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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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"Roy, they spit on good players. What you worry about is if they don't spit on you."

To the wider world, NFL legend Jim Brown is the most famous Syracuse lacrosse player, often deemed the greatest of all time, supposedly never knocked off his feet. But on the reservation they remember the pickup game in 1957 in which the 155-pound Irving Powless, a future chief, sent the 230-pound, new-to-the-box Brown tumbling with a brutally precise hip check. "Brown never left his feet the rest of the day," Simmons says. "He just destroyed them."

By then Lyons had become one of the trailblazers of the route from the rez to Syracuse. He co-captained the Orangemen's undefeated 1957 team with Brown and Simmons, earning All-America honors in front of the net with his deft hands and sawed-off goalie's stick. He graduated, worked in New York City as a greeting-card illustrator and was inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He became a faith keeper in '67, moved back to Onondaga in '70 and taught U.S. history at SUNY Buffalo. In 1977 he designed the Iroquois passport and verified its acceptance on a group trip to Switzerland.

The Iroquois's independent streak and their players' lack of field experience earned them a cool reception when they tried out for U.S. or Canadian teams. A few Iroquois became stars in the college game, but as a group they "were kind of snuffed out," Simmons Jr. says. Decades in the box had cut the nation off from its own game; generations of Iroquois had never learned team defense. When, in 1983, Simmons asked Lyons to bring a squad to Baltimore for a series of international friendlies, he heard one of history's saddest replies. "We don't have a field team," Lyons said.

Still, along with Tuscarora stickmaker Wes Patterson, Lyons cobbled together a disparate mix of box, high school and college players for the inevitable thrashing. Syracuse crushed the first Nationals 28--5, and Hobart handled them 22--14. But a spark caught. "The guys didn't like to get beat," Lyons says. The Iroquois hosted a special tournament in Los Angeles before the 1984 Olympics and earned their first victory, over the English national team. They went to England the next year, won several more games and lost only one. Two years after that Lyons got a 3 a.m. call from England: The century-old ban was lifted. The international federation had accepted the Iroquois as a full member nation. "It was our game," Lyons says. "So here we are 100 years later, back up again."

Box lacrosse remains the game of choice for most Iroquois, so it's no shock that their best international result has been indoors: second place, ahead of Team USA, in the last two world box championships. But a growing stream of Division I stars, such as Loyola's Gewas Schindler and Syracuse's Sid Smith, Brett Bucktooth, Cody Jamieson and Jeremy Thompson, has made the Nationals an increasing threat on grass, and it's not as if outdoor play had been excised from the Iroquois DNA. Throughout the year "medicine" games are played for the health of all players, the traditional way: Two poles are jammed in the ground on each end to serve as goals, an unlimited number of males from ages seven to 70 ranges about, and the first team to score a certain number of goals—sometimes three, sometimes five—wins. Any male can call for a medicine game to deal with personal strife; a runner goes out to contact the players, and the food is gathered and a deerskin ball obtained that day. The caller doesn't play, but he keeps the ball. "The ball is the medicine," Lyons says.

The Iroquois don't like talking in detail about the medicine game, at least not with outsiders. But 20 years ago Nationals offensive coach Freeman Bucktooth called for a medicine game on The Greens at Onondaga to help him and a friend fight an illness. "It helped," Bucktooth says, so he renews it each year. "Whatever illness you have, it pushes it away. It's amazing how well it cures you."

Only wooden sticks are allowed in medicine games. Familiarity, the long break-in time and the sheer beauty of a prized lacrosse stick partly explain why some Iroquois cry when one splinters. But a deeper reason for their grief is the belief that the stick is a gift from Mother Earth, that a living thing died to make it and that its spirit has been transferred to the Iroquois player, who honors the tree's sacrifice by playing humbly, calmly, "in a more spiritual manner," Jacques says. "Nobody likes a dirty player, and the energy from that tree is transferred to that player who knows how to use it."

One evening last January, Lyons, soon to be 80, stick in hand, hustled along the darkened hallways of the Onondaga Nation Arena. A $7 million facility that opened in 2001, Tsha'Honnonyendakhwa' (Where They Play Games) is the modern centerpiece of the Onondaga reservation and a far more practical statement than the tattered billboard on I-81 whose faded message reads, WE THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE OWN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE!

Not that Lyons doesn't believe that. Two 1794 treaties, one of them brokered by George Washington—the one that still pays each Iroquois descendant five yards of calico yearly—are the Iroquois's legal basis for sovereignty and the reason Syracuse police have no jurisdiction on the reservation. Casinos? Establishing a casino would entail asking the U.S. government's permission. Oren Lyons, for one, has never asked the U.S. permission for anything.

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