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Our opinion: The Sacred Hoops Basketball Academy strives to bring native and non-native people together in a non-threatening way; that same approach should be taken as we work to improve the condition of the larger human race.

When Freeman Academy/Marion and Lower Brule squared off in Mitchell on Saturday for the second annual Sacred Hoops Classic, it was about more than just a basketball game. It was also about building a sense of respect for, and understanding of, cultures that are difference from one another.

According to a statement read prior to announcing the starting lineups, “This classic is about bringing athletes from all corners of South Dakota together to not only play the game of basketball, but also to build relationships and gain a better understanding of all races in our state.”

That terrific statement was read prior to each of the nine boys and girls games played on the Corn Palace court on Saturday. It should remind us all the opportunity right here in South Dakota, to not only be better people collectively, but also to work toward building up relationships between the American Indian population and others who live on the land once occupied by them.

It seems as though reconciliation among all South Dakotans — one of the benchmarks of the late George Mickelson’s service as governor of South Dakota from 1987 to 1993 — has gotten lost in the noise of other conflict at the national level.

Sacred Hoops basketball is one small effort toward that important cause.

The Sacred Hoops Basketball Academy holds charity camps and outreach programs and also offers scholarships and competitive traveling teams. According to its philosophy, it exists “to provide basketball opportunities for all athletes who want to improve their game regardless of where they live. We are committed to providing the best basketball training and bringing that training to you so that you are not forced to travel to make it happen. We believe that all kids should have the opportunity to pursue their goals and dreams no matter what background they come from.”

Saturday’s Sacred Hoops Classic is another means toward that end.

Freeman Academy/Marion and Lower Brule took part in the classic along with 10 other native and non-native schools alike — Custer, Dell Rapids St. Mary, Kimball/White Lake, Lakota Tech, Lennox, Madison, Parkston, West Central, White River and Winner.

Before each game, the Lakota Flag Song was presented. Players of the game from each team were publicly announced after each game, and those players and their coaches were interviewed by Sacred Heart Hoops organizers for a radio spot afterward.

During that interview, FA/Marion head coach Austin Unruh was asked how he felt about the opportunity to play an all-Native team they don’t normally see.

“I love it,” he said, noting that his team has regularly faced teams rooted in Native American culture like Flandreau Indian, Marty, Takini and Santee, Neb., and has also been the only non-native team playing in the Dakota Plains Invitational. “We’ve actually, as a program, done a lot of cross play.”

Unruh noted the diversity on his own team; over the years the Bearcats have suited up players from China, Cameroon, the Congo, Central America, Spain, and this year’s starting five includes two players who are African American.

“Our diversity has always been there and we love it,” the coach continued. “We relish in the fact that we live in a diverse world, so it’s great to be in these cross-cultural experiences. The more we can do to bridge those connections and close the gap between those societies, the better.”

The camps hosted by the Sacred Hoops Academy — five of his own players participated this past summer — also go a long way in leveling the playing field.

“The more exposure we get to those kids, the closer those bonds are going to be,” Unruh said. “The more we can reach out to each other, the more we start to love each other, those divides start dropping away.

“That’s the most important thing we’re doing here.” We couldn’t agree more.

Because the Native American population is sparce in our immediate vicinity, direct relations between the diverse cultures represented on the Corn Palace court on Saturday aren’t as relevant on a day-to-day basis as in other areas of South Dakota. But that doesn’t mean the people of the Freeman and Menno communities shouldn’t be paying attention to the challenges and be supportive of a movement toward a broader understanding of each other.

Furthermore, the issue of reconciliation with the Native American community is representative of all divisions that challenge us, be it political, religious or economic.

Maybe the new year, prompted by the mission of the Sacred Hoops Basketball Academy, can serve as a springboard for a renewed commitment to improved understanding and relationships among all people. Let’s hope it is.

So how will you do your part? How will you sow seeds of unity rather than division?


Jeremy Waltner | Editor & Publisher