What Lacrosse Means to the Iroquois Nation
A new documentary showcases the spiritual and tribal history of the sport.
Lacrosse is more than a game — it is a ritual, a medicine, a tradition, a culture, and an identity.
The sport is an original Iroquois game, played to honor the Creator. The Iroquois have a deep relationship with the game and much respect for it. Children are given homemade wooden lacrosse sticks when they’re born — they’re taught to respect the stick, learn about its importance, and cherish it.
This relationship and lacrosse’s significance is highlighted in Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation, a new documentary film directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Peter Spirer and sports documentarian Peter Baxter.
Baxter and Spirer focus their film on the Thompson Brothers — Lyle, Miles, Jeremy and Hiana — who grew in the Onondaga Nation located near Syracuse in upstate New York. A politically independent Native American reservation that is federally recognized by the United States, the Onondaga Nation, play competitive level lacrosse in order to create awareness for their existence and sovereignty.
“You’re born into the culture and born into the game of lacrosse.” said Lyle Thompson, one of four lacrosse-playing brothers. “It’s easy to build a passion for it when you’re surrounded by it.”
“It was an amazing experience for me in how important other civilizations are to the progress of people around the world,” said Baxter, who is president and co-founder of Slamdance Film Festival and director of Wild in the Streets and I Want To Be An American. “Just because a population is small doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We have so much to learn from the people who have been here before us.”
A focal point of the documentary is centered around the Iroquois Nationals, the Nation’s national lacrosse team. The Iroquois Nationals, which was first admitted to the Federation of International Lacrosse in 1987, has dealt with countless hardships throughout the years while attempting to gain respect and even access to international tournaments. The team was unable to attend and compete in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship in England because the United Kingdom wouldn’t accept their Iroquois passports.
The team and Onondaga Nation hosted the 2015 FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championship. Being able to host their game on native lands was the ultimate experience.
“For me, the best thing about it was the fact that we were able to bring everybody together — the Six Nations and all visiting teams,” said Lyle, who is the NCAA Division I record holder for career points (400) and assists (225) and a two-time Tewaaraton Trophy winner. “Being part of the Iroquois Nationals is more than representing your people and playing lacrosse on the world stage, you’re joining a fight as a people because we haven’t been completely accepted by all the nations. You’re signed up and doing what you can do help our people move forward.”
Spirer, who previously directed Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life and Rhyme and Reason, said there was hesitance at first by the Iroquois when they were approached about the documentary. He said because Native Americans have had so much taken from them in the past, they were concerned initially, but accepted the filmmakers and were receptive to the project after understanding its message.
“They are welcoming people, but they are also kind of reserved and private, so you have to earn their trust and respect,” he said. “We learned things I wasn’t exposed to growing up taking history class.”
The Iroquois Nationals, who are sponsored by Nike, are still in search of their first international lacrosse gold medal. They finished second in the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in 2003, ’07, ’11 and ’15 and third in the 2014 World Lacrosse Championship.
While that first glimpse of gold around their neck would be surreal, it isn’t about winning or losing to the Iroquois.
“Our motto is ‘We win, you win,’” Miles Thompson said. “What that means is we’re all out playing — there’s a bigger purpose than us playing, we play for the people around us. It’s medicine for us. It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about playing for the people who can’t play or showing the younger ones how to play…It’s more than us playing for a championship. The style of play could lead to a championship, but it’s much more than us going out and playing; it’s for our people, for ourselves and the younger generation. It’s much bigger than us.”