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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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One June day Beulah Powless is sitting out in the lobby, waiting for her six-year-old great-grandson, Gabe, to finish Tykes practice. She's speaking about her brother, Lee Shenandoah, nearly 40 years gone: how his two children have scattered, how the family received a small settlement from the city of Philadelphia but no apology, how Lee came to their mother, Gertrude Shenandoah, in a dream. But then Gabe runs up asking for snack money, and she recalls a moment from two weeks before, when he got leveled by a shot to the neck in a game against Allegheny. She went over to the team bench where Gabe sat stewing and asked if he was O.K., and he gave her a look that was so pure, so Lee, that for just a second it was as if her brother were still living.

"I'm going back in," Gabe said, "and I'm going to fight."

There's no team like it, they say. When the Iroquois Nationals travel, overseas especially, they carry a mystique born of Hollywood imagery and pure novelty. So English schoolkids ask Nationals coaches, "How does the smoke get out of your house? Do you still hurt people?" and Japanese opponents treat the players like rock stars, and reporters flock to see the exotics in action. Thus is delivered the only message that matters. "We're still here," Smith says.

"The Nationals are showing the world that we are on the map," Jacques says, his voice rising. "When you say Indians, Native Americans, what pops into mind? Out west, in a tepee, on a reservation, alcohol, drug abuse, drain on society, poverty, uneducated—beaten down. How many negatives can they put on this group of people? So to have a positive there on the world stage is such a big thing for us."

But the Nationals' singularity stems not just from their role as standard-bearers for all Native Americans; there are three roster spots for players from any other tribe, and this year's squad includes a Cherokee goalie and an Ojibwa defender. The Nationals also operate in ways that can mystify their own staff, let alone sympathetic outsiders. "They're an extremely funny group, sarcastic, love to talk and have fun and compete," says Roy Simmons III, Slugger's son, director of lacrosse operations at Syracuse. "But every time I walk away, I'm always scratching my head, wondering what happened."

As the youngest member of one of sport's enduring coaching dynasties, Roy III grew up proud of his family's 50-year relationship with the Iroquois and couldn't have been more honored when the Nationals asked him last summer to join the coaching staff. But in early June, he and Bill Bjorness, the 2006 Nationals coach, who had been a member of the coaching staff since 1994, resigned because of frustration over management moves that had reduced training time, paralyzed the selection process and left the team scrambling on the eve of the worlds.

The Americans have beaten the Nationals in the last five world championships, Smith says, because they're "usually bigger, in a little better shape, [have] a lot more players to choose from—and [are] a lot better organized." This year the contrast has been starker than usual. Team USA set its 23-man roster last November and scheduled five tough exhibition games. The Nationals didn't announce their roster until June 20, by which time they'd had only two scrimmages, none since February. They finally held another training camp in the first week of July.

The delays didn't allow newly appointed general manager Ansley Jemison much time to arrange airline tickets and visas to Great Britain; when the U.S. dropped its passport bomb, there were only three days left before the Iroquois's planned departure, and what could have been a challenging problem became a crisis. But long before the travel mix-up, the Iroquois's concern with self-definition had taken a toll on their lacrosse program.

An imperative to include players representing all Six Nations increased political maneuvering during the Nationals' selection process, and last December—after months of tryouts—the Iroquois Traditional Council made a devastating decision: For the first time in Nationals history, a player's Native lineage would be a major issue, decided strictly through his mother. Once-acceptable adoptees, players with only small traces of Indian blood and offspring of mixed marriages involving non-Native mothers were rejected. The Nationals' midfield was gutted when five players were cut loose for reasons of lineage.

Just as curious, some prime Iroquois players didn't try out for this year's team, opting to devote themselves to family, work or their box teams. "There are players who should be on this team who aren't," Freeman Bucktooth says. "[Defender] Marshall Abrams—an All-America at Syracuse—chose not to play. I'm upset that some didn't try out, and I'm upset that some guys got cut. I told everybody: There are three guys who should be on the team because they add speed, and that's something we lack."

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