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PRIDE OF A NATION
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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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The wood is alive, they say. Yes, a good stick talks to you when it's finished and agleam: begging to be picked up and cradled, demanding that you rake the nearest ball into the cow-gut webbing that with time becomes so sensitive, so responsive, that it can feel as if you're carrying an egg in the palm of your hand. But Alf E. Jacques can hear the wood long before that, when what will become a lacrosse stick still resembles a shepherd's crook, and the drilling and sanding and shellacking are yet to be done. This one? He can all but feel it breathe beneath his blade.

But then, Jacques expected as much. A master stickmaker whose workshop squats behind his mother's house on the Onondaga reservation, just outside Syracuse, N.Y., he selected, steamed, bent and began air-drying a prime batch of hickory poles 28 months ago. Usually a year is long enough to make a good lacrosse stick, but Jacques was taking no chances; he wanted these poles cured to perfection for this mid-June afternoon, when he would sit at his cooper's bench, take a draw-shave in hand and begin shaping the six-foot defensive sticks for the competition to come.

"This is for the Iroquois Nationals," the 61-year-old Jacques says. "Nobody else gets one. Every four years I make at least six D-sticks for them." He laughs. "And they usually save them for when they play the Americans."

On July 15 the Nationals are scheduled to open the 2010 lacrosse world championships against host England in Manchester, but that's no sure thing. For 27 years the team representing the Iroquois—the confederacy of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations—has been the sole Native American entity to compete internationally, traveling on Iroquois (or, in their language, Haudenosaunee, meaning People of the Long House) passports and balancing lacrosse's prep school vibe with an aura of history and mystery and loss. But last week, just days before their scheduled departure, the Nationals were told by officials of the U.S. State and Homeland Security departments that they would not be allowed to exit and enter the country on those documents.

The Iroquois in turn rejected an offer to travel on U.S. passports. "We are representing a nation, and we are not going to travel on the passport of a competitor," said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, an Onondaga lawyer and a representative to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. As of Monday night neither side had budged, raising the possibility that for the first time since 1990, the world championships would be contested without the game's inventors.

This might seem like a mere bureaucratic snafu, but it represents a serious threat to both the tournament and the Iroquois nation. Despite drawing from a population of only about 125,000 people scattered across northeastern North America and despite lacking the financial clout of lacrosse's international powers, the Iroquois have finished fourth in the last three world championships, and they figured to enter the 30-nation 2010 competition as true contenders. The Nationals are also the Iroquois's most public expression of sovereignty, of their long-held belief that they are an independent people. Beating mighty Team USA or defending champion Canada in Manchester would be sweet, of course. But the mere hope that the Nationals would enter the United Kingdom on their own terms, bless the tournament with a traditional tobacco-burning ceremony and then take the field against the world's best would make claiming the championship almost beside the point. "Winning is not the end-all," says Sid Jamieson, who coached the first Nationals team in the early 1980s. "Just being there is a victory."

Let 'em know you're there, they say. Having a presence, showing the world that they still exist, is a constant theme with the Iroquois, and few things express it more memorably than a jab with a wooden stick. "I remember getting checked, and my arm would go numb, just go limp," says former Syracuse player John Desko, who now coaches the Orange and who coached Team USA at the 2006 world championships. In the Nationals' match against host Canada that year, defender Mark Burnam, now a Nationals assistant coach, says he used his pole to "slash people on purpose and let them know that they were going to get slashed every time. I'd throw pokechecks, and that thing don't bend. [Opponents] would shy away from me. I don't blame them. The thing is like a friggin' weapon. It nearly kills you."

The advent of the aluminum-shaft, plastic-head, nylon-web stick in 1970 might have been the single greatest spur to lacrosse's growth, but it marginalized the wooden shaft; leagues now ban it, coaches discourage it, parents see one and complain. Native American or not, every player in NCAA lacrosse uses what Oren Lyons, a member of the Onondaga council of chiefs, calls "Tupperware." And if the Nationals play in England, most of their stickheads will be plastic too.

Yet the wooden stick remains central to the Iroquois religion and culture: Males are given a miniature version at birth, sleep with their playing sticks nearby or even in bed, and take one with them into the grave. In international field lacrosse the Iroquois are the only players who still use wood, and while the sight of it might be unwelcome to their opponents, it gives even victimized apostates a thrill. During a hotly contested game between the Nationals and Team USA at the 1999 under-19 world championships in Adelaide, Australia, players from Australia, Canada and England began chanting, "Bring out the woodies!" Three Nationals defenders swapped their Tupperware for hickory to roars from the crowd.

"When those six-foot wooden sticks come out," says Iroquois attackman Drew Bucktooth, "they know we're there." That's why, a month before the start of the 2010 world championships, Sid Smith felt compelled to make his way to Jacques's workshop. Smith, a 23-year-old defender from the Six Nations reservation in Ontario, led two NCAA championship teams and was a one-time All-America at Syracuse; he capped his college career by stripping the ball and setting up the game-winner in overtime of the 2009 title game, against Cornell. Smith grew up playing almost exclusively with plastic and has never used a six-foot wooden stick in competition. But he wants one now.

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