In the past 40 years, the Lakota Nation Invitational has grown to become an institution and celebration of Native youth. Curiously, it all started as a reaction to exclusion.
"It was after Wounded Knee, and we could not get basketball teams to play Pine Ridge," said Bryan Brewer, founder and director, referring to the 1973 American Indian Movement’s armed occupation of the site where 300 Lakota people were massacred by the 7th Cavalry in 1890.
"We could not get a full schedule. A lot of schools thought we would bring violence."
Brewer was then a basketball coach at Pine Ridge and was frustrated that he couldn't get enough games for Pine Ridge boys' and girls' teams because of racist attitudes.
So, he called other Native American schools in Kansas and Nebraska, as well as other schools in South Dakota, to start what was then called the All-Indian Tournament in 1977. The event spent its first two years at Pine Ridge with only eight schools participating. But even then, it attracted a crowd.
"Our gym could only hold 1,200 people," Brewer said. "We had no room, standing room only, and had to turn people away."
Brewer got a chance to move the tournament up in its third year, when the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center welcomed the teams and the All-Indian Tournament became the Lakota Nation Invitational.
"It was difficult at first, because Rapid City didn't know us and we didn't know them," Brewer said. "But since then, the doors have really opened."
The doors have remained open, with the Civic Center welcoming the 40th annual Lakota Nation Invitational, an event with a far greater reach than it had in its humble beginnings. The LNI field is now 32 teams (16 male, 16 female), and has grown from being just a basketball tournament to an all-around celebration of Native youth in a wide range of activities.
"We've really grown; last year we had more than 2,500 students participating in the different events," Brewer said.
Those events include a Lakota Language bowl, a quiz and knowledge bowl, an art show, an archery competition, brand-new theater and song competitions, and a hand game tournament, which Brewer said has become perhaps the biggest event, with 40 teams.
That tournament has its own humble beginnings, according to its coordinator, Roger White Eyes.
"They were small enough to be run behind the bleachers, with two games going on at once, for elementary and high school," White Eyes said. "We'd start up while they were playing basketball and would stop for all of the awards because of the drums and songs."
White Eyes said there were a maximum of eight to 10 teams at the time, but it started growing. By 2010, 400 to 600 students were participating.
"I think it grew because of the popularity of hand games on individual reservations," White Eyes said. "Students have been learning hand games on Pine Ridge for quite a while, and we have tournaments down there every other Friday."
White Eyes said that the value of including hand games as a major part of the LNI was worthwhile because they allow students to take part in their traditional culture.
"They get to hear their own songs, make their own songs or hear traditional songs and take part in a friendly competition connected to their culture," White Eyes said.
Brewer agreed, adding that the addition of other events has allowed students of various talents to take part in a major competition.
"I'm a basketball coach, but not everyone plays basketball," Brewer said. "This is a perfect opportunity to showcase all students in cultural events, academic events, the arts. It's a state tournament, so it's a great platform to showcase all of them, let them show what they can do and show how proud we are."
Brewer talked about what he expected for the LNI's future, saying organizers hope for a Civic Center expansion to find more room for other activities, while mentioning that they are planning a full spring educational conference and year-round activities.
"I think we're getting more and more of our people aware of it, because it's probably the biggest event to draw all tribes together," Brewer said. "It's like a family reunion. We have participants from the first year who have grandchildren taking part."
As former competitors have grown and new ones have come in, one thing has stayed constant for the LNI beyond the attempt to celebrate: reconciliation.
"We see the different things that racism hurts, not just the Lakota but the non-Lakota," Brewer said. "We all have to live together, which is why we invite non-Native schools to take part."
Brewer said thousands of Native Americans live in Rapid City, and there are still struggles with reconciliation. But he also said all attempts to strive for it were worth it.
"We hope we can contribute to everybody working together, and we're seeing more of that with Rapid City conversations now," he said. "We want to participate as much in that as possible. We stress that reconciliation."