It's hard for Chuck Wilson to pick his favorite part of the Lakota Nation Invitational. 

"There's so many," Wilson said with a laugh, listing off basketball and the art show among the highlights. Finally, he settled on one of the less mainstream sporting events: wrestling. 

"I love sitting and watching that," he said. 

Wilson, president of LNI's board of directors, is one of the many workers and volunteers gearing up for this year's 41st LNI event, a combination sporting tournament and cultural festival for students that draws thousands of people to Rapid City's Rushmore Plaza Civic Center each year. 

This year's event starts today, with a community welcome for the LNI board of directors, teams and coaches. That includes a caravan into the city, escorted by local law enforcement, and then a meal for LNI participants. It's the second year for the community welcome, which Wilson said was a touching addition to the longstanding event.

"I just think that is such a wonderful welcome," he said. "I’m just really impressed with how that went off last year."

Wednesday, the event kicks into high gear, with the basketball tournaments, a chess tournament, a business plan competition and more. Wilson said organizers are expecting 100 students to participate in the chess tournament this year, a strong showing for a relatively new event.

"Last year was first year we hosted that, so to have that kind of number is really exciting," he said. 

Wilson said the business plan competition is growing in interest as well; this year there were more than 80 applicants for the competition. 

Overall, Wilson said everything seems to be falling together well for LNI. He praised all of the people who help make it a reality, from Civic Center employees to LNI staff and volunteers to the city of Rapid City. 

"There’s such a lot of people in Rapid City that have worked really hard to make this thing work for us. I just can’t say enough thanks to those people," he said. "It’s just been successful because of a total team effort. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for LNI, and it’s good for the city of Rapid City."

He and Bryan Brewer, founder and director of the tournament, said this year's event will continue the tradition of years past, including staples like the pow wow, hand games competition and Lakota language contest. 

This year's event will also include special recognition for the 1988 LNI boys basketball champions, the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte Braves, as well as the 1987 Pine Ridge basketball team. In that year, the Thorpes went 26-0, defeating Lennox in the finals of the 1987 Class A tournament, according to the South Dakota Basketball Hall of Fame website

The Cheyenne-Eagle Butte team will be honored right before the girls basketball championship game on Saturday, Dec. 16; the Thorpes will be honored during half time of that game.

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Each year, Brewer said event organizers get recommendations on who to honor at LNI. This year's induction of the Thorpes into the South Dakota Basketball Hall of Fame made their inclusion a "no-brainer," he said. 

Lakota Code Talkers, and all Lakota veterans, will also get a special recognition at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, in the Don Barnett Arena. 

What started out as an all-Native American tournament was renamed the Lakota Nation Invitational so it could be more inclusive, a step toward reconciliation and healing for all people in the region, according to Brewer.

"That’s always been our goal," he said. "It will continue to be our goal."

The event still holds strongly to its cultural beginnings, with the pow wow events and hand games competition among its biggest draws. Brewer said each year there are students from all nine of the reservations in South Dakota that participate in LNI, which is something he and many others look forward to. 

"It’s like a big family reunion. It’s the only time we see each other," he said. "Plus it’s at Christmastime. That’s always exciting."

Contact Candy DenOuden at candy.denouden@rapidcityjournal.com

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Digital content manager for the Rapid City Journal.