- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

LA CONNER, Wash. (AP) - Getting to and from school used to be a challenge for Felix Lester.

He dodged drunks, drug dealers and the occasional fight to get to classes at Solen High School on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in North Dakota.

It’s what he had to do to get an education. It’s what he had to do to play basketball.

“It’s not much,” Lester said of the Standing Rock reservation. “There is a lot of drug and alcohol abuse, and suicides. I’ve lost friends. I have friends who are involved in that stuff. I didn’t want to end up involved in that stuff.”

So Lester got out.

A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Lester left behind his mother, father and three younger siblings to move in with an aunt and uncle on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation.

He knew this would be the place for him since coming for a visit this past summer.

“I loved it here,” Lester said. “Wow! There were a lot of jobs. There were just a lot of opportunities.”

Life at Standing Rock

The Standing Rock reservation spans about 2.3 million acres between North Dakota and South Dakota and has a population of about 4,000.

Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who defeated General George Custer in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was a resident of the Standing Rock reservation.

Today, it’s an area awash in unemployment and poverty. Housing, health care, and educational and economic opportunities are lacking.

But that’s not to say living at Standing Rock was all bad.

When President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited the Standing Rock reservation in 2014, Lester sat within arm’s reach of the president.

“I sat right behind (the president) at the pow-wow,” Lester said. “I had friends who got to speak directly with him. I was happy about that because they got to tell the president what it’s like to live there.”

Lester was also part of an 18-student group invited by the president to spend three days in Washington, D.C., at a conference on Native American youths and substance abuse.

But the bad Lester saw on the reservation far outweighed the good.

“There just isn’t anything to do (back home at Standing Rock),” he said. “There aren’t any opportunities. During the summer, there are some jobs for the youth cleaning at the casino.

“I wanted to do something more with my life. There was nothing for me in North Dakota.”

Basketball as an escape

When Lester needed to get away from the problems of living on the reservation, he took to the basketball court, where his father coached him until the seventh grade.

“My dad taught me so much,” Lester said.

Last winter, in his sophomore season at Solen High School, he was coached by a former North Dakota high school player of the year. It had an immediate impact.

“I was going through a real tough time,” Lester said. “I did some things I am not proud of. But I still had basketball and I have coach (Jeff) Brandt to thank for that.”

Lester said basketball, in particular nightly sessions at the Standing Rock Community Center, helped keep him out of trouble.

“On the weekends, we’d go there and play basketball until midnight,” Lester said. “After school, we’d go play until 10 p.m. The place is falling apart, but it’s something for the kids to do. It gives them an opportunity to play.”

Basketball has also helped him make the transition from living in North Dakota to living in the Skagit Valley.

Lester is playing on the varsity team at La Conner High School.

“Felix is just a great kid,” La Conner coach Scott Novak said. “He is humble, polite, soft-spoken, and has fit in very well here.

“He’s seen a lot bad stuff and has had plenty of hardships to overcome.”

Making the move

After visiting his aunt and uncle, Marlys and Ace Baker, on the Swinomish reservation last summer, a plan formed for Lester to move to the Skagit Valley.

Marlys Baker is a member of the Swinomish tribe and Ace Baker a member of the Sioux.

“It’s hard,” Ace Baker said about Lester leaving friends and family. “It’s a big move. I’m his godfather, so I am always there for him. We want to get everyone (in Lester’s family) out here. This is where we put down roots. There are a lot of opportunities here. There are colleges everywhere.”

Lester’s mother Jessica and father Jeremy backed the change. They hope to move with their other children to the Skagit Valley this summer.

After his visit with the Bakers this summer, the plan was for Lester to quickly return to the Skagit Valley. But it took several months for Lester to make the move.

Those months were a rough period in his life.

“It was tough,” Lester said. “I went through some things. I was depressed and I did some things I am not particularly proud of.”

Eventually, he moved in with his aunt, uncle and their five sons, and enrolled at La Conner High School.

“He’s doing good with his studies,” Ace Baker said. “Basketball is important, but school comes first. Education is so important.”

Marlys Baker said Lester was able to avoid many of the pitfalls facing those at Standing Rock.

“He was raised right,” she said. “He has been a good example for our boys.”

Lester won’t ever forget those he left behind.

“There are a lot of people, a lot of friends who are still there (on the reservation),” Lester said. “They are stronger than me. They are still there. They have each other’s back. That’s the way it was when I was there. That’s the way it has to be.”

Lester sees himself as lucky.

“Around here they say the town (La Conner) is small,” Lester said. “It’s big to me. I can’t wait for my mom and dad to move out here. And maybe even a couple of my friends.”

___

Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, https://www.skagitvalleyherald.com


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