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January 14, 2013

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For Iroquois Nationals, Lacrosse is More Than a Game

U-19 team's historic win in Finland re-established their outdoor, field presence

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Archive

The 2012 Iroquois under-19 team became the first Nationals team to ever beat the U.S. in international field competition at the FIL U19 World Championships in Turku, Finland last July.
© Tero Wester

The chants grew louder. The back and forth of the question-and-answer song became more distinct. As the Iroquois Nationals emerged from the stadium's tunnel, representatives of the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida and the rest of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy spilled out onto the field in Stomp Dance.

Cousins Lyle Thompson and Orris Edwards led the two single-file lines. Both had grown up "longhouse," attending all of the traditional ceremonies and learning the social dance songs. Walking in short, choppy shuffle steps, they sang the question, then their teammates stomped their feet and answered in unison.

Like their American opponents, the Nationals wore sleek Nike cleats. They had high-tech helmets with hefty price tags and inscribed concussion warnings. Instead of using the traditional wooden sticks of their ancestors, they carried aluminum shafts attached to plastic heads made in distant countries.

But the two bobbing lines moving toward midfield provided a striking visual and reminded everyone: The Iroquois created the contemporary single-stick game and, for them, lacrosse remains more a way of life than a weekend activity.

When the final question was answered, the lines dispersed. As the Native players ran onto the turf in Turku, Finland, they let out a piercing war cry that — at least for the Americans with a sense of history — raised the hair on the backs of their necks.

In mid-July at the 2012 Federation of International Lacrosse Under-19 World Championships, what started in stomp ended in triumph. The Iroquois defeated the United States, 15-13, in international field competition for the first time ever.

The Iroquois' victory reverberated beyond the Six Nations. Hundreds of fans, some from tribal lands as far as Wisconsin and British Columbia, took to the Nationals' Facebook Page to express their support. Syracuse's mayor declared July 28 "Iroquois Nationals U19 Team Day." One Indian Time article argued the win was more impressive than the U.S hockey team's upset over the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics.

During the last decade, lacrosse has evolved from a regional sport played in pockets of the Northeast into a countrywide, coast-to-coast phenomenon. According to the most recent US Lacrosse participation survey, 162,000 high school boys played on organized teams in 2011, a nearly 68 percent increase from five years ago. The American U-19 roster included a midfielder from California, an attackman from Ohio and a midfielder and a defenseman from Colorado.

The Nationals, who draw from the reservations found on a swath of land extending from the southern tip of Quebec through central New York, all the way west to Buffalo and western Ontario, have a considerably smaller player pool. Iroquois U19 general manager Gewas Schindler said the team's open tryout initially attracted around 140 kids. Coach Freeman "Boss" Bucktooth estimated there may have been 265 eligible players throughout the Six Nations.

But history, culture, geography and — in this instance — oppression have ways of molding superior types of athletes. The discrimination Natives faced more than a century ago has, in many ways, made them better suited for the modern lacrosse game. As much as the Iroquois' victory over the Americans spoke to the past, it also pointed to a different type of future.

***

Indian stick-and-ball games existed hundreds of years before Europeans began crossing the Atlantic. Early settlers, seeing the racket-like shape of the stick and the firm ball, sometimes confused lacrosse with tennis. By the mid-19th century, however, non-Natives were establishing their own lacrosse clubs and directly competing against Indian teams.

Canadian pioneers rarely beat the Mohawks. The two groups played a less structured game where the field often stretched for a half mile. Natives, renowned for their stick skills and dodging capabilities, thrived in the open space.

It was a goaltender and dentist from Montreal named William George Beers who set out to impose “order” and “civilization” on the Iroquois tradition [1]. Crafting the sport’s first set of standardized rules, Beers meticulously laid out the different positions on the field, the size of the goal and its surrounding crease and even the appropriate footwear (no spiked soles!). To prohibit Canadian clubs from using Native “ringers,” Beers wrote: “No Indian must play in a match for a white club unless previously agreed upon.”

“People were down and out, and that’s when it really began to take root … [Box lacrosse] became very popular. It was blue collar, people could pay a quarter to go see a game."

— Chief Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper and honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals board

Canada’s National Lacrosse Association was established in 1867 and Beers’ guidelines, like James Naismith’s original 13 rules of basketball, became the game’s scripture. Over the next 50 years, as more working- and middle-class Canadians picked up the sport, the debate over amateurism intensified. In contrast to Beers’ vision of lacrosse as a gentleman’s game that cultivated young men, many of the sport’s new participants viewed it as an opportunity to compete and make money.

Both Native and white clubs compensated players. But, as prominent Indian scholar Thomas Vennum observed, forcing Indians to play together ultimately had Jim Crow-like ramifications. In 1880, exclusively Indian teams were systematically targeted and unfairly banned by league officials who had taken up the mantle of reforming lacrosse’s growing pay-for-play model.

“Canada charged [the Iroquois] with professionalism, and that’s how they were ousted from international competition,” said Chief Oren Lyons, an Onondaga Faithkeeper and current honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals board. “Because nobody could beat them at that time.”

After the ban, the Iroquois competed against one another or periodically scrimmaged the growing number of American universities adopting lacrosse. But by the 1930s, the game’s creators were transitioning to a new indoor version of the sport.

Enterprising Canadian hockey promoters created box lacrosse to draw fans to empty rinks after the ice melted in spring. Marked by physically grueling, back-and-forth action, “boxla” resembles hockey as much as field lacrosse. The cross check — shorthand for a defender spreading his hands on the stick and brutally ramming into an opponent’s arm or ribs — is a regular part of the game. On-rink indiscretions are often met with clenched fists.

The proximity of several Iroquois territories to box lacrosse clubs in southern Ontario and Quebec — and the resulting intertribal osmosis — encouraged the Natives’ rapid shift indoors. During the Great Depression, boxla proved an entertaining respite from the hardships of reservation life.

Beyond the Story: Iroquois Reading List

A number of pieces have been written about the Natives' intimate relationship with lacrosse. Lacrosse Magazine's Joel Censer used a few in reseach (and for enjoyment) to help write this feature. Check out his five must-reads.

“People were down and out, and that’s when it really began to take root … [The Iroquois] started a league and it became very popular. It was blue collar, people could pay a quarter to go see a game,” said Lyons, whose father played for the Syracuse Red Devils, an early boxla squad. “Fans liked the speed and the contact.”

Most significant, the novelty of the indoor game offered Natives a way to reclaim the sport on their own terms. Donald Fisher, author of Lacrosse: A History of the Game, explains: “[Boxla] permitted [Native Americans] to escape from the American colleges’ administrative, legislative, and athletic stranglehold on the game. Natives had grown tired of the constrictive rules-making and jurisdictional authority of affluent men from Baltimore, New York and New England.”

All across the Six Nations, Iroquois organized teams, constructed rinks, and revered expert stickhandlers and hard-nosed enforcers. As they immersed themselves indoors, only a small number of Natives — mostly on reservations around Syracuse and Buffalo — continued to play field lacrosse. During the 1980s, when the Nationals first applied to compete in the World Games, they were rejected in part because so few Iroquois had any field experience [2].

“There’s a generation of lacrosse players that didn’t understand and realize that our true game was the field game and that is our heritage,” said Neal Powless, a longtime veteran of the Iroquois Nationals. “[Iroquois] were saying, ‘That’s not our game, box lacrosse is our game.’”

Eventually, advocates like Lyons, Rick Hill and Wes Patterson convinced international officials (and enough skeptical Native box players) that the Iroquois could put together a viable field team. At the 1990 World Games in Perth, Australia, more than century after Indian teams were barred from competing against Canadian and American clubs, Natives traveled on Haudenosaunee passports, carried a flag representing the Hiawatha wampum belt and competed as the Iroquois Nationals.

Whereas non-Native clubs and American universities once deferred to Indian teams, the Iroquois did not win a single game in Perth. Four years later in Manchester, England, the Nationals finished fifth out of six teams. In 1998, 2002 and 2006, the Iroquois placed fourth at each tournament, ahead of England and Japan, but behind the United States, Canada and Australia.

Besides having fewer resources and a smaller player pool, the Nationals struggled to convince some of their more talented players to train or to play at all.

“We could never get all of the best players on the field at the same time, because guys would be playing box,” said Lyons, 82, the first coach of the Nationals and still the team’s most visible spokesperson. “Our guys are kind of casual about everything. They are very good, they know they are good, and so they didn’t prep the way they should for international.”

Moreover, the Iroquois had to adjust to a different game with different rules, different field dimensions and a different corresponding skillset. While box features a 30-second shot clock that promotes players pushing the ball and shooting from anywhere and everywhere, international field lacrosse is more choreographed and possession-oriented. 

“Back in 1990, we really only had about three guys who had collegiate field lacrosse experience,” said Powless, who first suited up for the Nationals at the 1992 U-19 tournament. “I was a 19-year-old All-American, and [guys] were looking at me like, ‘Ok, you’re running the offense because you have college experience.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, I’m 19 years old and you want me to run the attack at the World Games?’”

Tony Gray, another NCAA All-American who played for the Nationals throughout the 1990s and coached the U-19 team in 2008, described similar struggles in translation: “The defense was kind of weak because we didn’t have guys with a lot of experience playing defense in field… And the riding and the clearing. Even when I coached the team in British Columbia, guys didn’t understand any riding or clearing concepts.”

Over time, the Nationals found more on-field success. They took bronze at the 1999 and 2008 U-19 tournaments. Before the 2010 World Games in Manchester, England, the Iroquois looked like a potential dark horse with three players who all starred at Syracuse University in defenseman Sid Smith, attackman Cody Jamieson and midfielder Jeremy Thompson (Lyle’s brother), adding new blood to an already talented veteran group.

But the Nationals never made it to Manchester. English border officials, following more stringent, post-9/11 protocols, refused to let the team enter the country on their Native passports. For the Iroquois, 2010 was not much different than 1880. 

***


Iroquois team captain Lyle Thompson, who as a freshman last season started for an Albany team that finished 5-11, was the only player on the Nationals roster with Division I experience.
© Tero Wester

Despite various efforts to promote box lacrosse in the U.S., the sport has not spread far beyond reservations and working-class Canadian suburbs. But while field advocates may have once looked at the blue-collar indoor version with disregard or contempt, college coaches today see stripped rinks as fertile recruiting ground.

Conscripting box players is not an entirely new phenomenon. Paul and Gary Gait, twin brothers from British Columbia who are considered the greatest field lacrosse players ever, dominated at Syracuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But over the last decade, a growing number of college coaches have started outsourcing offensive duties to Canadians. In 2001, only one of the top 40 scorers in Division I grew up playing indoors. By 2010, that number swelled to 15. Even Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Georgetown — traditional powers with the pick of the lacrosse recruiting litter — now import box-trained talent.

What makes boxla distinct — the close quarters, the smaller goals and the shot clock — are the same things that develop superior stick skills. Because the ball rarely escapes past the Plexiglas and there are only six players in the rink at a time, everyone touches the ball frequently. Having to catch and throw in tight spaces with limited time encourages efficient mechanics and soft touch. Shooting on comparatively tiny goals where there’s just a sliver of open net forces players to learn how to effectively fake and move goalies.

“[Canadian and Iroquois] stick skills are on a whole different level than what the typical American field player sees,“ Onondaga Community College (OCC) coach Chuck Wilbur said. “These guys throw and catch passes that aren’t supposed to be caught.”

Seeing the demand for box players at American colleges, more Natives are adapting to field, and at earlier ages. They still start as toddlers indoors, where the boards and quick tempo develop their unique skillset. But across Indian reservations, youths are finding more opportunities to play high-level field lacrosse.

The Six Nations reserve is the most populous of the Iroquois reservations and includes representatives from every nation state. Because of its size and state-of-the-art indoor training facility, funded by Native business tycoon and local lacrosse advocate Curt Styres, the reserve also produces many of the Confederacy’s most talented players. While Six Nations historically has focused only on box, today there are U-16 and U-19 field leagues and even club programs that travel to the U.S. to compete in tournaments.

Wilbur, who has built OCC into a popular destination for Natives who move on to four-year schools, coached Jamieson, Smith and Thompson before they enrolled at Syracuse. Unlike when he had to teach field lacrosse rules to Six Nations resident Jamieson “on the fly,” Wilbur says the Iroquois coming to OCC are better versed now on the nuances outdoors.

“It still doesn’t come natural to them like box. But they’re much more polished and they understand the game much more compared to Cody coming here in 2006,” he said. “It’s night and day different.”

Similarly, Gewas Schindler, the Iroquois U-19 general manager, said the 2012 outfit was “the first real group that started field lacrosse at a young age.” Because of the small size of Native communities, many of the core members of Nationals, even those from different reservations, have played together since high school. 

“It’s not just our box skills that made us who we were … It’s chemistry that was built up over the years,” said Hank Delisle, one of eight U-19 team members currently at OCC.

Yet the Iroquois were clear underdogs when facing the Americans on the last day of pool play in Finland. The U.S. roster was littered with blue-chip recruits who would all play at big-time programs such as Harvard, North Carolina and Duke. For the Nationals, only Lyle Thompson, who as a freshman started for 5-11 Albany last season, had Division I experience. When the Americans raced out to an 8-4 lead midway through the second quarter, history seemed to be repeating itself.

But the Nationals fought back. On offense, they were patient, poking and prodding at overeager American defenders from behind the net. Led by Warren Hill’s spectacular play in goal, the Iroquois defense improved as the game wore on.

“We had to use their own American game against them. We slowed it down compared to our old run-and-gun style and forcing everything inside. … You could tell that frustrated them,” said Hill, who also plays at OCC and was named the tournament’s Outstanding Goalie. “At times, especially on defense, our box [style] came out. Guys wanted to throw the heavy checks and they got called for crosschecking and being a little too physical. But after a while, we just played conservative defense.”

Less subtle were the flourishes of Iroquois offensive ingenuity — the slick stickwork, the creative playmaking and the ability to deftly operate in phone booth-like spaces. Midfielders Kyle Tarbell and Brendan Bomberry performed an unplanned, off-the-cuff hidden-ball trick. Delisle scored the go-ahead goal when he caught a pass in traffic and converted with an underhanded shovel shot. Minutes later, Thompson milked the clock and sealed the win, skillfully maneuvering past and absorbing the Americans’ pressure defense.

Beers wrote 150 years ago “dodging owes its origin to the vain individualism of the Red Skin.” But in Turku, the Nationals moved the ball more effectively and quickly than any of their opponents. Team USA offensive coordinator Tom Duquette described the Iroquois’ style of play as “poetry in motion.”

Two days after the upset, the Iroquois faced the U.S. again, this time in the semifinals of the World Championships.As the Nationals entered the stadium performing another traditional Stomp Dance song, some American fans began chanting “U-S-A!”

The Iroquois scored the first three goals of the game in quick, highlight-reel succession. Over the final 70 minutes, though, the U.S team fought for loose balls and dominated the possession war. The Americans won the rematch 12-7 mostly by keeping the ball out of the Nationals’ sticks. Two days later, the U.S. defeated Canada to bring home the title.

***


Randy Staats, an Iroquois U19 member and Lacrosse Magazine's JuCo Preseason Player of the Year, is among the Iroquois players to have landed at Onondaga Community College.
© Greg Shemitz

For decades, Iroquois reservations connected through box lacrosse and intertribal competition, the crosschecks and odd-man rushes serving as rites of passage for Native youths.  Hill, who plays for the Six Nations Arrows, said: “It’s almost like Texas high school football. Everyone’s there, and if you win, you’re an all-star for a week, and if you lose, everyone hears about it … All the elders are watching too. You’re just trying to do good for your community for bragging rights.”

Indian communities adopted boxla in part to insulate themselves from a field game successfully co-opted by non-Natives. While scrapping in stripped rinks helped the Iroquois preserve their own traditions, it also cultivated advanced skillsets that — ironically — now attract American college coaches and provide opportunities beyond the reservation. The Nationals' victory over the U.S. made it clear: The Iroquois are actively learning the field game and tailoring their box skills to further their education.

“What it comes down to is these guys want to get college educations. It’s not just about playing field lacrosse,” Wilbur said. “It’s more to get a college degree. That’s why they come over here, and obviously field lacrosse is the game we play.”

Hill, who taught himself how to play field goalie by watching Internet video clips and televised games, said: “My first love is always going to be box lacrosse. There’s nothing like playing in a packed barn on a Friday night. But field lacrosse is taking me a lot more places than box is right now. So right now, I’m real focused on field … There are a lot of good lacrosse players at home, but they never went to school. Some of us like Randy Staats [another U19 member who was the Junior College Player of the Year at OCC in 2012 and is LM's JuCo Preseason Player of the Year] could go to the NLL right now, but he wouldn’t have the opportunity to get a college degree or find a good job. We all could have mediocre jobs and just play lacrosse on the weekends. This is opening up more paths.”

Natives, who throughout history have had their culture marginalized and land stolen, know protecting and maintaining their identity is vital to self-preservation.

But living in communities where poverty along with substance and alcohol abuse are common problems [3], they also have seen the Nationals travel to far-off locales and raise awareness about indigenous people while competing at a high level. They watched Jamieson, Smith and Jeremy Thompson pursue opportunities outside the reservation and then return home as role models for younger players.

“It’s not only the players who believe in [teaching field lacrosse]. It’s the communities that support it and who are driving their young players now,” said Powless, assistant director of the native student program at Syracuse University. “I coach in youth leagues in Onondaga, and I have friends that are coaching in other communities, and we are all saying the same thing: ‘Go to college. Work on your grades. It’s great that you are good here, but use it as a tool to do something else and create something else for yourself.’”

Still, some Iroquois will struggle to adapt to universities with different cultures and educational standards. Lyle Thompson, despite spending early years at schools that spoke exclusively Mohawk, went straight from high school to Albany in hopes of inspiring more Natives to follow the path to four-year colleges.

“Hopefully I can go back [to the reservation] and help more Natives come to college. My rez is pretty bad too — A lot of kids drop out and they don’t even make it through high school,” he said. “For Native Americans, graduating is a big deal.”

The Nationals’ victory in Turku seems less like an upset and more like a harbinger of things to come. By all accounts, the younger generation of Native lacrosse players is even more focused on asserting themselves outdoors.

Said Delisle: “There’s more from where it came from.”


[1] "Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada," W.G. Beers, 1869.
[2] "Lacrosse: A History of the Game," Donald Fisher, 2002.
[3] "Drug Use Among Racial/Ethnic Minorities," Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2003.


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