From Humble Beginnings in 1982, Iroquois Teams Are Now Among the World’s Best
BY OREN LYONS
The present-day Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team begins with an idea broached to me in 1982 by Syracuse University (SU) lacrosse coach Roy Simmons Jr. Roy has a penchant for history, traditions and antiquities. Roy and I were teammates on the 1957 undefeated SU lacrosse team coached by his father, Roy Simmons. He suggested that the Iroquois play an exhibition match with Canada at the 1983 NCAA Championship in Baltimore, MD. The match would be reminiscent of the 19th-century lacrosse tournaments held in Canada.
Haudenosaunee Six Nations teams been playing mostly box lacrosse for many years and I knew our field skills would be rusty, but the idea was intriguing. I took the question to our players, coaches and leaders. Their response was “Why not?” The consequence of that exchange was that in 1983, The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee sanctioned the Iroquois Nationals as the national team of our confederacy, for the first time since the exhibition matches of the 1932 Olympic Summer Games.
The Baltimore games were a wakeup call to our Iroquois players; we were rusty and our team was soundly beaten in several games. I sat in the box seat with my former Syracuse University teammate, Jim Brown, then a famous running back for the Cleveland Browns. He said, “Your team is getting beat bad, it must be embarrassing.” There was truth to that statement. My thoughts were, “Let’s see how the men take this; that will determine what happens next.”
“We don’t like getting beat,” is what the players said. “It was kind of fun and it is our game and we are going to take lacrosse back.” Moving from the box game to the field game is a major transition. I saw their determination and their pride. I recognized the stirred spirit of our team. We had lost games, but we were not defeated. The 1984 Olympic Summer Games were scheduled for Los Angeles. Indian Country was reminded of Jim Thorpe’s amazing exploits at the 1912 Olympic Games held in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won the pentathlon and the decathlon gold medals, an athletic feat unmatched in the modern history of the Olympics and still stands today – 103 years later. King Gustaf V of Sweden called him, “the greatest athlete in the world.” We were inspired.
We contacted the Olympic Committee and asked if we could play an exhibition match at the games, reminiscent of the lacrosse exhibition games of the 1932 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles. The Committee welcomed the idea but said the exhibition match could not be played during the Olympic Games but could be played prior to or after the event. We chose prior. We called Canada and asked for a rematch. They were all for it.
We named our event, “The Jim Thorpe Memorial Games and Pow-Wow.” We found a venue at Whittier Narrows in Los Angeles and began preparations for the event. It was a huge undertaking. We formed the Iroquois National Committee and asked Wesley Patterson, a Tuscarora stick maker and former player, to be our executive director; his wife, Carol, was asked to be the treasurer. Rick Hill (Tuscarora) and Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga) were legal counsel; we asked Kimball Patterson to be our general manager; Ron Doctor (Mohawk), who was the coach for Skaneateles High School, and Sid Jamieson (Cayuga), the coach for Bucknell University, coached the 1984 Iroquois Nationals team. There were many more helping hands and great enthusiasm from Iroquoia to support this event.
In 1983, the Australian lacrosse team was touring Canada; they heard about the games and asked if they could join. “Sure,” we said. “It is up to you to get here and take care of your team but you are welcome.”
Orange County, CA had players and we asked them to form a team to balance out our team pool. Then we got a call from England; they heard about the games and asked to join. We said, “Of course, just get here” By this time, Team USA had heard and they too joined our event. Now we had a full-blown tournament.
Dennis Banks was at Onondaga and he worked with the Nation to organize “The Great Jim Thorpe Longest Run” This was developed simultaneously with the lacrosse games. We calculated the time it would take to run across the United States and sent our runners off accordingly. They were on their way with a staff consecrated for the occasion.
The Haudenosaunee Six Nations runners carried the staff to Wisconsin; the Oneida and Winnebagos carried it to Minnesota; the Anishinaabe carried it to South Dakota; the Dakota and Lakota carried it to Wyoming; the Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne carried it to Colorado; the Ute and the Ouray carried it to Nevada; the Western Shoshone carried it to California; eight California native running teams carried it to Whittier Narrows to coincide with the opening of The Jim Thorpe Memorial Games and Pow-Wow. The two staffs presided over a very successful tournament, and introduced the Iroquois Nationals to the International Lacrosse Federation (ILF).
As you can see, many nations were involved in this event, including the Agua Caliente Nation, who contributed vital funds in support. We reinvigorated the quest to return Jim Thorpe’s gold medals to their proper place in Olympic history and eventually, they were returned with the honor they deserved. His daughter, Grace Thorpe, and his granddaughter, Dagmar Thorpe, expressed deep gratitude to all of us for our efforts to bring light to this long-standing injustice to one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
This added note of interest little known or talked about was the fact that someone stole Jim’s track shoes and he had to borrow a mismatched pair to compete. He still won the pentathlon and the decathlon. This is a lesson to anyone who complains about equipment. Just do it!
The leaders of the English team asked us to tour England in the coming year of 1985. We accepted the offer with the understanding that we were traveling with the Haudenosaunee passport. This tour was a 20th-century continuation of the 19th-century tours of England, attended by the Queen herself.
We petitioned to join the ILF to take part in the 1986 World Games in Canada. Our petition was denied, so we invited the teams to come to the University at Buffalo for preliminary games. We treated the teams to dinner and the Tuscarora organized a fireball game that evening. (The game is played with a blazing ball of fire; a version of an Iroquois soccer match.)
The following year, the ILF accepted our petition as a full member nation. We were the fifth member nation, adding Haudenosaunee to Australia, Canada, England and the United States.
We were invited to the next World Games hosted by Australia at Perth. The ILF asked for our flag. Previously, we had always carried our eagle feather staff. That would not fit on a flagpole. I worked with Rick Hill on this issue. We traveled throughout Six Nations territories; there were many ideas, but no consensus. In the end, there was only one option: The Hiawatha Belt. The great union belt designed by the originators of our confederation of five nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. The purple and white represents the colors of our sacred wampum beads. Tuscarora joined our confederacy in 1713. We flew six eagle feathers with our flag, inclusive of the Six Nations. Today, our flag is as ubiquitous as other national flags.
The ILF instituted the Under-19 men’s lacrosse program. This development has been responsible for much of the improvement of international competition. Our Under-19 men have consistently medaled in the men’s outdoor games and continue to improve. They are staying in school and they are being recruited into college and university programs.
For indigenous nations and in particular, the Haudenosaunee, the indoor game is a natural. “The Box Game” is what we play. When I was 5 years old, my dad took me to one of his games in Geneva, NY. I still remember the excitement and action, and that was in 1935 (or thereabouts). We grew up playing in our box at home. We all played. It was a part of our childhood.
The box game is back with the professional National Lacrosse League (NLL) leading the charge. The stick skills and close contact require quicker stick work and sharper shooting. The heavier contact forces players to move and the game tempo increases. The 30-second shot clock requires action. Here the advantage lies for those programs that have minors playing indoor lacrosse at all age levels. By the time these young players are bantams, they are 14years old and they could have 10 years of experience. The point is that our kids are in the box at 4 years old, playing high-contact throughout their intermediate years. By the time they are 14 years old, their stick skills are already highly developed.
The Canadian provinces have such programs as well as the Six Nations territories and villages. The United States is just starting to build similar programs.
The European nations have taken an interest in the indoor game; the Czech Republic has been playing the indoor game for many years and they have run indoor tournaments in their country taking advantage of the hockey arenas. Therefore, the “indoor game” is building in Europe. Six men on the floor is a lot easier than 10 men on the field. Both games will flourish because one game helps the other. Lacrosse is lacrosse, whether it’s indoor or outdoor. The seasons have adjusted to both games, with the NLL playing a winter schedule and outdoor lacrosse leagues playing a summer schedule.
The Iroquois Nationals lacrosse programs have been on a steady improvement curve. The future of our game will continue to improve as long as we continue to maintain spiritual values inherent in the origin and purpose of the game. For the Haudenosaunee, it is not a sport.
From the first time we took the field as a national team in 1983 and were soundly beaten, to our first medal in the men’s world field games in Denver in 2014, we have been steadily improving. Lessons in humility are important. When we started out, we always had the talent and ability, but we didn’t have the discipline for tournament play. That took us years and two generations of players to acquire.
I have deliberately not mentioned our players by name; there are always exceptional players, but it takes a team to win.
I cannot tell you how much compassion and pride I felt for our men as I watched them lose game after game, year after year, and never give up. Their determination and grit against all odds is something to see. To me, they are all heroes.
It’s important for our players today to remember how we go there and the years of work and sacrifice of those men that made our successes possible.
The Haudenosaunee women have formed a team and have joined the Fellowmen’s Lacrosse. The International Federation of Lacrosse and the International Women’s Lacrosse programs merged and now come under the new title of the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL). The Haudenosaunee women have been competing for several years and were invited to the Under-19 World Championships in Scotland in July 2015. The women’s team travels with a Haudenosaunee passport. The United Kingdom (UK) refused to accept their passport for the same reason they refused to accept the Iroquois Nationals passport for the 2010 FIL World Championships.
They said that they were not sure we could return to the USA with our passports. We appealed to the US State Department and they assured the UK that we could return with our passports. The UK then said that our passports did not meet their standards and continued to refuse our entry. They offered the option of using a US or Canadian passport. We refused to compromise our identity and we did not attend the 2010 World Games (and we had the greatest team you never saw).
The Haudenosaunee women’s team refused to travel for the same reason in 2015, and the issue remains unresolved because treaties are involved.
We have medals in the Under-19 men’s division, we have consistently medaled in the men’s indoor games, and we now have a medal in the men’s outdoor game—quite a journey from the defeats of the 1983 games. But that’s who we are. We represent the spirit of the indigenous peoples.
In the context of 7.3 billion people in the world today, we are still here. Battered but intact. We carry the values of nature inherent in the wooden stick, and we look forward to more contests with the game that we share with the world.
The game is good medicine for the world. Putdown your weapons of war, pick up your sticks and settle your differences in our fields of honor. Peace to one and all.
Dahnayto (now I am finished).
Joaquisho (Oren Lyons)
On behalf of the indigenous peoples and the natural world
Oren Lyons is the traditional Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. An internationally recognized advocate for indigenous rights and one of the most influential Native American leaders of the 20th and21st centuries, Oren is also a US Lacrosse Hall of Famer, recipient of the 2015 Spirit of Tewaaraton Award and an AII-American goalie on Syracuse’s undefeated 1957 lacrosse team.