Affectionately known as Double-Trouble or Jekyll and Hyde, Lower Brule twins Kansas and Kyal Middletent give off a vibe of positivity in their work with Native Hope.
Lower Brule Indian Reservation - Every day after school on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, area youth trickle into the local community center. Some are studying, some receiving tutoring, some just messing around on the computers, ALL, wanting to hang out with 29-year old twins, Kyal and Kansas Middletent.
The twins are both young fathers, good with kids and have a deep appreciation of their Sioux culture and all South Dakota youth. While the youth only get to see Mr. Jekyll, many people remember Mr. Hyde showing up when two of the Tuffest athletes ever to come from Lower Brule played sports.
A week ago, Kansas Middletent, who serves as an Ambassador for the Native Hope program, was speaking in Huron. After he was finished, a man, similarly aged, walked up and started a conversation.
“Did you graduate from Lower Brule about ten years ago,” the man asked.
“Yeah,” Kansas replied.
“Do you have a twin,” the man asked. “Are you one of the Middletent twins?”
After Kansas answered yes the man recalled seeing the twins play and remarked just how fierce the two were on any playing surface. While the stranger recollected the bone-jarring football hits, or the in-your-face defense in basketball, he also noted that after the game, the twins flipped personalities and became gentle, thoughtful and compassionate opponents.
While a lot of people remember the Middletent twins for their basketball playing abilities (helped lead Lower Brule to the semis of Lakota Nation their senior year), not everyone remembers the football prowess that helped lead a 12-person roster to the semis of 9-man football playoffs in South Dakota their senior year.
Folks up in Lower Brule had an inkling, early on that this pair would be special.
“In head-start we had a bus driver that told us we were going to take the Sioux to the dome,” Kyal Middletent said.
After spending their elementary years in Lower Brule, the pair bounced around between Kyle, Standing Rock, Chicago, even Mobridge for a summer playing baseball. They eventually came back to Lower Brule to live with their grandmother to attend high school and play any sport that was available.
After an unremarkable freshman football season, the pair, affectionately knows as “DOUBLE-TROUBLE” twisted their coaches arm to let them run the option they had broken down while watching television and reading magazines.
“Sportscenter broke down the option and we’d see that and go outside to the field or on our street, and we’d practice it until we mastered it,” Kansas Middletent said.
The pair told their football coach about the option and coach wasn’t having it.
“Just kinda being the double-trouble guys we were, we just went out and ran option left, option right and nobody could stop it,” Kansas Middletent said. “So, we added a couple of other pieces and just ran with it.”
By the time the Middletent twins reached their senior football seasons, the Lower Brule team was putting up video-game scores and stats. With only twelve players on the 9-man roster, the 2006 Lower Brule football team considered themselves a cross-country team playing football.
Every day before practice we ran what is called, “Warrior Path”, a tough, gauntlet-like workout that reinforced what every player on the Sioux roster knew, that everyone had to be Warriors on the football field.
The dream ended with a semi-final loss, one game short of of representing Native American football at the highest level, a trip to the Dakota Dome. While time has healed the wounds of that loss, that year, 2006 is still remembered fondly by the community and especially those that played on the team.
“I still get goose bumps when talking about it,” Kyal Middletent said. “They rented two big old charter busses and they took our whole communities.”
Every time the Sioux played the stands were full, or there was a mile-long caravan behind the bus as Lower Brule traveled to away games.
“It felt like the movies,” Kyal said. “The pep-rallies were big, my grandmother was getting good compliments and just to do that with 12-kids, that whole season was unbelievable.”
When the members of that 2006 Lower Brule football team get together they always recall the year the team did what no one thought they could do.
“It was an amazing feeling to get that far,” Kansas said. “We were a team that flew under the radar and no one ever gave a chance to.”
While that option offense drew headlines and rave reviews, it was defense, as outside LB’s, where Mr. Hyde truly surfaced as both twins say they loved defense more than offense.
“Teams always knew no one could get to the outside on us,” Kyal said. “With all of the ranch work we did we were strong and just that perfect build type of football player.”
When the twins started enjoying some athletic success during their sophomore seasons, the dreams of becoming a college athlete started to surface. Both say their father taught them how to be tough when life kicked them around a bit. While mother and grandmother pushed education, the twins got some tuff talk, real talk, with a librarian turned Guidance Counselor, Phil Meyers.
“Phil Meyers told us what we needed to do academically if we wanted to play sports in college,” Kyal Middletent said. “We call him grandfather and he calls us grandson now because he was there for us and told us the hard truth that we needed to do better in school.”
By the time they graduated, Kansas was a valedictorian, Kyal a salutatorian.
The help and support and guidance didn’t stop with Meyers.
“Mary Dozark was an awesome teacher and she retired the same year we graduated because she said she couldn’t teach any more after coming across us,” Kansas Middletent said.
A successful run in basketball did not end with a state tournament appearance but the twins say their coach Doug White Bull helped them in so many other ways than just sports.
“Coach always called us Double-Trouble or Jekyll and Hyde and he always told people these guys are going to take me to state,” Kansas said. “He would buy groceries after practice but he was always that guy that made sure you were doing alright outside of school and basketball.”
All of that hard work in the classroom and on the football field paid off when Dakota Wesleyan offered the pair full-ride scholarships to continue playing football while having their educations paid for.
Life takes a different Direction
While football was their passion, family was most important and when Kansas and his girlfriend brought a second child into the world, priorities shifted.
“Ultimately a decision in my life had to be made,” Kansas said. “I was a young father with two children and I had a hard time not being there and feeling like I wasn’t their father.”
After completing his freshman year at DWU, Kansas told the coach he had to go home to be with his family so he moved to Pierre, started working two jobs to help support his growing family.
The twins do just about everything together, and when other family issues beckoned, Kyal, also decided to go home.
As the Middletent twins moved into their 20’s, the pair saw, first-hand the effect that Reservation life can have on young people.
“We lost friends to suicide, addiction and other circumstances and we wanted to be part of changing that cycle for the younger generation,” Kyal said.
While growing up the Middletent twins were able to participate in some structured activities as their mom and dad both coached baseball. As they got older, the lack of activities for the next generation lit a fire for the brothers.
“As the years went on, no one picked up the torch so we wanted to be a catalyst to provide some activities and help let every Native American kid there is a better path and a better way,” Kansas said.
In addition to their work at the Native Hope center, Kyal and Kansas can often be seen helping coach anything and everything from track to cross-country, basketball and football.
“We just see this repetitive cycle of kids falling through the cracks and feeling like they needed more support, more guidance and more structure,” Kansas said. “We wanted to give them hope.”
Kansas said become a father at the age of 17 forced him to persevere and forced his kids to persevere. Now, he speaks about the importance of being that father figure for our communities and our society’s.
“I just try to let others know its ok and to really embrace that role as a father figure,” Kansas said. “Having that strong male presence in the family and in the community will be key to help fixing our society.”
While sports proved to be their vehicle, Kyal Middletent says becoming the best person you can be is more important and will pay dividends in the long run.
“Sports is nothing more than a hammer or nail, a tool to get you where you need to go,” he said. “If it helps out with a scholarship great, if not, it teaches you about life, teaches you about character and it teaches you not to quit.”
When speaking to youth the twins remind young people they aren’t going to win every game and they aren’t going to win every game in life, adding that when times are tough you have to get back up and try again.
“If you are a great person with a great heart, all that will come back to you and drive you in something that you love to do,” Kansas said.
As the Lower Brule basketball teams enjoyed success this winter, the Middletent twins felt a community vibe that hadn’t been felt in awhile.
“People were high-fiving at the store and everybody was wearing their purple and gold t-shirts,” Kansas said. “It was a sense of pride that was back into our community the way they supported our teams.”
For a community that knows a lot about tough times, hard times, seeing the youth be successful gave a momentary respite to life on Lower Brule.
“We felt a change in that cycle from what the boys team did,” Kyal said.
While the pair aren’t experts in the Lakota language and traditions they try to infuse their culture into their work with the youth, and refer those with questions they can’t answer, to an elder that can.
“Our Lakota youth have this urge inside of them longing to know where they come from,” Kansas said. “Kyal and I know our history and our culture and when the kids ask we teach them as much as we know or have others come teach us.”
Values of compassion and respect flow through to the youth the Middletent twins work with. Participants in the Native Hope program know how to pronounce their Indian Names and know how to introduce themselves in Lakota.
Having heard some tough talk in their teenage years, the twins give some back, talking about the challenges the youth on the Lower Brule Reservation face.
“Lack of a parent is one of the biggest challenges,” Kansas said. “Grandma is great but these kids are looking for their parents to be involved and to be the ones encouraging them.”
Kansas reinforces that message when he tells parents, “If you don’t give them quality time you don’t give them anything.”
Kyal wears multiple hats in his work with Native Hope.
“I work with kids out of Lower Brule, Crow Creek, St. Joseph’s Indian School and the Native youth from Chamberlain, Kyal said. “We give them a positive place where they can come if they need tutors or mentoring.”
Four times a month, the youth, and the twins converge. Twice for meetings, twice to do a group activity like movies or bowling. In addition, Kyal works with multi-media and does some photography and Photoshop work with the kids.
Kansas assists his brother with projects and activities, but also speaks in South Dakota, Nebraska and nationally at different events, some revolving around suicide conferences.
Kansas recently went to Spirit Lake to lead a Suicide Prevention Walk and serve as the keynote speaker.
“I travel nationally and speak about historical trauma and the truth about what really happened to Native Americans,” Kansas said. “I try to give people perspective so they have a better idea of why things are the way they are and why our work is needed and why it is so important.”
For a pair of 29-year old fathers, seeing poverty, addiction, even death of people their age, Kyal and Kansas Middletent see only beauty in the place they call home.
Kyal remarks about having the Missouri River as part of their home. A place where you can play and swim, and build forts and hike. He also sees the wide open spaces that provide a provocative landscape.
What he mostly sees is the beauty of his people.
“My people here, a place where you can be happy to see someone and give them a fist-pump, a handshake or a hug,” Kyal said. “Just interacting with the people and seeing the true beauty of the land.”
Kansas echoes those sentiments.
“Mine is my people as well,” he said. “That’s what makes our home so special is everyone is unique and I just see so much resiliency in their sprits.”
Like many of the positive messages posted on the twins’ social media pages, Kansas recently posted that he and his colleague and partner, Trisha Burke, have been selected as this year’s, 15thAnnual SD Indian Education Summit Keynote Speakers.
Before signing off, Kyal had one more message to every youth out there, Reservation or not: “I know there are some highs and lows,” he said. “No matter what, be who you are, be comfortable with who you are and always give maximum effort because that effort will ALWAYS get you there.