The Gift: Iroquois Nationals at the World Lacrosse Championships

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the gift iroquois nationals at the world lacrosse championships winona laduke 1.jpg

“Lacrosse is our gift to the world.

The game is a microcosm of the big game of life. We are in that arena

right now.”

Chief Oren Lyons

He has never given up faith. Oren

Lyons is a statesman and a 48-year member of the Iroquois Council of

Chiefs. He is also a lacrosse player, of world renown. I found him

with the Iroquois National Team in the World Championship Lacrosse

games in Denver, the sixth of such world championships. Here, the

Iroquois would end up with a Bronze Medal, after the U.S. and Canada.

The sport has grown exponentially and this year, 32 teams came with

new countries joining such as Uganda, Belgium, China, Colombia, Costa

Rica, Israel, Russia, Thailand and Turkey just to name a few.

I have driven 1,200 miles with two 14

year-old boys for these games, something which puzzles many. But this

is not just a game, this is epic.

It is told that the first game of

lacrosse was played between the animals and the birds. This game was

won by the animals since it has been called the “Creator’s game.”

Because of the bat, that creature who spans two worlds: mammal and

bird, who won the game for the mammals. Because of this, the birds

now fly south in the winter and the mammals do not travel. The game

was gifted to the two-legged from Creator for enjoyment and as a

medicine game for the healing of the people.

It is a preeminent Indigenous sport,

most known for the Iroquois continuity and commitment and now it’s

resurgence nationally and internationally. In June, for instance, two

intertribal teams composed of players from four reservations

Ihanktonwan/Yankton, Cansa’yapi/Lower Sioux, Sicangu/Rosebud and

Winnebago defeated the Rapid City Shock in a three-game series in

early June. There is a growing force, it is young and increasingly

gifted.

Relations

They seem seamless on the field. That

I notice. As if they are communicating with a long history. This is

fortunate, because there are very few players from which to pick –

and the team itself – has only practiced five times together before

the beginning of the tournament. Oren Lyons tells me exactly how

select the Iroquois team is. “ I asked the U.S. coach, ‘What was

your player pool?’ He said ‘380,000 what’s yours?’ I said 100

and that’s where I think we were this year,” he pauses, “With

Indians the odds have always been out there.”

Iroquois Nationals goalie Marty Ward

(Onondaga) tells me, “ …most of the guys, I have actually played

with before in Six Nations box lacrosse … For some of these guys

you don’t even have to look over there, you just put it there.”

And there are families. There are a

lot of cousins on the field and a lot of family in the stands. My new

friend is Brian Miller, who is the grandfather of Zach Miller, a 19

year-old freshman at Denver University, who is in his second major

international game for the Iroquois Nationals, his last one was at 17

at the U-19 World Games in Finland. “Even when I’m having a bad

game, I just continue to play hard and keep in mind that I’m

playing for the Creator … love to play the game.”

At my first Lacrosse game, I came to

watch Zach play at Denver University, finding Brian in the stands

almost immediately. Brian Miller has done something pretty

remarkable. This past year, he’s traversed the country more than a

dozen times. That is, in his F-150 pickup to see his grandson play

home games in Denver. That would be more than a 1,700-mile trek, from

the Allegheny Seneca reservation in upstate New York to Denver.

“Nobody’s counted it up, but if you look at a the teams schedule

and take out a map, you could probably figure out how many miles I’ve

driven.”

“It’s crazy to think about. It

shows how proud he is. It shows how much family matters,” Zach

Miller says. “My grandfather tells me he prefers driving over

flying. But all the way across the country and back! Now that’s

crazy.”zach miller the gift iroquois nationals at the world lacrosse championships winona laduke.jpg

Then there are the Thompsons, four of

them on the field for the Iroquois National Team, Lyle, Jeremy, Miles

and Ty; cousins and brothers.“I was always taught to play for the

Creator. The game is meant to entertain the Creator,” Lyle Thompson

tells a reporter. “I know the game back then was a lot different

and played for kind of a different purpose. But I think me and my

brothers still carry that sacredness for … the new game that’s

being played now… ” Their father, Jerome Thompson, Sr. is on the

field too, coaching the Iroquois Nationals. The Thompson brothers

this spring won the coveted Teewaraton Trophy, recognizing the best

college lacrosse players. Teewaraton is the Mohawk word for lacrosse

(that would be a French word, apparently donned in 1638). It is the

first time the award was given to Native people and the first time in

history the esteemed award was given jointly, in this case to

brothers.

The Ojibwe word for lacrosse is

Baga’adowewag, referring to playing a game with sticks. I am not a

sports writer, yet I remain avidly fascinated with the game and the

story. “Lacrosse was traditionally used as a means of healing

between parties when hurtful conflicts were eminent. History tells of

a Yankton chief, Wa anatan, who oversaw a game that last several

days, eventually leading to the settling of a conflict between camps.

Many of our communities plagued by violence would benefit from this

ancient way of resolving conflicts and pursuing healing,” Faith

Spotted Eagle, Yankton, explains.

“In the sports earliest days,

players would only step on the field if the clan mothers deemed they

were pure in spirit enough to earn the honor,” Sid Jamieson

(Mohawk), the former Bucknell University lacrosse coach, explained.

“The game was played, I don’t want to say ferociously, but it was

in the old days … There wasn’t any ill feeling about that because

the game was meant to be played rigorously with fairness and all out

effort.”

The Game Grows

Oren Lyons thinks very much that the

game is representative of life and at least Iroquois history. Two

centuries after treaties were made between the Iroquois and the

English, the game had spread voraciously. The Iroquois remained

strong players in the northeast, so much so, that Canada tried to

keep the Iroquois out of the competition.

“We taught them … played them in

the 1890s and all and when it was gaining strength, Canada said we

were professionals and refused to let us in to the world games that

was in 1890. That was because what was happening was that our guys –

in order to raise funds – were doing exhibition matches, sort of

like the Jim Thorpe thing. At that time it was all the field game and

of course it was our game. Our leagues went right on and we tangled

with them now and then,” Lyons says.

It is a parallel path, in many ways to

the political path of the Iroquois Nation. While the Iroquois

represent the longest standing democracy in North America, they were

denied participation in their own game and denied political

participation at the U.N. or many years, but they remained present,

using their own Haudenasaunee passports for international travel. In

l977, they joined the first formal meetings at the United Nations of

Indigenous nations of the western hemisphere, led by many chiefs

including the Iroquois chiefs.

Oren tells me, “we took the team to

Baltimore in l983, took the team to the grand council and asked if

they would sanction the team: thus was born the Iroquois Nationals.

Then we decided that we should go to LA for the Olympics. Well, we

called the LA Indians and at that time Dennis Banks was at Onondaga,

we were giving him some quiet time. (This was also known a time of

political sanctuary offered by the Onondaga from the multiple charges

arising from Banks’ AIM political work.)

“We said, ‘Why don’t we run out

there to the games? Let’s go get Jim Thorpe’s medals.’That’s

what we did. We ran the whole way, it was called the Longest Run,

from Onondaga to LA. They ended up with six teams to play: England,

Australia, the U.S., Canada and a local team from Orange County. At

the end of the tournament England comes up and says, ‘how would you

like to tour England?’ Sure we said, if we can take our passports.

So the next year (1985) we toured England with our Iroquois

passports, accepted the passports and all. We won every game except

for one. We took 40 guys.”

Oren continues the story. “That year

we got a call that we were invited into the International Federation

of Lacrosse – as a nation – none of this affiliate stuff. Those

are my terms. [We] played in Perth Australia in 1990 but from that

time to now it’s just been a progression. [We] played in London,

Manchester, Baltimore; in 2002 in the Australia games, in 2006 we

were in London, Ontario. In 2010 and 2012 we were in London, U.K. and

that’s when they wouldn’t accept our passports.”

That was the last big controversy. In

2012, England did not allow the Iroquois to travel to the

international lacrosse games, it was heartbreaking for many,

particularly since the Iroquois had already traveled numerous times –

using their passports – to these games.

Denise Waterman, board member and

mother of General Manager for Iroquois Nationals, Gewas Schindler,

takes a long view, not unlike that of Chief Lyons. “There’s

always different milestones. When we were in New York City planning

to take our trip to the England games and we didn’t give up. I

remember thinking as soon as we got to the point, where we have

forfeited two games and we would never make the championship round.

And I remember having a moment, thinking, ‘What will the little

children – who are holding sticks – what will they think of us.

Now like all these dreams, for the people, for sovereignty for

identity … I wonder if kids will still believe in us. Maybe they

will think this is a group or a tribe but they didn’t make it. As

soon as I went home, it was the total opposite, it was like they were

heroes. You saw little kids who were like, I want to be a Iroquois

National.” (This is where Denise and I both get sort of teary).

So there it is. An epic story that

represents far more than a game for Indian country. It is a sport

that disciplines you, while nourishing traditions and in many cases,

education and leadership. It is inspiring our youth.

Concerning the academics component,

Lyle Thompson explains, “When I talk to the kids, that’s the

first thing I ask when I go back to the rez. How are you grades? I

try and tell them to get [their] grades up no matter how hard it is.”

He continued, “Second keep loving the game. If you love the game

and its fun, it’s easy to put the work.” There are more and more

Native lacrosse players being recruited for colleges with

scholarships.

“It’s a big deal for the community

back home because there have been plenty of guys who had the

potential talent to do something but got caught up in drugs and all

that stuff,” Zach Miller tells a reporter who is watching him at

Denver University, “being the first one coming out of my

reservation, all little kids and even adults, look up to me for that.

They are all wearing Denver shirts and are really supportive.”

Goalie Marty Ward talks about doing a

lacrosse workshop at Tuba City on the Navajo reservation. “This kid

had a holey shirt and no shoes, another one had holey shoes. I said

where are your good shoes. And the kid said, I have no good shoes.

Those kids deserve to play. The workshop was humbling for Marty.

“It’s almost a spiritual happening,

these games today.” Thomas Vennum, tells me. He is the author of

“Indian Lacrosse” and a highly-regarded historian. “It’s

important that they are so recognized as having really putting

together what was originally their sport and they’ve gotten good

people with them. Oren Lyons as a coach, he’s first class. Until

now the game was restricted mostly to the white bread. It’s

expanding very rapidly now, particularly in the West and Midwest.”

Community

Medicine Game Continues

With the growth of college and high

school lacrosse worldwide, the original game still remains with the

Iroquois, including the traditional wooden sticks. Kevin Bucktooth, a

middle fielder tells me, “We do a community medicine game. Word

is spread throughout the community for a medicine game, its usually

before the rest of the games are played, maybe early April. Onondaga

does it, they say there’s gonna be a medicine game and by noon, we

go,” he pauses. “That game is only wooden sticks. And it’s

usually divided up into men and boys.” Kevin is in his late

twenties, by the looks of him. “Well you are considered a man if

you have kids and the others are the boys. And so I’m still

considered a boy, I think I’m one of the oldest.”

Oren looks to the traditions of the

past to see what may come. “There is the reemergence of the game.

Everyone has this game. That was the way we celebrated, that’s the

way we do our reverence we make our commitments. We used to settle

wars that way, with a game. [There have] never been seven billion

people in the world and if you do not have discipline among the most

intelligent creatures in the world, you are dangerous. You’ve got

to have leaders, principles and faith. What happens in this

generation and next generation will determine if there is going to be

a seventh generation. Those principles equity and peace, about the

good mind. The game is a place to represent that. The ball is a

medicine it will go where it will go. Somebody always loses but we’ve

lost a lot of games we won’t be defeated. We won’t ever be.”

Like Oren, I have faith.