THE BLOG
12/16/2014 11:02 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

The Olympics of Indian Basketball

It started 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 the Pine Ridge Reservation, it has grown to the point that the LNI - the 38th annual gathering - has 32 teams, 16 boys' and 16 girls' teams competing.

Back in 1973, 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.

Bryan Brewer, a Pine Ridge educator, and Chuck Cuny, the first Lakota principal at Red Cloud Indian School, decided to move the All-Indian Tourney, as the LNI was known then, 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 in Custer, South Dakota named Larry Luitjens was asked to bring his team, the Custer Wildcats, to the newly named Lakota Nation Invitational Tournament. The irony of a team from "Custer" 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. Larry is retiring now, but the LNI owes him a big debt. With the additional retirement of Dusty LeBeau, the all-time winning coach of Pine Ridge High School, South Dakota loses two of the fiercest competitors in basketball.

Friday night is the night of the "Grand Entry," when warriors in full regalia, led by the tournament organizers, 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 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.

We are 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.

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.

The white citizens of Rapid City, almost reluctantly, 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 38 years can make. But that doesn't mean that all of the race barriers have been torn down. There are still complaints by Lakota LNI visitors that there is a heavy presence of South Dakota Highway Patrol and Pennington County Sheriff's vehicles patrolling the highways to and from the Indian reservations.

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.

But the crowning glory of the LNI has always been the basketball games. From the first whistle to the last the excitement and thrills of the games has the crowd standing and cheering for their home teams. One year it's White River, the next Red Cloud and then the Pine Ridge Thorpes. If there has been a run on wins in consecutive years, it seems that the Lady Thorpes of Pine Ridge have been in the middle of it.

The camaraderie that develops throughout the tournament between the white athletes and the Native American players has become a focal point of the tournament as the years have passed.

But the "Ka-ching" of the cash registers in the restaurants, theaters, retail stores and shopping malls in Rapid City bring that Christmas cheer to the local businesses and that alone can put a smile on the face of the grumpiest store owner.

So when you hear the acronym "LNI," think Lakota, think unity, think reconciliation, think fun and think basketball. 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 is now the editor and publisher of Native Sun News, the largest weekly newspaper in South Dakota. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.