Travis Brave Heart was planning to spend his senior season this spring and summer tuning up to play college lacrosse in the fall. Instead, the 17-year-old standout from Aberdeen, South Dakota, is faced with the prospect of not playing at all.
His Lightning Stick Society team was one of three Native American clubs kicked out of a developmental league in North Dakota and South Dakota amid their concerns about racial abuse, leaving players and coaches upset and scrambling to find ways to continue playing a game that originated with their ancestors and means more to them than just competition.
“I got my anger out of the way,” Brave Heart said. “I went outside and practiced lacrosse, even though it was snowing. After I played, I wasn’t angry anymore. Then I thought, ‘What do we need to get past this? To get playing again?’”
The head of the league rejected any notion of widespread racism, and said the teams were removed not for complaining but for issues such as unreliable attendance.
Lacrosse is considered America’s oldest sport — an important part of Native American cultures long before the arrival of Europeans. It’s still used to teach Native youth about culture, values and life skills like keeping emotions under control. It can also be a path to college for players who often come from impoverished reservations.
The Dakota Premier Lacrosse League is part of a surge in popularity. Participation on organized teams — mostly youth and high school level — more than tripled over 15 years to a record 825,000 players in 2016, according to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body.
Since the Dakota league launched in 2016, Native American teams have experienced racial abuse that they don’t experience in neighboring states like Minnesota and Nebraska, said Kevin DeCora, a Lightning Stick Society coach.
“Racism kind of goes across the board with all sports,” he said. “It’s the attitude and belief that people in the Dakotas have always had to the indigenous population, for hundreds of years.”
As an example, Lightning Stick director and co-coach Franky Jackson and others cited a 2015 incident in which Native American children were sprayed with beer while watching a minor league hockey game in Rapid City.
Brave Heart said he has endured taunts about his Native American ancestry from white players and their parents, rough play he feels crosses the line into abuse and what he views as biased refereeing toward white players. He described an incident after one game, as his team was resting in the shade under some trees, in which a parent from another team carrying a cellphone camera came looking for evidence of drugs or alcohol, “assuming we were a bunch of drunk Natives.”
The primarily Native teams expelled from the Dakota league — Susbeca and 7 Flames are the others — say they were kicked out after asking the league to address their allegations. They provided copies of letters they said they sent to the league and to U.S. Lacrosse in 2016 and 2017, detailing the cellphone-toting parent incident and other specific instances of racial slurs and overly rough play.
League Administrator Corey Mitchell said he received only one formal complaint, in 2016. He said he investigated and found no evidence of misconduct warranting punishment, but he provided a copy of an email he sent to people in the league after the complaint informing them of a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination or racial slurs.
Mitchell said the league had problems with the Native American teams including unreliable attendance and improper registration of some coaches and players.
“I think this is nothing more than a response to being held accountable,” he said.
Ali Vincent, who writes grant requests to fund the 7 Flames, said the teams dispute they did anything that warranted expulsion.
U.S. Lacrosse in a statement said “diversity and inclusion are essential components of our sport” and that it would investigate.
Mitchell acknowledged that the fledgling league has had its struggles, including inexperienced referees, but said it has strived to improve through such measures as requiring U.S. Lacrosse certification for coaches. He has formed a board of directors with Native American representation to run the league and said he will step down as director after this season.
None of the league’s predominantly white teams responded to requests for comment, though the association that runs the team in Fargo, North Dakota, quit the league and issued a statement saying it doesn’t condone racism. That association’s president didn’t respond to an interview request.
The Native teams said they are getting support and offers to play from teams around the country, and are lining up other opponents.
“At the end of the day, we only want these kids to play,” Jackson said. “We deal with disenfranchised youth that can’t even afford to buy a mouth guard half the time. We understand how to empower these kids.”
That’s true for Brave Heart, an Oglala Sioux tribal member who helped captain his team to a league championship last year and parlayed that success into an athletic scholarship at Emmanuel College in Georgia. But the sport means much more to him than a pathway to a future as an historic preservation officer.
“We play for the Creator, and we play for the community,” he said. “You think of all the people who can’t play, like people in wheelchairs and the sick, and when you play for them, you get this drive you just can’t explain.
“The day just gets better when you start playing,” Brave Heart added. “It’s definitely more than a game.”
By: Blake Nicholson The Associated Press