In 1933, the year
box lacrosse and the Red Devils came to Syracuse, Oren Lyons, the goalkeeper,
danced the Charleston on a three-inch beam 100 feet above the floor of the
Crucible Steel plant. Just for the hell of it.
"He was a
good dancer, see?" explains his buddy and teammate, Buffalo Pierce.
"And he had a lot of nerve. You gotta have nerve to work on the high iron.
I guess Indians are born that way."
When Oren Lyons
died in a car wreck in 1954, his goalkeeper's stick was laid in the casket
beside him, as is the custom, and during the all-night vigil in the Long House
of the Onondagas, his teammates surrounded the casket with their own sticks in
his honor. In the 500-year history of the Iroquois nations, lacrosse had always
been the game of The Creator, Soo-Gui-Ya-Di-Sa-A, and he had promised his
people they would always have it—even in the life after death.
Six miles south
of downtown Syracuse, past Booher's Lumber Company and the Nedrow Drive-In, the
houses run out of paint, some streets still get along on dirt and gravel, and
makeshift lacrosse goals of plywood and chicken wire sit beside the sheds. It
is the Onondagas' Nedrow reservation. There is a broadleaf forest there where
boys still chase coons in the uppermost branches; there are country roads where
hickory leaves cast mottled shadows that cool the dust; and, on summer
evenings, there is the smell of roast corn on the cob.
used to get up in the morning and come home at night," old-timer Irving
Powless remembers. "No telling where they'd been. We were out in the woods
all day, daring each other to do all kinds of crazy stunts. It seemed natural
to go up into the high iron, I guess. I did it just to prove I could. And,
besides, it was good money."
By the time an
Iroquois boy is 18, it is practically routine that he is a lacrosse player, an
iron worker and sometimes a hard drinker. In the perspective of the
reservation, each is somewhat admirable, for the young man is the warrior of
the Onondagas in a time when there are no more battles.
sits at the reservation lacrosse box complacently these days, quite pleased
with being a legendary figure. Once or twice a week he goes up to the Syracuse
War Memorial Coliseum, where the Warriors play box lacrosse. The crowds run
close to 3,000 people, including a large number of boisterous Indian fans. The
Warriors are part of the first successful box lacrosse league since the Red
Devils folded. The North American Lacrosse Association, a predominantly Indian
league straddling the Canadian border, is composed of eight amateur teams.
Like the Red
Devils, they play lacrosse in a hockey rink without the ice, a game devised by
some clever Canadians to accommodate all those empty rinks during the summers.
It is comparable to nailing up a pair of basketball hoops in a handball court,
inviting the Russians and throwing away the whistle. Its rules draw about
evenly from ice hockey, field lacrosse and what used to be called "murder
ball" on grammar school playgrounds (whoever got the ball ran like fury
before he got murdered).
Until one white
player joined them this year, the Warriors were the only team composed entirely
of Indians. They are also the most successful team in the league. Head Coach
Lou Jacques, who manufactures lacrosse sticks on the reservation, says he has
invited white players from the local colleges, but they won't come.
think it's too rough," he says. "They call it organized
manslaughter." Some of the Onondagas who have been on the high iron put it
more bluntly. They say the white man can't hack it.