For someone like Roy Simmons III, who comes from a white, win-at-all-costs culture, such decisions seem inexplicable. "Here I am stupidly thinking we're going to send the best team," he says, "and it's not really going to happen." But though many of the coaches—such as Mark Burnam, who saw his brother bounced from the squad—share Simmons's frustration over the Traditional Council's ruling, they don't have the luxury of walking away. "I have to respect that," says Jemison. "That's the stance of the coach and the entire staff: We respect our tradition, and that's what we're going to go by. We can't bellyache, because then we're cutting our own throats."
What he means is, at a time when the Iroquois are struggling to protect their language and culture from the enticing encroachments of American life, when each Iroquois lacrosse player who goes to Syracuse represents, yes, a success story but also a flight risk—a man in danger of losing his Native ways—things such as lineage do mean more than the world's biggest lacrosse tournament. Iroquois tradition requires that chiefs make each decision with an eye on its impact seven generations from now (hence the N7 logo on Nationals gear); there's a reason Lyons calls Nike the team's partner, not sponsor. Today's Iroquois fear being subsumed, fear Culture USA more than Team USA, and the message We are still here will mean little if the we is allowed to grow fuzzy.
"There's a lot more weighing on us," Jemison says. "It's our identity." Which, not by accident, dovetails with the larger Iroquois lacrosse paradox: Spiritually and socially the game is central in ways inconceivable for any sport in any other culture—but winning isn't. Some players, such as Smith and Cody Jamieson, may indeed be motivated to win titles, but the typical Iroquois sees lacrosse as the place to present himself to the Creator, not prove himself No. 1.
Desko, the Syracuse coach, understands this, at least enough to make allowances. Last fall his dazzling new midfielder, Jeremy Thompson, announced that he would miss more than a week of training because he had to fast for four days—no food, no water—in an Onondaga cleansing ritual that leaves participants weak and sometimes delirious. "And I'm sitting here going, Whooo. Interesting," Desko says. "But another coach? 'Screw that, fast on your own time! Miss practice and you're done!' But Jeremy's not doing it to take the day off. He's doing it because he wants to be a better Iroquois."
Thompson feels many of the pressures facing young Natives who try, as he puts it, to "live in two worlds." His great-grandfather was a chief, and Jeremy grew up steeped in tradition. "We weren't allowed to have the girls touch our wooden sticks; it's a medicine game for men, not women," he says. "If it was on the ground, my mom would leave it there."
With his summer job tutoring Onondaga kids in their Native tongue and his plans to resurrect the adolescent rite of passage known as vision quest—not to mention the long ponytail trailing down his back—Thompson, 23, seems the picture of Native American piety. But living according to his ideals has been a struggle. When his family moved from the Mohawk reservation to Onondaga, he was in the fifth grade and could barely read or speak English; he struggled in school and by 15 began bingeing on alcohol. Why not? That's what many of the men on the rez do.
Only 11.5% of Native Americans graduate from college. "We're always thinking back home is more important," Thompson says. "That's the problem we have nowadays in getting kids off and going to college. They don't want to leave the family or the reserve, and another big part is the drugs and alcohol. They have no way of finding themselves. We don't have that connection, the role models, somebody there to direct them the right way."
After poor grades derailed his dream of playing for Syracuse, Thompson won two junior college national titles at Onondaga Community College and beefed up his transcript enough to gain admission to Syracuse last fall. But he also boozed plenty, and his dream of playing for the Orange with his younger brother, Jerome, died when Jerome ran into academic trouble. "He quit," says Jeremy. "He couldn't handle school." Then Jeremy's longtime girlfriend, whom he had planned to marry this summer, broke up with him.
"I'm a better person because she did that," he says. "I'm thankful. I realize what I put her through all those years I was out drinking, doing what I wanted to do. She's a good woman, traditional, Long House, had all those qualities that I want in a woman. And I shot that out the door."
Thompson started to get clean 18 months ago, but last fall the constant toggle between all-Native life on the rez and all-American college life sparked a short relapse. After that, however, he learned that negotiating both worlds, working toward a degree but not forsaking his traditions, was actually doable. "It's not like the old days," he says. "We have to go out." Loneliness helped him see it clearly: He could be the example he never had. This fall he'll be a senior at Syracuse, on track to earn a degree in communications.