Lacrosse: For Some It’s More Than a Game
Native Americans compete in the modern lacrosse
game without losing sight of its traditional heritage.
When Native Americans play lacrosse, they believe that the spirits of
their ancestors are playing with them. "I would never do anything on the
field that might taint the game." - Neal Powless
Neal Powless stood behind the restraining line, waiting. Waiting as all
attackmen must, watching the face-off, wondering whether the ball would
come his way.
It did. The pass came, and Powless knew what to do. A quick feed, a
quick shot, and the Division III Championship overtime was history.
Like all the other players who celebrated on Byrd stadium’s muddy field
that day, Powless has played the game of lacrosse since his youth. But
the environment in which he learned the game was quite different than
that of his teammates.
Powless grew up on the Onandaga Reservation in upstate New York where
his father, Irving is an active Chief. The Onandaga Nation remains
sovereign to this day, working for the Six Nations.
"Every day we work towards keeping our independent status and
preserving our identity," says Powless. Lacrosse is a part of that
Powless stresses that when Native Americans play lacrosse, they believe
that the spirits of their ancestors are playing with them, giving them
Because of that connection, Powless says, "I would never do anything on
the field that might taint the game. We play hard, and we play to win,
but it is most important to play fair-- don’t take out a guy at the legs
because he’s their best player, and don’t retaliate with a cheap check
if you’ve been hit with a clean one. Losing is fine as long as you’ve
In addition to Baggataway and Tewarrathon there is another Native
American name for lacrosse, Takitchawei, which is translated "to bump
hips." Powless explains, "Performing all of the skills needed to play
lacrosse, with all of the hip checks and physical contact requires a lot
of dexterity. Sometimes people think that the game is nothing but
Powless enjoys the field game and the box game equally, regardless of
differences in physical contact. "If somebody calls me up to play a
field game, I say ‘alright’ and I grab my helmet and gloves. If somebody
calls me up to play box, I say ‘alright’ and I grab all of my equipment.
As long as I’m out there with my friends throwing the ball around, it’s
all the same to me."
Scott Burnam, who is half Mohawk, has had an ever-present interest in
lacrosse. He and his brothers Mark and Dan all played Division I
lacrosse and are now members of the Iroquois National team.
Before the 1990 World Games in Australia, Native Americans were banned
from international competition (their box leagues were considered to be
professional). When they were admitted, Oren Lyons, the faithkeeper of
the Onandaga Nation, founded the Iroquois National Team.
"It was amazing to finally be allowed into international play,"
expresses Burnam. The heritage and the traditional aspects of the game
were stressed that year in an effort to make sure the lacrosse world
knew how much the game means to the Iroquois. Lyons performed a
traditional dance before the tournament, and they had an opportunity to
sing the Iroquois national anthem.
Oftentimes people associate Native American lacrosse with history book
images of wooden sticks, open fields, and battle cries. "For the Native
Americans, lacrosse was not about going out and killing each other on
the field, and it also wasn’t just about playing around and having fun,"
says Burnam. Lacrosse was played to honor the Creator. It was a medicine
game. It was a means of training warriors. "For all that the game
provided, the Native Americans consider lacrosse to be a gift from the
Burnam, who currently coaches at Wesley College, often shares his
feelings about the Native American traditions of the game with his
players. "The majority of my friends and teammates had no idea about the
depth of the history behind lacrosse. Especially after playing for the
Iroquois Nationals and coaching the 19-and-unders, I want my players to
know more about the game."
Beyond Powless and the Burnam family, there are many Native Americans
who have played or coached in the modern college game. Sid Jamieson, Cam
Bomberry, and Jacob LaSore are all of Native American descent. Marshall
Abrahams is a freshman long stick for Syracuse. Gewas Schindler, who
also grew up on the Onandaga nation, followed in the footsteps of Dan
Burnam and is currently a sophomore attackman at Loyola.
Powless believes that the impact of Native American players on the
field lacrosse game is just beginning. He credits this growth to the
development of the youth leagues on the reservation. "And I’m not just
talking about sending kids to Division III schools and Junior Colleges,
where the majority of reservation players have gone in the past."
Keep an eye out for Drew Bucktooth. Last summer, at age 15, he excelled
in the 19-and-under world tournament against the likes of John Hess and
Chris Massey, earning the first spot ever for a Native American on the
All–World Tournament Team.
At age 5 Drew was a member of the first "mosquito" reservation team, a
program that gets kids developing lacrosse skills at an early age. Now
the leagues are full, and those first players are gearing up for high
school and college lacrosse.
The Native Americans of the Onandaga Reservation have worked to retain
their language, their spiritual helpers, and their ceremonies from times
past. Lacrosse is also an important part of the Onandaga heritage.
Native Americans say that they received the game of lacrosse as a gift
from the Creator. Since that time the game has evolved, with Native
Americans spreading it to many cultures other than their own. The
lacrosse that is played today may appear to be different than it was
hundreds of years ago, but for Native Americans their beliefs and
traditions are alive in every game.
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