NATIVE TALENT

07.21.14

A Millennium After Inventing the Game, the Iroquois Are Lacrosse’s New Superpower

Competing as their own national team, the tribe medaled for their first time in the world championship, but not without controversy. Whites said using traditional sticks was cheating.

By and large, American team sports are physically destructive affairs. Playing and practicing any sport at an elite level leaves in its wake broken bones, shredded ligaments and neuronal death. Even weightlifting demands the constant breaking down of muscle fibers.

From this all-consuming cycle of pain and pleasure, though, one sport stands as an exception: lacrosse. First played by Native Americans around a millennium ago, it is the only American sport with distinctly spiritual roots. Its founders, the Iroquois, believe the Creator gave them the sport for His entertainment and as a “healing game” to be summoned as a kind of collective, kinetic prayer to address the ailments of any tribe member. It's believed competitors spiritually connect to each other and the world around them. They convey life forces of trees from which their lacrosse sticks were made. “When you pick up your stick it’s got to be an extension of you.” Iroquois goalie Warren Hill told CBC News. “It’s a spiritual game and a medicine game first.”

Secondly, though, it’s the United States’ fastest-growing college sport and booming worldwide business. This was evident in Denver the last two weeks at the World Lacrosse Championship, which included nine more nations than the last time the games were held in 2010. The Iroquois, the only indigenous people recognized as a separate nation in international sports competition, medaled for the first time in their history Saturday night by beating Australia 16-5. The senior national team—led by a thrilling offensive talent regarded by many as the LeBron James of his sport—finished third and nearly beat superpower Canada for the first time. When the teams played the Sunday before, the Iroquois lost by only a single point.

By most accounts, the fact a team drawing on a population base of less than 150,000 people can hang with a nation like Canada of more than 35 million people is one of the feel-good stories of the year. But not everybody’s buying the narrative. Some believe over-aggressive Iroquois players used an unfair advantage by wielding their traditional wooden crosses, or lacrosse sticks, and are calling for a ban in the name of safety. 

Bigger than ever, the sport is at a crossroads, teetering between reverence for its healing past and fear of a pain-filled future.  

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The Iroquois’ homeland is parts of what’s now New York and southern Canada. As such, some of their national team members end up playing on the same college and pro teams as members of the world’s best two teams, the U.S. and Canada. This familiarity explains a lot of the early chippiness in last Sunday’s Iroquois-Canada game. The antagonism ratcheted up another level, though, when some Iroquois defenders brought out 6-foot-long, shagbark hickory crosses. Such a solid piece of wood, at nearly 4 pounds, is about eight times heavier than the more commonly used, hollow aluminum and plastic counterpart. It’s “like a friggin' weapon. It nearly kills you,” a former Iroquois national player told Sports Illustrated in 2010. “I feel I'm more of a threat with a wooden stick. You can just see it in the other team,” Iroquois defenseman Kevin Bucktooth said. “When the ball swings around to your man, they never come in one-on-one.”

In the 1800s the Iroquois taught others their sacred game only to see their students turn around and bar them from the sport.

The Federation of International Lacrosse, the game’s governing body, allows any team to employ such sticks, but only the Iroquois often do. On Sunday, Iroquois defenders used them to intimidate and pummel Canadians in a second-half surge. Despite committing 13 penalties, the Iroquois roared back from a late 8-3 deficit to notch it at 8-8 before giving up a late goal.

As the game ended, tension between the two sides boiled over into a scrum of stick swinging, pushing, and punching. The game’s most prominent media personality, ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, was appalled.

“The referees lost control of this game early in my estimation, when the Iroquois came out with their hickory sticks and started stick swinging. There’s no way those sticks should be legal in international competition,” he said on air. “I believe they’re dangerous and that has led to back-and-forth slashing, jawing, talking, and a bad display for the fans.”

These comments incited an uproar among Iroquois fans believing Kessenich had disrespected their tradition. The Iroquois Nationals tweeted: “Our Traditional Sticks are a valued and treasured piece of our Culture. Given at Birth and Buried with in Passing … We are never taught to treat them as a weapon. To possess a wooden stick is an honour and with that it is carried with respect.” The Nationals also posted on Facebook video of a Native American baby innocently playing with a small wooden cross. “Thank goodness 10 month old Hiram’s parents don’t think Wooden Sticks are dangerous!” the post began.

Others came to the support of Kessenich, pointing out the wooden sticks were only employed by defenders and therefore explicitly used for intimidation purposes at odds with the game’s benevolent origins. One of the United States’ best players, attackman Rob Pannell, told the Denver Post: “If you’re out getting hit by them, it’s a lot different than people on the outside saying that they should be able to use them. It’s very painful.” The Iroquois used only the plastic sticks on Tuesday when they clashed with defending champion U.S.A. and lost 18-5. Pannell scored seven goals.

Kessenich, to be fair, has also lavished the Iroquois with praise for their skills and sportsmanship in subsequent games. But his call for a ban seems to have struck an especially sensitive nerve in part because in the 1800s the Iroquois taught others their sacred game only to see their students turn around and bar them from the sport. In the late 1800s, white players formed field lacrosse clubs and excluded Natives. The Iroquois, who for decades primarily played an indoor lacrosse variant, were not invited to the first World Field Lacrosse Championships in 1968. The Heisman Trophy of college lacrosse pays homage to a Native word for lacrosse, tewaaraton, but not until this year was it awarded to a Native. Yet even in the story of co-Tewaaraton Award winners Lyle and Miles Thompson, we still hear echoes of the same racist attitudes which strangled opportunity for previous generations.

The brothers, who last season set numerous scoring and assist records at the University of Albany, wear a traditional Iroquois hairstyle of shaved head and long braid in the back. The look has made them targets of verbal abuse.  “We get a lot of racist remarks on the lacrosse field, not only by the fans but by the players too,” Miles Thompson told ESPN. “They want to make fun of us by the long hair that we have.” Their cousin Ty Thompson, a teammate at Albany and the national team, continued: “It’s ‘Pocahontas,’ or ‘wagon-burners.’ It’s a bunch of stuff like that.”

This racist trash talk reflects widespread ignorance about Native history, even among Americans and Canadians who attend elite East Coast universities. But the more the Iroquois nationals win, the more their history and culture will be shared for the first time with mainstream sports fans. “The Nationals are showing the world that we are on the map,” stickmaker Alf Jacques told Sports Illustrated in 2010. “When you say Indians, Native Americans, what pops into mind? Out West, in a tepee, on a reservation, alcohol, drug abuse, drain on society, poverty, uneducated—beaten down. How many negatives can they put on this group of people?”

If for nothing else, lacrosse matters because it reminds us the Iroquois still exist. Consider that their flag—which represents the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy—was first designed so that the lacrosse team could have something to wave at the world games.

If not for the modern development of the lightweight, composite stick, lacrosse would not have grown into the emerging sport it is today. Its heritage, though, remains with the wooden stick and the culture it represents. Remembering that is worth a few extra bumps and bruises.