Each December the tribal nations of the Great Plains are united by the children of our communities. Together we show the world that, despite our circumstances, we are people with hope.
This week the most public of our international gatherings takes place in Rapid City, South Dakota at the Lakota Nation Invitational. The event that started as a small gathering of local high school teams organized by former Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer and other community members in the early 1980’s has now grown in to a place where Lakota culture thrives openly.
Although it seems strange that our people have accepted the notion that a basketball tournament could, in fact, serve as the backdrop to one of our most vivid expressions of culture, identity, and sovereignty, an examination of the event is all that is needed to justify why it has come to encompass so much for us as Lakota people.
What takes place at the Lakota Nation Invitational could be used as a primer on who we are as Lakota people in this modern day and age. As a proud people, we encourage our children to participate in the language bowl this week in a celebration of the power of our desire to continue to see and speak of this world through our own cultural framework. As a politically inherent people, our community and tribal leaders convene this week to help rebuild our nations and assert our sovereignty through acts of diplomacy with other indigenous nations. And, as a spiritual people, we openly pray and weep together during a yearly wiping of the tears ceremony that takes place on Friday night.
Most important, however, is that we are a people of hope. For many of us Lakota people basketball is a place where our hope is unhinged. The game brings us together as a family. It is love. It is who we are. On the court our children play with courage and compassion, for community and family, and at its most basic level, for love. Hope and love is who we are. At the Lakota Nation Invitational we come together as relatives to not only express this hope and love but to showcase it as well.
My niece, a participant in the event, reminded us all last year that “There is always hope,” as she dedicated her freshman season to stopping suicide shortly after losing a close relative to the disease.
Tough times have come and gone but as spiritual beings Lakota people have come to understand that the human experience will be hard at times—but we will always have the same hope that our ancestors have instilled in us through their own examples of resiliency and resistance.
As someone who has grown up on the reservation I have always seen this hope expressed by our youth when they lace up their shoes and step on the hardwood. The reality facing many of our young people is that too many of them understand that when this weekend is over, they will return home to a house where their family can only sometimes afford propane to heat their home, a warm meal after school, and definitely not the $200 Nikes that Lebron wore on TV two nights ago.
Despite these realities however, these children wake themselves each day, eat what they can, and honor their commitments to their families and teammates to not only make it to rural practice facilities but to live a lifestyle where they are successful in the classroom. Some of these same children will find it within themselves to play the game of their life or push themselves physically beyond any limits that they have been taught exist. All in the hopes that there is something better coming their way.
Hope is a powerful thing. It is the force that allows for our people to embrace the suffering that comes when they dance in the summer. It was what once inspired our ancestors to put aside their own welfare so that the people could live today. The Lakota Nation Invitational is the epicenter of a special indigenous purity that comes to life when an individual Lakota picks up a basketball and we come together as a people united by hope.
I tell those who do not know our people intimately to forget the statistics, forget the poverty porn created by the media, forget what you think you know about us and for four days look on the court and see our kids believing in the power of their hope and being who they really are…Lakota.
Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who earned his education from Dartmouth College. He is the former managing editor of Native Sun News, the Life editor at Native Max Magazine, and a contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network, Lakota Country Times, and LastRealIndians.com