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 Salway 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
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 Rushmore 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
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."
Even so, the Wildcats are often good-naturedly booed at the LNI
because they've won it six times. "That's just part of playing on
someone else's floor," says Luitjens, whose team beat Pine Ridge
78-52 in last year's final. "I'm friends with a lot of the people
in the stands. It has always been a family reunion for the
Lakota, but now it's a family reunion for me, too."
When Luitjens learned he had prostate cancer in the fall of 2002,
Brewer invited him to the reservation for a sweat and a uwipi, a
healing ceremony. "Bryan Brewer was sitting on one side of me and
Dusty LeBeau, the coach at Pine Ridge, was sitting on the other
side," says Luitjens. "When it was all done, they said, 'Now
Larry, you're part of our family. Whenever we do anything, you're
welcome.' That, to me, is reconciliation. And isn't that what
this is all about?"
"We're exposing our culture not only to non-Indians but also
to our own people," says Brewer. "A lot of our students aren't
aware of our culture."
This is the 23rd in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Oklahoma
For more about sports in South Dakota and the other 49 states, go