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Why sports matter so much in Indian country

Sports matter in every community in South Dakota, but they matter more in Lakota Country. Fans are willing to fist fight when faced with defeat, many are looking for any excuse to justify violent behavior. Emotions run high in society at large given any rivalry, where the contest represents more than just two teams playing a sport; these athletes are the chosen, sent out to uphold the honor of the community, and return conquering heroes.

On reservations this obligation runs much deeper, and springs from a well of emotional scars and abiding grievances. Life is hard on the reservation, and history screams at every tribe to defend their honor, identity, and territory from the encroachment of others, especially White people. This defense is poorly handled when it comes to almost every aspect of social interaction, meaning White folks dominate, save for one area— sport. Especially basketball.

Far more Lakota than people think would excel in a cerebral game like chess, or win first place at the science fair, if the tribes cared as much about that excellence as they do basketball. But they don’t. From the get, the dominant culture had the advantages in that regard. Any bright Lakota had to achieve excellence in science and other intellectual disciplines despite coming from a wounded culture confined to a bleak reservation reality, where excellence in such endeavors would not be admired or encouraged. When Carlisle Indian School was a power in collegiate football, and Jim Thorpe won Olympic gold, it was obvious that the dominance of White culture did not extend to athletics.

By the 1930’s, local reservations had basketball squads capable of throttling most of their nonwhite neighbors. Here was something every Lakota could understand, with which they could identify. How do you root for a chess champion, or a genius with a scholarship to MIT? — “Man, I bet Donna Mae could beat the great Capablanca at chess!”— Or, “Did you see Delbert explain Einstein’s Special Relativity theory last night? It was awesome! Best explanation ever!”

The science and knowledge of the dominant culture is hugely suspect anyway, because it most reminds tribes of why they lost the war to the invaders from Europe, a technology advantage that has dramatically widened in the last 150 years.

But any local boy, from the humblest beginnings, can ignite a community, by lighting up a scoreboard, especially if it comes at corn-fed, shelter-belt expense. There is no feeling as sweet as sending an East River team home with long faces at tournament time.

The answer to this problem is not to be ashamed of how much we love basketball, or to police our enthusiasm for the game, or tone down our respect and affection for the kids that excel at it. Every tribe must face the truth that we are deep into the future our ancestors feared, because it was such a mystery. Well, it is no mystery to us, unless we want it to be. Like Shakopee, we need to establish financial independence from the federal government, and we need to start producing, not just basketball players, and BIA bureaucrats, or academics— we need professionals: doctors, lawyers, engineers, contractors, financial experts, and we need them as soon as possible, so we can start building our own society, our own modern society where we don’t think some holy man’s prayers will change the course of a tornado.

When we build our own economy, when our towns have commerce, and our crime rate plummets, and our individual successes multiply, and we lose the thin-skinned chip on our shoulder, then our athletic pursuits will be a healthy expression of who we were, and who we have become. Our kids will play for programs much better coached and far better organized, and every athlete will be able to achieve their full potential.

Far from losing favor and importance, athletes will occupy a much healthier and positive role than they do now. They will be the expression of a strong culture supporting the children they love, not the ballplayer supported for selfish and misguided agendas that are not in his best interest, children expected to defend tribal honor by shooting a round ball through an iron hoop because the adults in the room fail to uphold tribal honor off the court.

(Contact James Giago Davies at


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