Last month, the Seneca tribe spent $97,000 on artificial turf to upgrade a lacrosse stadium on the Allegany Reservation, about 50 miles south of Buffalo. In Lewiston, just northeast of Niagara Falls, the Tuscaroras are building a lacrosse park with six playing areas. The popular contests often draw hundreds of spectators for daylong picnics and festivities, helping unite disparate tribes in a culture often splintered by ancient and modern rivalries.
“It’s not an elite sport to us, it’s a way of life,” said Randi Rourke, editor of Indian Country Today, a leading native newspaper, who pointed to a tradition in which fathers and grandfathers present lacrosse sticks to baby boys. “You play it the moment you can walk. We call it a ‘medicine game’ because it makes people happy to watch, so it’s a kind of medicine.”
Brian Patterson, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, which represents 24 tribes primarily east of the Mississippi River, said the renewed interest in lacrosse was part of a broader movement to revive Indian languages and traditions in a younger generation. He said he had encouraged young people like his 11-year-old son, Schuyler, who plays for the Oneida Silverhawks, to draw strength and courage from lacrosse, as their ancestors did, to ward off modern-day pressures and problems like drugs and alcohol.
“It’s more than a game; it’s truly an identity for us,” Mr. Patterson said. “With new resources available to the tribal nations, we’re able to provide a future for our people by securing our past.”
As the article states, the game has long been associated with prep schools and elite colleges. But lacrosse has an ancient history among many various Native American tribes. It was known by many names and came in many forms, but the essential aspects of the game-a stick, a ball, a field and a means of scoring-are present in all versions. Even the Cherokee have an old game that they play to this day, known in English as "stickball" but in Cherokee as "AniStutsi" or "Little War." And for good reason, as the Cherokee played the game with few rules beyond how to score, and no limitations and what you could do the player unfortunate enough to be carrying the ball (it was not uncommon for players to get killed playing the game.) Things are a little more easy-going in modern lacrosse (though you might not know it watching players get battered around the arms, upper-body and face with other players' sticks) but the spirit of the game remains the same.
This renaissance in lacrosse means that more Natives are playing the game than ever before, which may have an impact on college lacrosse programs:
John Jiloty, the editor in chief of Inside Lacrosse magazine, predicted that “there’s a pretty big wave of Native Americans who are going to be entering the four-year college ranks in the next few years, and they’re going to make a big impact.”
That's some exciting news. Of course, Native American kids play all kinds of sports, and basketball is particularly popular on some reservations. The problem of course is that there just aren't that many Native Americans, and kids of all backgrounds want to make a name for themselves in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, and so on. The great thing about lacrosse is that it isn't an unknown or isolated sport, but neither is it so popular that Native kids have only a tiny chance of even making it big in college in the game. So I don't know about you, but I think I'll be keeping a close eye on college lacrosse over the next several years. Natives everywhere may have some genuine sports heros to celebrate again soon.