How Indigenous athletes are taking back lacrosse

Birmingham, Ala. – Brendan Bomber’s voice grew louder, his words coming faster and faster as he hurled obscenities at his teammates.

The Haudenosaunee Nationals men’s lacrosse team, a team representing the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora — was preparing to play a sloppy game at the World Games, the Olympics, earlier this month. – A style event, after being eliminated from the medals.

Bomber, 27, was there to remind the players that for them, every game and every minute spent in a Haudenosaunee uniform meant a lot.

“Sports may not be political, but for our people it is,” he said, punctuating his words with cheers and fist bumps. “Let’s show our hearts on this stage. It means something to people back home. “

His message was clear: the representation of the Haudenosaunee (formerly known as the Iroquois) involves larger, intertwined goals beyond winning lacrosse games.

They are primarily fighting for official recognition in global sport—an effort that is symbolic of the broader effort by indigenous nations to assert their nationhood and sovereignty in the geopolitical arena. Their goal, in this area, is acceptance from the International Olympic Committee to appear at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, where the sport could return to the medal program after more than a century.

“One thing I’ve come to realize is that lacrosse makes us relevant in terms of our place in the world,” Bombery said in an interview.

The Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee) also fight for the spirit of the game. Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, but its dominant image in popular culture in recent decades, players say, has felt like a caricature of suburban white privilege — a “frat boy persona,” in Bomber’s words.

Like some of the historic creators of lacrosse, like the people who see it as a sacred “medicine game,” the Haudenosaunee want their hearts back.

“Representation matters here,” said Cody Jamison, 35, a member of the men’s team, describing the pride of seeing the Haudenosaunee flag at the World Games in Birmingham, Ala. “We are sovereign. Being here at the World Games and being welcomed is all the IOC needs to know.

The Haudenosaunee men’s team—formed in 1983 and known as the Iroquois Nationals—was officially recognized by the International Governing Body of Lacrosse in 1988, and the women’s team was recognized in 2008. Today, these two teams remain the only local teams in any sport. compete at the international level.

Despite operating with a fraction of the talent enjoyed by other top teams like the United States and Canada, the Haudenosaunee Nationals have evolved in recent years. The men’s team finished third in the last two World Lacrosse Championships, in 2014 and 2018. The women’s team finished eighth out of 29 teams at the Maryland Women’s World Championships this month.

This made it all the more confusing when the men’s team was initially left out of the 2022 World Games — in which men’s lacrosse made its debut and the women’s game its second — due to some apparent confusion between World Lacrosse. The sport’s global governing body and the International Association of World Games on team eligibility. The Haudenosaunee are spread across Ontario, Quebec and New York and have their own passports. They are not currently members of the UN or the IOC

This news caused a small stir. Lacrosse officials eventually expressed a willingness to change course, but there was one problem: At the time, the eight-team men’s field was locked. The situation was finally resolved when the Irish national team agreed to give up their place in Birmingham to allow the Haudenosaunee to compete. (The women’s field wasn’t set until this month’s world championships, after Haudenosaunee eligibility was announced.)

“What kind of competition would you have in lacrosse if it didn’t feature the first country to ever play, and still one of the best?” said men’s team coach Peter Milliman, who has no indigenous heritage.

This is the question that can be echoed until the 2028 Olympics.

In 2018, the IOC offered so-called provisional recognition to World Lacrosse (then known as the International Lacrosse Federation), which meant that the federation and several dozen of its member countries could receive financial support from the IOC. The decision was also interpreted as a sign. That lacrosse, which last played for a medal in 1904 and 1908, could return to the Olympic program in time for the 2028 games in Los Angeles.

But if the Olympic community accepts what is, in some ways, the most quintessentially American sport for future US-based games, can they reasonably exclude its creators?

For the Haudenosaunee, there are several theoretical pathways to participation.

There are already about a dozen territories that have IOC membership even though they are not members of the United Nations, including Puerto Rico and Hong Kong. To be officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the Haudenosaunee must form a National Olympic Committee, which, among other administrative details, requires them to field athletes in at least four other sports.

Some see the traditional path to IOC membership as difficult given the time constraints. The IOC could also extend a special invitation to the Haudenosaunee, perhaps similar to how it allowed refugee teams to compete at recent games.

“You see some sports in the Olympics and it’s like, ‘How come lacrosse isn’t in the Olympics?'” said Cassandra Minerd, 27, a member of the women’s team. “And if you’re going to get lacrosse, the people who created the game have to be there.”

In Birmingham this month, a lacrosse competition was held in the “sixes” format – smaller and faster than the established field and box lacrosse disciplines – which international officials have developed for potential use at the Olympics.

Neither the men’s nor the women’s Haudenosaunee teams made it onto the podium — a setback especially for the men, who entered the games ranked third in the world — but the players made the experience worth it. One night they received an invitation from the Cherokee tribe of northeast Alabama to dine at a local inn.

“The game you see, playing with long sticks, is our game,” Oren Lyons, 92, who founded the Haudenosaunee team, told the assembled group. “Our team has taken it all over the world. And people are allowed to know that the Indian nations are still here.

Later, one of the Cherokee members, Greg Strangler Bear, led the players and coaches in the traditional quail dance. Hands on their hips, elbows at their sides, the players doubled over with laughter as they shuffled around the hotel conference room to the sound of drums.

Before everyone dispersed, Tracy Shenandoah, 65, the men’s team’s spiritual advisor, called for strength. Recent funding has allowed the Haudenosaunee to begin creating a special youth development program — including for players from other Indigenous nations.

“If the guys have the players and they can cut it, we’re open to other Native Americans,” Shenandoah told their Cherokee hosts.

Shenandoah plays a key role on the men’s team. Before each game this month, he gathered the players on the field to reflect. Players standing in a circle took a pipe full of tobacco. Then they walked around the blue refrigerator, sipped medicinal tea, and wet their hands and heads.

Throughout the tournament, players took every opportunity to teach spectators about their culture.

“It’s liberating to be here, liberating to get our flags out and liberating to have the Haudenosaunee name on our chest when we walk and play,” Minerd said.

Such pride became an important antidote to the pain of discrimination some players faced while growing up around the game. 21-year-old Lois Garlow, a member of the women’s team, endured several such incidents in a row.

There were the times opponents and fans booed or made the tomahawk gesture, the time at the Albany tournament when a man told him and his teammates they were “good enough for the Indians” and the time his cousins ​​were told during a game. “Back to the Trail of Tears.”

Garlow also mentioned a National Lacrosse League game three years ago when Lyle Thompson, one of the best men’s soccer players in the world (who is out this month with an injury), was repeatedly joked by the public address announcer about having his long braids ripped off. – an important symbol in his culture – and mocked by fans for his scalp.

“It’s dehumanizing,” Garlow said. “As a society, we’re growing, but there’s definitely more education that needs to happen.”

However, there are signs that awareness of the game’s origins and desire to learn more is spreading.

At the Women’s World Cup a week before the World Games, Team Canada wore shirts emblazoned with Every Child Matters, a campaign supporting survivors of Canada’s residential-school system, where Indigenous children are often brutally disenfranchised.

The Premier Lacrosse League has begun holding land recognition ceremonies before games, recognizing the indigenous people of the area.

And in more and more lacrosse arenas, the US and Canadian flags commonly seen in North America now fly alongside the purple Haudenosaunee flag.

That’s why the visibility they enjoyed in Birmingham – and the recognition they crave for the future – is so important to them.

“Western society is trying to take us back and erase us from the history books,” said Cason Tarbell, 25, a member of the men’s team, “but with our flag displayed in every other country, we’re still here and we are. “Still fighting.”

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