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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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"I'm on the verge," he says. "I found out these things are always going to pull at you, but I'm really digging in now; I feel like my days of fooling around are done. I'm down to business with learning our ways, our ceremonies, and lacrosse started to help me out. It's a sport I can always go to for medicine, for relief, to have fun.

"Another thing I found out about lacrosse: I'm doing it for the younger ones behind me now. I look at my life—how it was taken, where I fell off my track—and I want to be there and have a program for kids to find themselves, their spirituality and find what they were put here for. That way, they're ahead of the game."

He's still young, they say. Quick of mind, light on his feet, zipping around town in a Prius, Oren Lyons begins his ninth decade utterly unimpressed by his own stature. One morning last January a teenager walked into a Syracuse restaurant carrying a defender's stick and, when introduced to Lyons, clearly didn't know that the man in front of him was a chief, a caretaker of the Iroquois way, a voice on indigenous and climate issues who has been heard by the United Nations General Assembly and Bill Moyers and the bright lights who gather each year in Davos. That was fine: Lyons had more important things to talk about.

"Don't forget to pokecheck," he said. "Any ball on the ground is yours, you know."

Because before he was anyone, Lyons was one of the best goalkeepers ever, and even old goalies can't help bossing defenders around. In 1996 he traveled with the U-19 Nationals to Edogawa, Japan, for the world championships. He was in the locker room before an exhibition against a college team when coach Freeman Bucktooth jokingly suggested he suit up. Lyons didn't laugh. He borrowed some equipment, grabbed his wooden stick and headed for the goal.

He was 66 years old. The day was witheringly hot. Though manning the larger field net, Lyons positioned himself with one hand on his stick, box style. And then they started to come, the shots: breakaways, one-on-ones, rocketing in after every fake and juke the young athletes could muster. But for one half Lyons stood in, erasing four decades until he was at Syracuse again, with Jim Brown and Slugger Simmons ranging upfield. Lyons whipped his stick around like a nunchaku, deflected ball after rock-hard rubber ball, stuffed one point-blank missile after another as sweat poured down his back.

"I've never seen a goalie play like that, with one hand on his stick in a six-foot net," says Drew Bucktooth. "Jumping up with his elbow, making saves? And he didn't have arm pads, so he's making saves with bare arms. He had to have 12, 15 saves and gave up just one goal. Had to be 100 degrees that day. I've never seen anything like it."

So, yes, Lyons is nearly evangelical when he speaks of the Onondagas' new partnership with a Swedish firm to make vertical greenhouses for cities, and dead serious about the Iroquois's role as a ravaged planet's prime steward. "The Haudenosaunee are the ones who give thanks to the earth," he says. "We take care of it, and we're doing it very well here. When you look around the world today and see what's going on? We're in deep s---. People have no idea. But we know."

Lacrosse is the Creator's game, a way to show gratitude for this same earth, and Lyons expects progress there too. The passport problem only energized him, made him sure that "either way, we still win," he says. If the Nationals are forced to stay home, they become a rallying point for indigenous rights; if the U.S. clears them to travel on their own documents, Lyons says, "it's going to be a recognition." And if the Iroquois play in England this week, Lyons is sure their days of finishing fourth will end. "We will medal," he says. And for anyone who figures the recent turmoil makes the Nationals ripe for defeat, he serves up a challenge.

Like Thompson, Lyons wears his hair in a long braid. But now he brings up an old Iroquois warrior style, a shaved head with a small patch of hair on the back. Asked the native term for it, he says, "Scalplock. To make it easier for them to scalp you." As his guest's bewildered, sputtering reply stalls at "but why would... ?" his eyes gleam. Lyons grins and nods as the trap snaps shut.

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