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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.
"Indian kids 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.
Buffalo Pierce 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.
"The whites 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.