which have produced legendary players like SuAnne Big Crow and perennial powerhouse competitors like White River.

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Brings Plenty and his Marty Braves were among the thousands of coaches, students, parents and visitors to walk through the doors of The Monument events center in Rapid City this week for the 45th iteration of a basketball tournament unlike any other in the state of South Dakota, and perhaps the country: the Lakota Nation Invitational, or LNI.

The Braves and Lady Braves each won their brackets last year, and Brings Plenty has high hopes for his team, whose varsity roster is full of kids who’ve played together since early childhood.

“It’s a place for Native kids to showcase their talents,” Brings Plenty said. “A lot of times they don’t get the coverage or the opportunities to showcase their talents that other schools might.”

At LNI, the “ball is life” attitude that permeates South Dakota’s Native American communities manifests as a five day, wall-to-wall celebration of not just the sport, but the vibrancy of the art and culture of South Dakota’s original residents.

The tournament includes basketball and wrestling, but also archery, the Lakota game of handball, a Lakota language competition, an art show, chess tournament, slam poetry presentations, and this year, an esports symposium.

For many attendees, LNI is more important than the state tournament.

“Every reservation is involved, and we know every reservation takes a lot of pride in their teams,” said Chuck Miller, president of the LNI Board of Directors and the athletics director for Todd County. “I just think the atmosphere it produces kind of puts you into a special place.”

Humble beginnings

LNI began more than four decades ago with an eight-team tournament in Pine Ridge. This week’s LNI will have 24 boys and 24 girls teams for the marquee basketball tournament, but that portion of the event is only the most well-known part of a community gathering that’s become a focal point for more than school activities.

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Tribal organizations schedule training workshops for adults to coincide with LNI, for example.

“That’s considered a part of LNI, even though it doesn’t involve the kids. That’s how important LNI has become,” Miller said. “People want to be involved with this.”

The range of events has always struck Daniel Swartos, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association.

“I’ll never forget my first time going to it. My jaw was on the floor almost the whole time, from the logistics alone,” said Swartos. “Every square inch of that facility is being used for something.”

The basketball games that formed LNI’s beginnings remain its focal point.

Some teams from LNI are almost certain to show up in the state basketball tournament, Swartos said. The boys varsity squad out of Lower Brule, Marty Indian School’s opponents for a Dec. 10 doubleheader in Marty, were state runners-up last year. White River is also a team to beat.

By the time the final games kick off, Swartos said, there’s an electricity in The Monument that rivals any event in South Dakota.

“The championships at LNI are right up there with the state championships in terms of atmosphere,” Swartos said.

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‘They get to be themselves’

Some non-Native schools compete at LNI, but the event has special significance for South Dakota’s nine tribal nations.

Brian LaRoche has coached the Lower Brule Sioux boys since 2004. LNI was started in part because four decades ago, non-Native schools weren’t always willing to play schools like Lower Brule. Sometimes it’s still a struggle to fill out a schedule, LaRoche said. Fans from white-majority schools like to watch teams raised on the run-and-gun style of “rez ball,” he said, but there’s a feeling of otherness at typical tournaments.

At LNI, LaRoche said, “They get to be themselves.”

“Growing up on the reservation, it’s different from the outside world,” LaRoche said. “They don’t get judged at LNI.”

Lower Brule senior Gavin Thigh is always ready to play, but the fans and family members make LNI crowds different.

“You get to play against your own people, that makes it more fun,” Thigh said. “It’s great to see Native teams go at each other.”

Marty senior Alanzo Young has gone to LNI since childhood. Early on, he accompanied his father, who sold blankets as a vendor. Then, he’d duck out from the blanket booth to watch games. Now, he’s primed for his second trip to the tournament as a player.

Then and now, on and off the court, LNI felt like an oversized family gathering.

“It’s kind of like a holiday for Natives,” said Young.

It’s also a celebration of positivity for kids who use the basketball season as a bulwark against negative peer pressure at home. Basketball is important for Lower Brule senior Courtney Traversie and her teammates because it focuses their attention on competition.

“Basketball is the main thing that keeps us away from all the bad stuff like drinking or smoking,” said Traversie.

Building a future

Traversie’s explanation of basketball’s importance could be an understatement.

Ten of the players on last year’s LNI squad had lost a parent at some point in their lives, said Lower Brule Superintendent Lance Witte, and up to 75% of the students in the district have struggled with homelessness.

The motivational strength of sporting programs to resist negative coping mechanisms is nearly as important to the school district as academics, Witte said, because it has to be.

“You want it to be about the education and it is, but it also has to be about the sports programs,” Witte said.

Witte was among the organizers of the All Nations Football Conference as a way to generate interest in football in Indian Country. The Native schools that fielded teams before the launch of All Nations in 2018 so often found themselves pitted against powerhouse schools like Dakota Valley and “just weren’t very competitive,” Witte said.

“When we started All Nations, participation went way up,” he said.

It remains to be seen if the effort will put football on the same path to the kind of steady growth in interest and excitement that has made LNI what it is today. What is clear is that the seed planted 45 years ago for basketball has grown into one of the most anticipated and impactful events of the year for high school students and the city that plays host.

Tourism organization Visit Rapid City recently partnered with LNI to quantify the economic impact, according to Stacie Granum, the group’s chief strategy officer. They’re working with Monument staff to tally visitors, and will pull together that information with other data sources to set a benchmark.

“We know this event has a big economic impact on this community and hope to provide data that helps to show just how much,” Granum wrote in an email. “This event has a big impact on the community, but also on the kids and families that are part of it.”

It’s an impact that comes home, according to Brings Plenty. Kids who don’t play basketball still watch the games and come home with hoop dreams of their own.

That’s a huge payoff for coaches and educators.

“Seeing how big basketball is at LNI, it really pushes these kids to try it out,” Brings Plenty said.

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