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All Nations Football Conference has reinvigorated the sport in tribal schools

The All Nations Football Conference is only a year old and is already growing. (Photo: All Nations Football Conference)

LOWER BRULE, S.D. (BVM) — On Nov. 8, 2019, the Lower Brule Sioux and the Crow Creek Chieftains played in a championship football game. Under the lights of the historic Dakota Dome in Vermillion, S.D., these two schools made history.

“It was a great cultural and athletic experience all in one,” Lower Brule superintendent Lance Witte said.

The inaugural season of the All Nations Football Conference was the culmination of years of work which led to the new nine-man football league formed by 12 tribal schools from South Dakota. The formation of the league was the result of Witte and others working at tribal schools seeing a continuous decline in football due to a few contributing factors.

“Lower Brule has always had a pretty competitive football team in relation to tribal schools,” Witte said.  

The problems arose when Lower Brule and other tribal schools would play against public schools. 

“They would show up with a squad of 30 to 40 kids and we show up with 15 and try to compete,” Witte said. “We had eighth graders playing against seniors.”

The low numbers not only made it hard to compete, but also risked the safety of the players. This led to more athletes quitting or not even trying out because they didn’t want to risk injury prior to the basketball season.

“The main sport on our reservation is basketball,” Witte said. “For us, we had like 45 kids go out for basketball, but 15 out for football.”

These issues were the reason that some schools hadn’t even fielded a football team in a few years. With the announcement of the All Nations Football Conference, those same schools excitedly agreed to participate.

“Our participation numbers went up exponentially,” Witte said.

With the help of SDHSAA, the inaugural season was a complete success. It was even featured in the annual Lakota Nations Invitational Tournament, which had been just for cross country and volleyball until this year.

The teams were split into two divisions, with each team playing six games and all teams making it to the playoffs. This gave each team something to look forward to at the end of the season, especially when considering the championship venue.

“A historical piece for football in South Dakota for the last 30 years or so has been the Dakota Dome,” Witte said. “It’s where you have the championship game.”

The Chieftains won that championship game, 74-39, in front of a crowd of over 1,200 spectators, including fans from each team who had come to celebrate their own players that had made the all-conference team, which was honored during the game.

The crowd also included future league members from Nebraska. Before the game had even been played, Winnebago and Omaha Nation schools had agreed to compete in the 2020 season. 

Two other teams, one from North Dakota and another from South Dakota, have also agreed to join the league this year. The upcoming All Nations Football Conference season will feature 16 teams in two divisions playing eight games with the best four teams making it to the postseason. The championship will once again be at the Dakota Dome and will take place the same weekend as all other South Dakota high school football championships.

The success of the All Nations Football Conference has not gone unnoticed. The SDHSAA was thrilled with the league’s success and other states, like Wyoming, have begun to inquire about the league.  

The All Nations Football Conference is here to stay. Now it’s only a matter of how big it will get.

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