It could have been a pitched battle of Eagles, fought swiftly and without mercy. But the lacrosse game played on a recent hot summer day between the Eagles of Prairie Island Indian Community and the Eagles of Apple Valley was a friendlier affair, pitting two teams who respected the other’s sportsmanship and reverence for the Creator’s Game.
In fact, the two groups of boys – separated by history, culture and geography – came together to play, not one team against the other, but on mixed teams playing for the love of the game.
The game, at a small park in suburban Burnsville, and the family picnic that followed was the idea of a group of Valley Athletic Association youth lacrosse players who were inspired by the Prairie Island team’s sportsmanship when the two teams played earlier in the summer.
"We had a really, really good time [playing against Prairie Island]," said Adam Johnson, an Apple Valley eighth-grader and one of the organizers of the family get-together. "I wanted them to come here so that we could do something fun with them."
"My son came home after the first game and said, ‘Mom, that was so much fun," said Tyler Isenmann, a professional photographer who has visited Prairie Island several times to shoot photos of the young players. "He was so impressed with their sportsmanship. There was no smack talk."
While many of the Apple Valley players have been playing lacrosse for several years, the Prairie Island team has been playing for about a year, said coach Brian Kimmell, Native American Coordinator for the Minnesota Swarm professional lacrosse team. The Prairie Island Lacrosse program was created by the Prairie Island Indian Community and the Swarm to promote the traditional American Indian sport among Native youth.
"Lacrosse is part of my heritage," said Evan Childs, a Prairie Island defenseman who became interested in the sport at a Swarm-sponsored summer camp. "This is really fun. I have been playing all summer with my cousins."
Last summer, the Swarm hosted the weeklong Lax-4-Life camp at Prairie Island to introduce the boys and girls on the reservation to the sport of lacrosse, the heritage of the game, health tips and life skills. It was modeled after an earlier camp held by the team at the Fond du Lac reservation near Duluth.
Last year the Swarm signed a partnership with the tribe’s Treasure Island Resort & Casino that included a three-year commitment to develop youth lacrosse programs and gave the tribe exclusive naming rights to the Swarm’s home playing field at the Xcel Center in St. Paul.
"We are honored to have the chance to teach Native youth the game of lacrosse," said Swarm Co-Owner and Vice President Andy Arlotta. "In doing so, we hope to rekindle the spirit and tradition of lacrosse on their reservation, while at the same time providing them with an active and healthy lifestyle alternative."
For its efforts in developing lacrosse programs for Native youth on the Fond du Lac and Prairie Island reservations, the Minnesota Swarm was recognized at the White House on July 11 during First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move in Indian Country initiative.
Kimmell, the Prairie Island coach, said the tribe plans to expand its seventh- and eighth-grade lacrosse program down to the fourth-grade level next year. He is also working with Red Wing High School to develop a program for the youth to play in as they grow older.
The youth will be practicing three to four days a week after school starts in preparation for the Swarm’s Youth Box Lacrosse League this winter, Kimmell said.
The coach is also appreciative of the strong support he has received from tribal leaders.
"We play on an old buffalo field now," he said. "The tribal council plans to rip out the old dirt and grass and put in a proper field – with lights."
With the backing of the tribe and an intense cultural connection, the lacrosse program at Prairie Island is sure to grow and flourish.
"I think this will go on for years, probably," said Prairie Island ninth-grader T.J. Benway, a middie and defenseman. "I like to keep the tradition going. It’s an honor to play this game."
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For more information about youth lacrosse programs, visit the Minnesota Swarm web site at: mnswarm.com.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Isenmann, Caught in the Moment Photography, 612-382-2822. Check out more photos of the game at www.caughtinthemomentphotography.com.
See the Prairie Island Youth Lacrosse at: www.facebook.com/pages/Prairie-Island-Lacrosse/180924358599637.