It should have been one of the highlights of her life, a fitting conclusion to a stellar high school career.
Instead, she almost missed it.
Santana White Dress, then a senior at Pine Ridge High School, had been named a finalist for South Dakota Miss Basketball, a rare honor for a player from the reservation. But the milestone arrived at a difficult time in her life.
As a way to cope, she turned to alcohol.
The night of the Miss Basketball banquet, the 18-year-old White Dress got so drunk she almost missed the ceremony. It was a lapse in judgment she regrets to this day.
“I just wasn’t thankful when I should have been,” said White Dress, who helped lead Pine Ridge to a runner-up finish at the 2013 Class A state tournament.
With support from her teammates and help from her coach, she overcame the grips of alcohol and depression and earned an opportunity to play basketball at a tribal college in North Dakota. But concerns for her siblings ultimately drew her back to her hometown of Oglala, about 15 miles northwest of Pine Ridge.
White Dress’ journey reflects many of the obstacles Native American athletes from South Dakota reservations must overcome, including societal issues, outdated weight facilities, a lack of recruiting exposure and a dearth of positive role models.
While Native American participation at NCAA institutions increased during the 10-year period from 2007-17, only 17,345 student-athletes of the 4.6 million total student-athletes during that stretch identified as American Indian/Alaskan native. That comes to .004 percent.
Alejandro Rama is trying to defy those odds and the stereotypes attached to athletes from the reservation. The Red Cloud senior, who currently holds offers from Dakota State, Chadron State and McCook Community College, regularly has to drive six hours during the summer just to get in front of college coaches.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “Even though I have the drive and I have the talent and I work hard, I still have to work that much harder to get noticed.”
Recently, there has been a push to reverse negative trends on the reservation. Facility improvements and the foundation of Sacred Hoops, a summer AAU basketball program, are bolstered by the emergence of young coaches such as Little Wound’s Mackenzie Casey, a former South Dakota State player.
While there has been some positive momentum, it remains an uphill climb for high school athletes from the reservation — even after they have moved off to college.
“It’s really difficult for them (to move away),” Crazy Horse superintendent Silas Blaine said. “A lot of times when they go off to college, they feel lonesome (and) if they know they’re needed or wanted back home, they’ll move back to provide that help that is needed.”