It started out in 1977 as a tournament to bring American Indian teams together and prepare them for the long season ahead. It has gone where no one alive today ever thought it would go.
When the Lakota people hear the acronym "LNI" they know exactly what it means. It means Lakota Nation Invitational, and from that small beginning with eight teams in 1977 on Pine Ridge Reservation, it has grown to the point that the 2012 LNI -- the 36th annual gathering -- has 32 teams -- 16 boys' and 16 girls' teams competing.
Back in 1976, the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota brought an abundance of fear and concern to the athletic directors of the non-Indian schools in western South Dakota. They did not want their teams to travel to the reservation to play the Indian teams because rumors suggested that they would meet with violence. The rumor wasn't true then, and it isn't true today.
Bryan Brewer, who was elected as President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in November, and Chuck Cuny, two Lakota educators, decided to move the All-Indian Tourney, as the LNI was known in its early years, to Rapid City and they hoped to invite white teams to play in the tourney in hopes of promoting better racial relations and understanding.
An extremely popular and successful white coach of Custer High School named Larry Luitjens was asked to bring his team to the newly named Lakota Nation Invitational Tournament. The irony of a team from "Custer" High School did not escape the attention of the local citizenry. After all, to the Lakota people, George Armstrong Custer was the epitome of all that is bad among the white people. To have a team named after this villain play in a tournament comprised mainly of Lakota Sioux Indians was the crowning achievement of Brewer and Cuny.
But it took a courageous and fair-minded coach like Luitjens to put the icing on the cake. He not only brought his team to play, he became the first non-Indian coach to put his reputation on the line to actively promote the tournament.
And he is still there every year cheering on his Custer Wildcats to another tournament victory. Luitjens has been joined by the all-white teams from St. Thomas More and Hill City, girls' and boys' teams.
Friday night is the prime-time night of the tournament. It is the night of the "Grand Entry," when warriors in full regalia, led by the tournament organizer Bryan Brewer, enter the arena to the beat of the drums.
The lights in the arena are lowered and as the beat of the drums grow louder, the cheerleaders and players from all of the teams entered in the tournament march into the arena one after the other. Each team has a banner with the school's name leading the way. As the announcer shouts out the name of each team, their respective fans shower them with the whistles and cheers of encouragement.
I was reminded of the wonderful sight of the teams of the different Nations entering the sports stadiums of the Olympics that are held around the world every four years. There is nothing as spectacular as watching the teams from the many nations march into the stadium with banners waving as they salute the crowd with confidence and pride. That is the way it is at the LNI.
The LNI is more than just a basketball tournament: It has turned into the social event of the year for the Lakota people. The tourney now includes traditional hand games, language contests, volleyball and wrestling. Many educational organizations plan their winter meetings in and around the tournament.
The LNI brings in as much as $5 million to the economy of Rapid City at a time when tourism is at its lowest. The thousands of spectators that travel to Rapid City from all nine Indian reservations in the state and from reservations in the bordering states of Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana stay in the local motels, eat in the local restaurants, and go to the local movie theaters. It probably brought in more money this year because so many Lakota had just received their checks as part of the Cobell Settlement.
And since the tournament is held in mid-December, you will see the shopping malls overflowing with the people of the Great Sioux Nation as they do their Christmas shopping with extra cash in their pockets.
The white citizens of Rapid City have come to accept the tournament as a part of their winter culture, also. Signs in store windows and billboards read "Welcome to the LNI." What a difference 36 years can make.
From its humble beginning in 1977, the LNI is now doing more to break down racial barriers than any such event in this state's history. In 2003, the LNI became the only major American Indian sporting event to be featured in Sports Illustrated Magazine.
Chuck Cuny passed away a few years back, and Bryan Brewer has taken up the mantle. In 2005, the tournament honored Vine Deloria, the great Lakota professor and author who died in November of that year, and Calvin Jumping Bull, another great educator from the Lakota Nation who took the journey to the spirit world in July of that same year. And each year the organizers of the tourney make every effort to honor some of the great Lakota, Dakota and Nakota achievers.
In 1990 LNI honored Gov. George Mickelson and me for our efforts at introducing the Year of Reconciliation to promote racial harmony between Indians and whites. Mickelson died in a plane crash in April of 1993.
So when you hear the acronym "LNI," think Lakota, think unity, think reconciliation, think fun and think games. It is a wonderful thing to behold.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1991. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at Unitysodak1@knology.net.
© 2012 Unity South Dakota.