SIOUX FALLS (AP) – When the Kul Wicasa Oyate of Lower Brule High School meet the Crow Creek Chieftains in the first All Nations Football Conference championship in South Dakota on Friday, only one team will fulfill its dream of claiming a league title.
But for many players in this new Native American league, where students defy both athletic and socio-economic statistics and dream of playing in a championship game at "the Dome" at the University of South Dakota, simply getting onto the field has provided a personal victory.
Tribal schools in South Dakota formed their own 9-man league this year, a move that coaches and players say has rejuvenated the sport in Native American communities statewide. Some coaches saw their existing teams grow by two-thirds; two schools are fielding their first teams ever.
Supporters say the teams are giving students a reason to stay in school and out of trouble, and communities are coming together to rally around the teams. Reservations in South Dakota suffer from high rates of crime and drug use, and many schools struggle to keep students from dropping out.
"There's a lot of negative stuff that goes on on the rez," said Scott Obago, Lower Brule's 17-year-old quarterback. "Staying at practice, staying with friends keeps you away from all that stuff."
Football has historically been played widely by Native Americans, dating to the days of greats like Jim Thorpe. But in recent years, many smaller schools found themselves overmatched by schools with larger rosters and bigger players.
Leonard "Yamni" Jack, the athletic director at Lower Brule, said reservation schools often don't have the money to build weight rooms, fields, and equipment needed to compete with better-funded public schools. Participation in football also sometimes suffered on reservation schools, where basketball is king and some potential players didn't want to risk injury.
Last year, the Lower Brule staff came up with a plan to form their own league, open to schools with at least 50% Native American students and to both Native American and non-Native American athletes. Twelve schools joined, including two that had never had a football team.
Organizers say the first season was a success. Two schools from Nebraska are planning to join next year.
"Football has been reinvigorated in the tribal communities," Lance Witte, Lower Brule's superintendent, said.
With fewer injuries than in previous years when they were part of statewide competition, coaches have seen a surge in interest. Lower Brule coach Zeke Prado said some of the students who tried out had never played football, and he relished the chance to teach them new skills and encourage them to keep their grades up, so they would be eligible to play.
The team's success this year has also been a source of pride and involvement from the community. The rivalry between tribal schools can be intense because many of the athletes have relatives and friends who go to schools that may be separated by just a few miles. Jack, the athletic director, said the pep rally before the championship game drew the most parents he's ever witnessed.
It's not just the winning teams that call the new league a success.
Takini High School in Howes formed a team for the first time this season and didn't win a game. But coach Donald Schroeder said he's expecting more students to come out next year – including a few girls.
"We could have something here really special," Schroeder said.