Sports in Society Lifting the ‘white’ label from sports

Creating opportunities for the 'creator's game'

Through an internationally recognized lacrosse program, the Haudenosaunee are reclaiming their own place in the sport they created.

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Only 16% of all boys and 15% of all girls who participate in youth sports are African American. Only 15% of male athletes and 17% of female athletes are Hispanic. Only 12% of Asian boys and 8% of Asian girls play sports. Source: Ohio University 2020 study

Lacrosse, an indigenous medicine game first played by the Haudenosaunee over 1,000 years ago, has become associated with the largely white world of prep school and college sports, which feed the professional leagues. Haudenosaunee refers to a confederation or alliance among six Indigenous nations who are more commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy. Through an internationally recognized lacrosse program, the Haudenosaunee are reclaiming their place in the “creator’s game,” which has deep spiritual and political roots.

Origin unknown, c.1900 (Photo courtesy of Iroquois Nationals)

French Jesuits called the game “la crosse” because it was played with a long stick, which they called a “crosse.” Among the Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee), which means “People of the Longhouse” in Onondaga, an Iroquoian language, the game is called Deyhontsigwa’ehs, which means “they bump hips.” In Haudenosaunee culture, many young children, especially boys, are given a lacrosse stick when they are born.  

The Kahnawà:ke lacrosse team in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1876. (Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum)

The Haudenosaunee formed a six-nation alliance of the Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca and Tuscarora known as the Iroquois Confederacy. This alliance represented Indigenous people who originally occupied extensive lands in what is now New York State, southern Quebec and Ontario, Canada. Lacrosse was played among the Confederacy long before the coming of the Europeans to the shores of North America.

Pre-colonization, lacrosse was one of the most popular and widespread games played across the continent, and the game had many variations. The long-stick game played internationally today belongs to the Iroquois. In 1844 — almost 200 years after the French Jesuits first witnessed the game of lacrosse — there was the first recorded game between settlers and Indigenous people. 

The first Iroquois Nationals field lacrosse team, 1983. (Photo courtesy of Iroquois Nationals)

In 1983, the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee sanctioned the formation of the Iroquois Nationals, and the team became a member of the World Lacrosse Organization. Today, men’s and women’s senior and U19 field teams and a men’s senior box lacrosse team compete at the international level. They are overseen by the board of the Iroquois Nationals. Today, the Iroquois Nationals men’s senior field lacrosse team is ranked third in the world.

The Iroquois Nationals logo, designed by Oren Lyons (Iroquois Nationals Honorary Chair). The eagle has been the main symbol of the team since 1983.

In 2010, Mark ‘Red’ Burnam formed Road Warriors Lacrosse. In 2019, it became a nonprofit called the Iroquois Nationals Development Group, and it performs operational and administrative duties for the Iroquois Nationals. The organization is focused on developing the sport along with community resources and opportunities for youth that ensure the cultural health of the Haudenosaunee. 

Iroquois Nationals player Zed Williams at the 2019 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in British Columbia, Canada, where the Iroquois Nationals finished second. (Photo courtesy of Iroquois Nationals)

Zed Williams, a star Iroquois Nationals player, is a former collegiate player at the University of Virginia who now also professionally with the Whipsnakes in the Premiere Lacrosse League and the Georgia Swarm in the National Lacrosse League. As of 2020, the Iroquois Nationals have a player pool of 84 athletes, of whom about 60% have played or are currently playing at NCAA level.

In 1987, an early incarnation of the Haudenosaunee women’s team gathered in Niagara Falls, New York. (Photo courtesy of Iroquois Nationals)

After the recognition of the male lacrosse team in the 1980s, a group of female Haudenosaunee lacrosse players attempted to create a national women’s team. Haudenosaunee leaders refused to sanction a women’s team, citing traditional and cultural restrictions. After decades of advocating for a place in the traditionally male sport, the Haudenosaunee Women’s national lacrosse team in 2008 became a full member of the World Lacrosse Organization. 

Oren Lyons and his Haudenosaunee passport in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

Iroquois Nationals players represent 16 existing communities in New York, Ontario, Quebec, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. The Haudenosaunee remain sovereign and independent, identifying themselves as citizens of their respective nation and traveling internationally under their own passports. This has caused some challenges for the Iroquois Nationals team in international competition, because not all countries recognize the Haudenosaunee passport. In 2010, for example, the Nationals were unable to attend and compete in the World Lacrosse Championship in England because the United Kingdom did not accept their Haudenosaunee passports.

Iroquois Nationals player Lyle Thompson, from the Onondaga Nation, at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships in Colorado, where the team finished third, behind the United States (winner) and Canada. (Photo courtesy of Iroquois Nationals)

The prominence of Indigenous players in the professional leagues has opened up larger conversations about race and representation in the sport. The Thompson brothers – Lyle, Miles, Hiana and Jeremy – have all played professional lacrosse, and have been featured in ads by Iroquois Nationals program sponsor Nike. 

Lyle Thompson plays for the Georgia Swarm in the National Lacrosse League (NLL) and the Cannons in the Premiere Lacrosse League (PLL). During an NLL competition against the Philadelphia Wings in January 2019, Thompson was cradling the ball when Wells Fargo Center public address announcer Shawny Hill said, “Let’s snip the ponytail right here!” The announcer was fired after making the remark. In 2020, the NLL issued a public statement in support of the Iroquois players, and the PLL announced a partnership with Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse “that will encompass four pillars: mentorship, cultural awareness training, events, and brand.” 

Members of the Haudenosaunee Nationals women’s team participate in the 2019 Pan-American Lacrosse Association (PALA) Women’s Lacrosse World Qualifiers for the 2021 World Lacrosse Championship in Auburndale, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Iroquois Nationals)

The Haudenosaunee women’s national lacrosse team is currently ranked 12th in the world.

The Iroquois Lacrosse Team at the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Ontario, Canada, in 1904. (Photo courtesy of the Six Nations Public Library)

Ireland gave up their spot at the 2022 World Lacrosse Championships – which will feature lacrosse in a 6v6 Olympic format – to make room for the Iroquois Nationals, after they were denied an invitation due to dispute over their qualification as an Olympic competitor. In the hopes they can compete in the 2028 Olympics — when men’s lacrosse will be a showcase sport — First Nations Lacrosse is working to establish its own National Olympic Committee.  

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The Kahnawà:ke lacrosse team in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1876: Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum

The Iroquois Lacrosse Team at the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Ontario, Canada, 1904: Photo courtesy of the Six Nations Public Library

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Episode Lifting the ‘white’ label from sports