I remember well the excitement that ran from one end of the Pine Ridge Reservation to the other when the word spread that the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes, led by the now legendary SuAnn Big Crow, had just won their first ever State A Basketball Championship.
From the Sioux Nation Shopping Center in Pine Ridge Village to Wanbli, diehard fans cheered and there were high fives enough to last 10 years and that is exactly what happened except it took 20 years for the miracle to happen again.
In 1989 cars started to lineup at the reservation border as the fans waited excitedly for the bus carrying the Lady Thorpes. As the bus crossed the border cheers went up and a procession of vehicles escorted the triumphant hoopsters back to Pine Ridge Village.
On a reservation used to hard times to see a bunch of ragtag girls travel across the state and come home in total victory is about as uplifting as anything in the world. The euphoria lasted for days and that band of girls are still embedded in the memories of so many Oglala Lakota.
Twenty years have passed since that wonderful day. The residents of Pine Ridge saw other teams from the reservation come close, but never quite make it all the way to the top. But that long wait came to an end last night as another team of young ladies fought and clawed their way to another State “A” Championship.
The people of Pine Ridge had another hero in the mold of SuAnn Big Crow. Her name is Christian Janis and her 26 points last night helped the Lady Thorpes beat the only undefeated team in the tournament as the Dell Rapids Lady Quarriers tasted defeat for the first time this year. The Lady Thorpes concluded their season with a record of 25 wins and only 1 loss.
In 1989 it was a team led by an Oglala Lakota coach named Charles Zimiga, and in 2009 another Oglala Lakota coach named Dusty LeBeaux had the honors. His advice to the team just before tipoff was, “Don’t let them come in and take your dreams.”
Christian’s teammate sisters, Sophia and Alliey, were there when needed and teammates Saadia Tasso, Becka Ten Fingers, Lacey Weston and the others excelled under the quiet leadership of Christian.
The Lady Thorpes returned to Pine Ridge in triumph on Saturday bringing joy and pride to an entire Indian reservation. The soft-spoken man who has led them through this amazing season, Dusty LeBeaux, a man who nearly retired after a serious illness, can hold his head high.
There was, many years ago, a Lakota man named Bob Clifford, or just plain “Coach” as he was known to all of the boys he coached for more than 30 years. He was an inspiration to a few generations of Indian boys and he was known for his quiet patience. Dusty LeBeaux is cut from the same cloth.
In one of the playoff games his star Christian Janis missed several free throws and after the game LeBeaux told her that free throws will probably make the difference in a tight championship game. A good student of his coaching, Janis spent extra time practicing her free throws and as the game against Dell Rapids tightened near the end, it was the deadeye free throws of Janis that clinched it.
As a former student at a Pine Ridge Reservation school I know the pride the people feel today because I felt that great pride one year when our team lost the championship but fought back hard to win the consolation championship. For the boys at Holy Rosary Indian Mission, that consolation championship game meant as much to us as the whole enchilada and when the team came home, we greeted them like warriors.
Well, the Lady Thorpes of Pine Ridge brought home the whole enchilada last night and the spirits of a people were lifted to the heavens.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Lakota Journal. He is now the publisher of the Native Sun News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.