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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: A lacrosse Thanksgiving

These are two documents that have been around for quite a while and have no published author, like lacrosse has no named inventor. Native Americans were obviously a huge part of the first American Thanksgiving, which was an extension of their own "holiday." The Native Americans who invented lacrosse were not those present at that first Thanksgiving; the lacrosse-playing natives were the Iroquois Nation - a confederacy of Six Nations really, that were in many ways emulated by our founding fathers in the formation of our federalist government.


Long before there were any white people in North America, our people communicated with the Creator at every sunrise and at every sunset. Our way of communication was one of thanksgiving -- a thanksgiving for all the gifts that were bestowed on us by the creator. With the finest words that could be spoken, our ancestors acknowledged all the life forces on Mother Earth and everything else between them and the dwelling place of the Great Spirit, our creator. Our elders would tell us, "We have directed our voices towards our Creator in the best way we are able to do. Let us be satisfied that we have acknowledged the creations around and above us. We believe that the Creator wishes us to regard the life cycle with the greatest respect and appreciation. Our thanks are to be expressed with each new day."


The Game of lacrosse was given to our people by the Creator to play for his amusement. Just as a parent will gain much amusement at the sight of watching his child playing joyfully with a new gift, so it was intended that the Creator be similarly amused by viewing his "children" playing lacrosse in a manner which was so defiant of fatigue. This is our belief, and when the four Great Messengers came, the Creator reiterated to us that his game should be played. There is a long history of speculation about where the game of lacrosse originated, but as Natives of North America, this question has little significance. We do not wonder who invented lacrosse, or when and where; our ancestors have been playing the game for centuries -- for the Creator.

Tewaarathon was not just played to call the Creator's attention to the efforts of the medicine people or simply for one's personal enjoyment and physical fitness. Tewaarathon, because it came from the Creator himself, was also played to bestow honor and respect to these members living on Mother Earth who had done great things for the Nation. Related to this, Tewaarathon also constituted a means of offering thanksgiving to the Creator for having allowed an elder or medicine person to remain with the Nation so that person could continue to share the richness of his full life with the younger members.

It is true that Tewaarathon (or lacrosse) does demand physical fitness, and participants would train for many months to prepare themselves for these important games, but what is more significant is that our people believed that all things on Mother Earth were a gift of the Creator and following the Creator's instructions. Because lacrosse was such a gift, the difficult training for Tewaarathon was not seen as a burden of work, but rather this training was enjoyed as a preparation to partaking in a precious gift. A participant in Tewaarathon believed that his ability to play was a gift itself and that the enjoyment of playing rested in freely giving his best effort. Because only the participant really knew when his effort had been well prepared and complete, the training for Tewaarathon was related to enjoying one's gift in the view of the very one who had been so generous. It is unfortunate that the fervor which our people took to the field of play was often misinterpreted by the European eye which was untrained to the relationship between the Indian, Tewaarathon, and the Creator. As for the players, in a game of such great importance, there were no bad feelings for any accidental gestures because both teams realized the sincerity of the effort.

Why did our people play lacrosse with such enthusiasm? As mentioned earlier, part of this explanation lies in the link between lacrosse and its status as a gift from the Creator, but lacrosse had additional spiritual significance as well. In times when an elder or anyone in the Nation became sick, the medicine people would call upon the Life Forces of Mother Earth to remedy the sickness. The medicine people would prepare and administer the medicines obtained from Mother Earth, and then they would call for a lacrosse game to be played to provide additional power for the medicine. Our people believed that by demonstrating to the Creator that his people had not forgotten his gift, the Creator would look favorably upon their efforts and therefore would not forget the stricken member. The game was played for the Creator's attention and his fair decision as to whether or not the stricken member recovered or not. The medicine people would prepare and administer the medicines, and the game preceded by sacred ritual would be played with the sincerest effort. If the stricken member failed to recover, no one doubted the decision of the Creator.


I would be remiss if I did not point out that the history between the Iroquois and the U.S. government has not been all good. In the infancy of our nation and while we were still under British rule, the Iroquois had signed treaties with the British and local groups whom they believed to be one in the same, loyal to the great white chief George (King George). But during the Revolutionary War, the confederacy was torn by local and national treaties they always intended to honor. Some fought for the British and some for the colonies, splitting Iroquois against Iroquois in many cases. But one of the uglier episodes in our country's history unfolded during and after the Revolutionary War when George Washington sent two of his generals, John Sullivan and James Clinton, and an army of more than 6,200 men, or one-fourth of what was then our American military to destroy, without discrimination, at least forty Iroquois villages in what is now upstate New York in retaliation for Iroquois and Tory attacks against American settlements earlier in the war. His orders read as follows:

The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed. - Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, May 31, 1779

George Washington is still known among the Iroquois as Conotocarious, or "Town Destroyer." And while this is all ancient history, this generic title for the president of the United States among many Iroquois remains. And while there are some within the Six Nations that still resent the actions of the ancestors of white Americans (and Canadians), in lacrosse, the Iroquois are revered in the lacrosse community as the inventor and custodian of the game and compete in our world games as a nation proudly. The greatest award in college lacrosse, like the Heisman Trophy in football, is called the Tewaaraton Award (the Mohawk name for lacrosse), honoring the native tradition and a specific member community within the Six Nations each year. The Six Nations are the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. The Iroquois call themselves the Haudenosaunee.

I have been to the all-aboriginal Nation's Cup tournament many times, a box lacrosse tournament held annually on native territory or "reservations" in New York and Canada, and have been treated very well always, often as the only white American in attendance. The Haudenosaunee are the true friend of a real lacrosse fan who shows respect and recognition of its tradition and origins.

That said, there are still some confrontations that occur among the Iroquois on that score. A few years back, as I attended the Nation's Cup on the Onondaga reservation near Syracuse, N.Y., each morning as I drove onto the territory, I noticed that a billboard had been erected overnight that read something like "We the indigenous people own the United States of America," but within an hour, each day, the elders and reservation authorities (all Iroquois) had removed it. I have never felt unwelcome at these events by any individual. In fact, I would say that half of my better friends in the game are Iroquois. Shouts out! You know who you are.

At the 2007 World Indoor Championships, held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was one of perhaps three or four non-natives invited to the lobster feast held for the Iroquois national team by the local native tribe, the Micmac (pronounced Micmaw), who do not have a lacrosse heritage. It was a bounty of brotherhood, food and celebration beyond anything I have experienced and I will remember it and their hospitality forever. With perhaps one-tenth or less of the potential players to draw from, the Iroquois Nation lost in the finals of the world championship to Team Canada in one of the closest, hardest-fought and exciting games I have ever witnessed after both beat the United States in early rounds. I could not have been more proud of my many friends on the team.

So, as we, the recipients of this great game from a proud and ancient culture celebrate our Thanksgiving, I always remind true lacrosse fans to include thanks to the Native Americans and the tremendous effort they have made to preserve the game though centuries of good and bad occurrences. It is simply irresponsible to celebrate the game without celebrating them.

All too often, young players these days have no idea where the sport came from and think that perhaps someone in Baltimore or Long Island made it up like someone made up basketball (actually modeled in part after lacrosse). Lacrosse is far older and far more spiritually connected to its originators than any game I know of. The game you play now is a bit different than the game they played centuries ago (read more about the history), but you simply would not be playing if it weren't for the passing of the game from fathers to sons for hundreds of years by our Native American brothers. When you pass it on to your sons and daughters, be sure to give credit where credit is due and this Thanksgiving, perhaps include these great people in your prayers if the game is something you are thankful for.

November 24, 2008
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