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Capture the fort

A version of this story appeared in Indian Country Today in July 2011.

Cries of “tapa” (“ball” in Dakota) rang out across the parade ground of Fort Randall, one of many army forts built in Sioux country during the 19th century. As seen in the photographs below, eighteen boys in two long lines ran forward in turn, lacrosse coaches Brendan Shook and Brett Hughes lobbed balls at the kids, who scooped them up in their lacrosse sticks and sprinted across the grassy expanse to smack them into a goal. “Louder!” Brett encouraged the boys. “Really! It’ll help!” 

“Tapa!” the kids shouted back. Most of the boys, aged 3 to 15, were from the Yankton Sioux reservation, across the Missouri River in south-central South Dakota. Four came from Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, a Dakota nation in the northeastern corner of the state, and a few came from the Southern Ponca and other Native communities.
     The kids and coaches then divided into teams and engaged in a lively scrimmage, ranging up and down the field under the fierce Northern Plains sun. Pro players Brendan and Brett, currently on the LXM exhibition tour, taught the kids — dubbed the Lightning Stick Society — during a four-day end-of-June camp outfitted with donations from lacrosse equipment makers Cascade, STX, and Warrior.
     More coaching and mentoring came from Frankie Jackson, cultural anthropologist and Sisseton-Wahpeton tribal member; Dave Hennessy of sports-outreach group Lacrosse the Nations; Brendan’s dad, Dan Shook, a university physical education director; Brendan’s father-in-law, team physician Dr. John Duda; and members of a Yankton men’s group, the Elk Soldier Society.
     Readers may know the Elk Soldiers as the top-notch drum of the same name. Glenn Drapeau, Kip Spotted Eagle Collins, Gary Drapeau, and Louis Sitting Crow lived up to their reputation they opened the camp with an elk song that extolled the beauty in each individual. “Every one of you is special,” Glenn explained in Dakota and English. “You all have something to offer.” As he introduced the participants to each other, he brought the outsiders into the Dakota family circle when he told the boys that the visitors were relatives who’d come to teach them lacrosse.
     “Our people are absolutely about relationship building and cultural exchange,” Glenn said. “This is our tradition. We know our creation stories, we live in our ancestral homeland, and we welcome relatives to this good place.”
     Lacrosse is a culturally resonant way to do that, said Faith Spotted Eagle, Glenn and Kip’s mother and a leader of the Bravehearts, a Yankton Sioux women’s society that often collaborates with the Elk Soldiers. A traditional Dakota ball-and-stick game is one of lacrosse’s many Native ancestors, she said. The Dakota called the game The Little Brother of War, because it was a way to settle disputes without bloodshed. “Through the game, we found positive outcomes and built relationships,” Faith said.
     “We have a saying that our camps are always supposed to grow, and this project is doing just that,” Glenn said. “Our Sisseton relatives want to have lacrosse there, so we’re working on that, too. We’re putting together an endowment, so we can make sure all the kids who want to play can do so. Our goal, I told the boys, is for the Lightning Stick Society to participate in the Indigenous Games. Whether it’s next year or the year after, it will happen.”
     It may not take long for the kids to reach that objective, said Brendan: “They picked up the sport faster than any group I’ve coached. It’s just right for them in so many ways. They get a sense of team and are mentored by older teammates and adults. They also have a healthy release for times when life is tough.” Instead of going and getting into trouble, he said, they can take out their sticks and play lacrosse with other society members. “We’re in this for the long run,” he added. “We look forward to these kids growing up and taking over the project, so when we’re 65 we can relax.”
     The game gives the boys good male role models who do more than dole out punishment, which is the stereotyped way dads often feel they should relate to youngsters, according to Kip: “We men need to interact positively with our kids, and not just as disciplinarians.”
     The camp wasn’t all drills and scrimmages. Sitting around and enjoying burgers, hot dogs, buffalo-hominy soup, and frybread prepared by moms and Braveheart members was part of the experience, too. Then there was that full-bore South Dakota summer storm, when crashing thunder and lightning inspired campers to desert their tents for safety across the river. “I know I should ‘man up,’” one youngster confessed to his sympathetic grandmother, “but I’d really rather go home.”
     For Brendan, the Yankton Sioux lacrosse camp meant giving back to people whose historic game had provided him a career and a good life. “My father gave me an appreciation for the traditional rituals of the sport, and it had been in my head since middle school to find its roots,” he said. Through his mother-in-law, he met Faith, learned of the Dakota relationship to the sport, traveled to the Yankton Sioux Reservation this past spring, and contacted Lacrosse the Nations for assistance. The equipment makers kicked in balls, sticks, helmets, goals, and more, and rest is both history and a future for Native kids’ sports — and for their spirits, said Kip.
     The lacrosse camp rewrote a piece of history, he explained: “The government implemented its genocidal policies from places like Fort Randall. The historical plaques that surround the parade ground express pride in that genocide. Not that long ago, soldiers from this fort and others were saving bullets by using rifle butts to kill our children. By playing here, our kids recovered this land for us spiritually. We’ve interrupted the negative energy with the sound of children laughing.”
     There’s a lot of hope, Kip said, thanks to what 18 young lacrosse players accomplished.

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard.

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