Couple of Sports, Events

Lakota Nation Invitational – Rapid City, SD

On the surface, it’s a high school basketball tournament. But looking around at the players, coaches, fans, and vendors, it’s much more than just a high school basketball tournament. It’s traditions, family, education, culture, and competition, all rolled into one long weekend in Rapid City, SD.

The Lakota Nation Invitational brings together Lakota people, as well as other Native American tribes from South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming for a weekend of inter-tribal competition. The main attraction is the basketball tournament, which hosts 16 boys’ and 16 girls’F teams in a bracket style tournament. Teams are not eliminated, but either move up or down the bracket depending on their last win or loss.

Rez Ball in action.

In addition to the basketball tournament, there are various other competitions that students compete in, including archery, a knowledge bowl,  language bowl, hand games, and an art show. Outside of the competitions, there are vendors selling Native crafts, t-shirts, and food, as well as many displays from area colleges and health clinics. There are also youth enrichment talks and speakers, which attempt to inform the high schoolers about issues that affect their communities as a whole, including domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, and reproductive health issues. All coaches and players are required to attend one of these seminars while at the LNI.

Native American reservations have some of the highest poverty, alcoholism, and teen pregnancy rates in the country, coupled with some of the lowest education and general health scores. But, like anything else, that only scratches the surface on an incredibly diverse and complicated race and culture. It’s trite and somewhat obvious at this point in our society to write something like: “These issues don’t exemplify EVERY Native American” or even: “Their ideas of gender and societal norms don’t align with mainstream America, but that’s OK”. But sometimes we need to remember those statements when looking at any group of people.

For instance, when speaking with a resident of a reservation we learned “it’s normal for girls to have a child in their teens, and have their parents take care of that baby. This cycle repeats itself, where the grandparents are in their 30s taking care of grandchildren in the same age range as many parents”. This may account for the high teen pregnancy rate as a number, but doesn’t account for a non-mainstream social measure of success.  Or, take an issue like poverty.  Reservation life is a different way of life where conventional ideas of rich and poor just don’t quite fit. We’re talking about a society that existed around handmade shelter for thousands of years. Many Native Americans desire to continue to live off of the land like their ancestors, which I would imagine census bureaus would file under “extreme poverty”. Community, family, history, tradition, and the land are often times more important than material possessions for Native Americans.

Everything needed to play hand games.

All of those things were on display at the LNI, as families reunited, and communities came together for a sharing of ideas, art, and traditions. Our favorite example of this was the Hand Games Tournament. Middle school and high school teams competed against each other in hand games, a traditional Native American guessing game. We were lucky enough to play with the Todd County High School team before the tournament started, and they showed us everything we wanted to know about our new favorite game.

The game is played with two teams (of anywhere from 2-10) sitting across from one another. There are two sets of bones (traditionally eagle bones), one striped and one plain. Typically ten sticks are used as counters, and are decorated in various fashion (We played with sticks that hand elk antlers on the tips that had been carved to look like eagle heads). The teams agree beforehand which bones they will be guessing – the plain bone or the striped bone. Two members of the “hiding” team take a pair of bones and hide them, one in each hand, while the other team sings, drums, and attempts to distract the “guessing” team. The leader or ‘Captain’ of the “guessing” team, or a team member selected by the Captain, then must guess the pattern of the hidden bones.

Where is it?

Since each hider holds one plain and one striped bone in each hand, there are initially four possibilities: both to the left, both to the right, both inside, or both outside. A gesture with a stick or hand generally accompanies each call. For each hider mis-guessed, the calling team must turn over one stick to the hiders. If a hider is guessed s/he must surrender the guessed bones to the calling side. The side continues hiding and singing until both pairs of bones have been guessed and surrendered. Then the teams reverse roles, and the game continues in this manner until one team holds all the sticks. The singing and drumming make for a great scene, and definitely bring the historical significance into the forefront. The game is part luck and part feel we were told, as captains can decide which of his teammates are better guessers or hiders. Games have been played in the past for food, money, animals, and even land. (For historical record, Mark’s team was victorious, although no land was exchanged)

As for the basketball, affectionately referred to as “Rez Ball” in several Native American communities, it’s definitely the main attraction. Basketball is the most popular sport on Native American reservations, because it requires less equipment and costs for the poverty stricken reservation communities. Rez Ball is a little different than your average basketball though. It’s fast-paced, unkempt, and back and forth. Three pointers fly at a rapid rate, and a rebound is quickly pushed up court. It’s not quite “street ball”, where dribbling skills and alley-oops take center stage. Rez Ball is run and gun on steroids, but with no set structure. Teams look for an outlet pass at every opportunity, and any daylight is reason to put up a shot. “To me, Rez Ball is not played fundamentally. It’s run and gun, and played with passion,” said Jacey Estes, a senior guard for the Crow Creek Chieftans. 

With so much emphasis an basketball in the reservations, some teams and players have gotten pretty good and garnered attention from scouts. “I’d love to use basketball to go to college and experience a new place,” said Conrad Medicine Crow, the center for the Chieftans. Estes has also been visited by college scouts, which we initially viewed as a great way for Native Americans to see other cultures and possibly break through the hardships of the reservation. But the strong family ties, as well as the lifestyle of the reservations can make it hard for some to adapt to big city life. “It’s sad at times. You see these great kids with tons of potential, and they all end up back on the res,” said Todd County hand games advisor Steve Tamayo. “Some find it very difficult to leave their families and adapt on their own in such a fast paced environment,” said Tamayo.

It might be sad to think about this, but we’re mostly sad for them because they won’t be able to make as much money or experience everything that we view as a benefit of city living. That’s our mainstream American lens at work though, as those things may not be as important to many Native Americans. The decision to go back to the res is a product of history and tradition. For a culture that has been nearly wiped from the Earth because of disease, war, and oppression, it makes sense that Native Americans cling to family and culture. And much like the LNI itself, you’ve got to dig a little deeper to understand the entire story.

We enjoyed learning about the culture and people of the Lakota Nation, and had a great time playing hand games and watching the Rez Ball. For more information and to attend next years LNI, please visit


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