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July 19, 2010
For the Iroquois, the only Native Americans who compete internationally as a sovereign people, lacrosse is more than a sport. It's a centerpiece of their centuries-old culture and a way to honor the Creator
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July 19, 2010

Pride Of A Nation

For the Iroquois, the only Native Americans who compete internationally as a sovereign people, lacrosse is more than a sport. It's a centerpiece of their centuries-old culture and a way to honor the Creator

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Jacques isn't ready for Smith's request: Each stick is different, and players always want a batch from which to choose. But Smith is less patient than most Nationals ("I want to win all the championships I can," he says), and this year's roster is coming in thin and disorganized. He's going to need help.

"I'm here [again] next Thursday," Smith says to Jacques. "Will you have it done by then?"

"I'll try," Jacques says. "I'll get done as many as I can—maybe four. I got other work, too. I was thinking, like, July. I wasn't thinking now."

"Even one," Smith says. "I'll take whatever one you finish."

The game is older than the country , they say. It goes back 900 years, maybe more; what's certain is that Native Americans in the Great Lakes region invented lacrosse, began the massive gatherings involving anywhere from 100 to 1,000 men playing one game over days on a field with goals spread as far as two miles apart. But the ceremony known as Dey Hon Tshi Gwa' Ehs (To Bump Hips) was less a substitute for war than a way to honor the Creator. When an Iroquois dies, the first thing he does after crossing over is grab the stick laid in his coffin. "You'll be playing again that day," says Lyons, an Onondaga faith keeper, or protector of Native traditions, "and you will be the captain."

In the late 19th century a Montreal dentist named William George Beers, following the usual white man's practice of appropriating all things Indian, codified the modern rules of field lacrosse, giving it a time limit and replacing the leather ball with a rubber one. By 1880, after it was discovered that some Native Americans had accepted pay to play the purportedly amateur sport, all Natives were banned from international competition by the sport's governing body. Shut out from the 10-on-10 field game at the highest level, Natives competed in obscurity until box lacrosse—a faster, more violent, six-on-six version invented in 1930 to take advantage of unused hockey rinks—swept across the reservations.

What ensued over the next decades is one of sport's shadow tales, unseen by a world entranced by Ruth and Unitas and Ali, played out by hard, proud men steeped in privation. Their names are famous only on reservations in New York and Canada: unstoppables such as Oliver Hill, Ross Powless, Edward Shenandoah. The Mohawk great of the late 1940s, Angus Thomas? He had a shot so hard, they say, that it killed two goalies. Banned from box leagues for more than a year after one of the deaths, Thomas played his first game back against the Onondagas in the old Akwesasne box near St. Regis, N.Y.—with 19-year-old Lyons between the pipes. Lyons, armored with two chest protectors and a wad of sliced fan belt, saw Thomas wind up and heard the ball sizzle just before it cracked into his midsection, snapping three ribs, leaving him down and breathless for 20 minutes. But Thomas didn't score. "There was no way the ball was going to go in," Lyons says.

Some non-Natives tried coming over from their elegant, wide-open field game to slum in the dusty outdoor box on the Onondaga reservation, where cross-checking was legal and anyone lingering along the boards was begging to be hurt. "I wanted to play their game their way, but I wasn't tough like that," says Roy (Slugger) Simmons Jr., who played for Syracuse in the 1950s under his father, the legendary Roy Simmons Sr., and later coached the Orange to six national championships.

The scene at Slugger's first box game was cockfight crazy: Native women ringing the boards, shaking the chicken-wire fencing as he passed with the ball, stopping their unnerving screams just long enough to spit at him. After a line change Simmons dropped to the bench and was approached by an old Indian named Percy Lazore, who had played against Simmons's dad in the 1920s and '30s. "Roy, you mad," Lazore said.

"Yeah, Percy, look at all the gobs of spit on me," Simmons said. "What the hell's wrong with them?"

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