Middletent twins mirror image of Native Hope for next generation

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Kansas, left, and Kyal Middletent with grandma Mary Shields

We met for lunch in the aging Golden Buffalo Casino in Lower Brule, 15 miles or so from the farm where I grew up.

I call this my “home reservation,” even though I’m not a tribal member. My Irish-Bohemian features make that pretty clear.  Yet, I have always felt at home in this place where sacred Medicine Butte dominates the rolling grasslands as they break away toward the Missouri River and sharp-tailed grouse rise from mix-grass prairie with a chuckle of goodbye.

It is a beautiful, inspiring place, despite the challenges of poverty and the social chaos they create. It was those challenges and the work of two young Lakota brothers to fight them that brought me back again last week to the land of the Lower Brule.

I considered the past and the future as I walked into the Golden Buffalo dining room, and saw Kyal Middletent stand up and move toward me with athletic grace from a table in the corner, where he and three men were meeting.

“Hey bro,” Middletent said as he offered a shoulder-high handshake and chest-bump-style hug. “Come on over. We’re talking with Billy Mills.”

Yes, that Billy Mills, he of the strong lungs and swift feet and Olympic gold medal. The 78-year-old native of Pine Ridge was 26 when he shocked the world by upsetting international favorites with a thrilling last-turn, final-stretch sprint to win the 10,000-meter run in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Mills remains the only American to have won the Olympic 10,000 meters. And he has since put his fame to work in helping Native Americans across the nation through his non-profit Running Strong for American Indian Youth.

Kyal explained that he and his twin brother, Kansas, were meeting with Mills over a $10,000 grant Mills and Running Strong are giving to a youth initiative called Native Hope, which the  Middletents work hard to promote. When we reached the table, Kansas rose with a smile and a handshake and then I turned to offer the same to Mills.

“I saw you a couple of years ago at the Bishop’s Palm Sunday Brunch out in Rapid City,” I said. “And before that, I think the last time I saw you was right here, over at the school gymnasium, where you showed the Olympic film and spoke to the students.”

Mills considered that, smiled and nodded.

“Yes, that must have been 25, 30 years ago,” he said.

Must have been, because when I covered the event I was working for the Rapid City Journal as the paper’s full-time capital-bureau reporter in Pierre, a period from August 1988 to August of 1992. I also was fortunate to cover news on central South Dakota reservations during those years, and was invited by Lower Brule Tribal Chairman Mike Jandreau to cover the Mills visit.

Mills inspired that night so long ago in Lower Brule, and not just the kids. I admit that I joined them in cheering as we watched the image of a handsome, slender, broad-shouldered, young Lakota from Pine Ridge, the University of Kansas and the U.S. Marine Corps surge past world-record holder Ron Clarke of Australia and Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia to win.

As the image of Mills standing on the track after the race with his face in his hands faded from the projector screen, cheers softened to a murmur and then to silence in the gymnasium, where a sense of grand possibilities was suddenly palpable.

Or hope, you might call it. That’s what Mills tries to bring to Native youth, along with bolstering the essential services in their communities.

And that’s what the Middletent brothers, who were likely babies when I watched that film at Lower Brule, are all about in the Native Hope initiative. They, too, will use their past athletic accomplishments as part of their platform of influence.

There is much to overcome in a landscape troubled by high unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence, suicide, profound health-care challenges and generally inadequate medical services. And  after we moved to a separate table for lunch at the Golden Buffalo, Kansas said he and his brother will be "wearing just about every hat you can wear" in the effort.

"I'm the main ambassador, so to speak, and I guess I tell the true history of what happened to our people, historical events and trans-generational trauma," he said. "We'll be working to break down stereotypes and tell the untold story of reservation life."

They'll live the story, too, Kyal said

“We are working to be strong role models to the younger generation,” he said. “We need to tell good stories, and be positive role models.”

They hope that in their own ways, they can use their experiences in sports and past failures and successes in life to inspire Native youth. It’s isn’t just a case of trying harder, either, Kansas said. Kids also must be ready to fail as hard as they try.

“They’ve got to understand that life will chew you up and spit you out sometimes, not matter who you are,” he said. “There’s going to be setbacks that hurt. But you’ve got to get back up and get going. And they’ve got to learn to fail harder.”

Giving 100 percent to anything includes the risk of failing and not being able to say you just didn't care or didn't try, Kansas said. But knowledge comes with failure, for those willing to be instructed by life and listen to others.

Like Billy Mills. Or Kansas and Kyal Middletent.

They learned from their own academic and athletic successes at Lower Brule High School, where Kansas was valedictorian and Kyal was salutatorian as seniors. Kansas also became the first Gates Scholar in Lower Brule High School history.

They excelled in all sports, too, but in football in particular. That’s a bit unusual in Indian Country, where basketball is the focus and Native athletes seems particularly suited to all-out hustle on the hardwood and a game they seem to play with unbridled joy. Reservation football teams are typically not so successful.

“The greatest time in my life was in high school,” Kansas said. “We had the whole community behind us. The team brought everybody together. We’d have 50 cars behind our bus going to games.

The football team was 8-0 in its regular season when the twins were sophomores, 7-1 their junior year and 6-2 when they were seniors. In the playoffs that year, they fell one victory short of going to the DakotaDome for the state championship game.

“We lost to Harding County out there,” Kansas says. “And they were really good. But they told us we stayed closer to them than anybody else had.”

Like his brother, Kansas was 5-foot-8 but weighed about 10 pounds more at 180. He was quarterback and Kyal was running back. Both played linebacker on defense. And their combination of speed and strength and football smarts was difficult for opponents to deal with.

It also caught the eye of college coaches, and the twins ended up at Dakota Wesleyan University, where they planned to play football.

But as too often happens with exceptional high-school athletes coming off the reservations, college didn't work out as planned. Despite their athletic skills and solid academic abilities, they left DWU without degrees or their dreamed-of highlights on the field.

Then the father of a daughter and son at home, Kansas had other things to worry about, even with family help back home.

“We were there the whole first year, but it just wasn't working out,” he said. “I had my kids and withdrew to focus on them. And Kyal was getting discouraged that he wasn't getting playing time that he thought he should get.”

Quitting school was hard. But going home wasn't easy, either.

“We went from being on top of the world, to having our community find out that we left school,” Kansas said. ‘Then you have all that talk about, ‘Oh, we knew you couldn't do it.’”

That was hard. And eventually both Kansas and Kyal turned to drugs, particularly synthetic marijuana, as an escape. It sent them into a dangerous-and-destructive spiral.

“The synthetic marijuana, it just consumed my life, and my brother’s as well,” Kansas said. “I actually went to jail, spent the Easter weekend in jail, when I was supposed to be with my kids. And I knew right then and there I had to stop what I was doing or I was going to lose my kids.”

He didn't lose them, thanks to his own resolve and support from his adopted mother, Trish Lundell, and his grandmother, Mary Shields. And Kyal worked his way back from his own fall in a similar way, with similar reliance on his mother and grandmother.

They are strong women with a powerful commitment to the twins that helped carry them through early years of  life complicated by alcoholism and abandonment by their biological parents, and the challenges that would come later.

“My real mom, she gave us up. And my adopted mom, she became our mom when she was engaged to my dad,” Kansas said. “We could see through to her heart. She did everything for us that a mom would do. And from that point she has been our mother.”

When their father married another woman, Trish Lundell stayed loyal to the twins.

“She got her heart broke by my dad, and her engagement was over, and he was married to another woman,” Kansas said. “She could have said, ‘No, you’re not my kids.’ But she didn't say that. My mom’s been a rock.”

And their grandma?

“Oh, my grandma has been the ultimate boulder,” Kansas said. “She has always been there for us.”

As if on cue, Mary Shields strolled into the Golden Buffalo dining room as we were finishing lunch, to see how the interview was going.

“Are they doing a good job? Are they being respectful?” she said. “I taught them to be respectful.”

I smiled at that. So did the twins.

“She’s always checking up on us,” Kyal said. “She wants to make sure we’re doing things the right way, the honorable way. That’s what we want, too. We’re committed to that, every day.”

They’re also committed to forgiving their biological mom and strengthening their relationship with their dad, a gifted craftsman who makes furniture from willows along the river.

The Middletent’s commitment to Native American youth has taken them more into leadership roles that began in high school and continued with employment at the Lower Brule School. Now it is spreading out into inspirational speaking against drugs and alcohol and a return to traditional Native American ways.

“We found the right path again, knowing we had to be strong for ourselves and our children,” Kyal said. “Now we are working for our children and for all the children. We have to be strong for them.”

Kansas now has a baby boy, Jonah, as well as his 10-year-old daughter, Lael, and 9-year-old son, Nate, and is engaged. Kyal has a 6-year-old daughter, Maci, and an 18-month-old son, Karson. So they have even more motivation to work hard for them and for solutions to the problems facing Native American youth. They believe Native Hope will be central to that effort.

The Chamberlain-based non-profit can be found online at www.nativehope.com or the old-fashioned ways at (888) 999-2108 or 112 Main. St., Chamberlain, SD 57325.

Native Hope operates on a financial foundation provided by a supporting donor that wants to remain anonymous, Kansas says. From there, it seeks donations and grants and provides support and financial assistance to similar efforts in Indian Country.

"We want to establish a coalition of all these types of programs, giving each the support we can and filling in where we are needed," Kansas said. "We can't be divided trying to conquer all these problems. We have to be united."

Kyal said they are part of a much bigger effort that needs widespread tribal support.

“We’re just the catalysts, trying to get people started and help them stay on the right path,” he said.

Kansas also works as a full-time ambassador for Native Hope, meaning he has an especially busy speaking schedule, as well as goals that stretch into the next generation and beyond.

“We’re building a better tomorrow for our people, developing a model that there is more out there for kids. And ultimately we help the younger generation on the reservation find its voice," he said. “That’s what Native Hope is — a way to give our people a voice, and hope.”

The maternal rock in their lives expects their effort to succeed. The twins took me to meet Trish Lundell at her office job in the tribal-headquarters building on a windy ridge west of old Lower Brule.

“They’ve always always had such amazing energy,” Lundell said. “From the get-go, pretty much everything they’ve tried, they’ve done well.”

And the ultimate boulder in their lives? Well, Mary Shields stopped at the tribal offices, too, for a chat about the twins. She shares and magnifies Lundell’s confidence in them.

At 83, Shields still has a job with the tribe. But she also has time to encourage and keep tabs on her grandsons, which is no easy task considering their energy and schedules.

“I put my wings over them and make sure they’re all right,” she said. “And I still talk to them about what they need to be doing, and what’s right. I’m always checking up to see how they’re doing.”

Then, with a hug for each twin, she was off. And so were they.

There’s no time to waste, after all, when you’re building a culture of hope.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.