(AP) — Travis Brave Heart was planning to spend his senior season this spring and summer tuning up to play college lacrosse in the fall. Instead, the 17-year-old standout from Aberdeen, South Dakota, is faced with the prospect of not playing at all.

His Lightning Stick Society team was one of three Native American clubs kicked out of a developmental league in North Dakota and South Dakota amid their concerns about racial abuse, leaving players and coaches upset and scrambling to find ways to continue playing a game that originated with their ancestors and means more to them than just competition.

"I got my anger out of the way," Brave Heart said. "I went outside and practiced lacrosse, even though it was snowing. After I played, I wasn't angry anymore. Then I thought, 'What do we need to get past this? To get playing again?'"

The head of the league rejected any notion of widespread racism, and said the teams were removed not for complaining but for issues such as unreliable attendance.

Lacrosse is considered America's oldest sport — an important part of Native American cultures long before the arrival of Europeans. It's still used to teach Native youth about culture, values and life skills like keeping emotions under control. It can also be a path to college for players who often come from impoverished reservations.

The Dakota Premier Lacrosse League is part of a surge in popularity. Participation on organized teams — mostly youth and high school level — more than tripled over 15 years to a record 825,000 players in 2016, according to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body.

Since the Dakota league launched in 2016, Native American teams have experienced racial abuse that they don't experience in neighboring states like Minnesota and Nebraska, said Kevin DeCora, a Lightning Stick Society coach.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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