Iroquois lacrosse team aims to make Olympic competition under its own flag

·7 min read

Iroquois Nationals lacrosse star Randy Staats was angry at first, but he now says an international snub of his team only fuelled his desire to play on the world stage.

Three years ago, the International Olympic Committee granted World Lacrosse, the international federation, provisional recognition. That's a step toward inclusion in the 2028 Summer Olympic Games, scheduled to take place in Los Angeles.

But to make the Olympics, the Iroquois Nationals, strong competitors in other international venues, will have to prove to the International Olympic Committee that they represent a sovereign nation distinct from Canada or the United States.

Lacrosse players from the six First Nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy compete not for Canada or the U.S. — the settler states where their nations are nested — but for their confederacy.

Men's lacrosse has recently been added to the World Games, an international competition often considered an audition for sports seeking inclusion in the Olympics.

Even though the Iroquois Nationals finished in third place at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships, they were not initially included in the top eight teams selected to compete at the 2022 World Games.

“I thought it was a mistake at first,” Staats recalls. “I was frustrated, I was upset. It actually kind of helped me, in a way, personally, because it allowed me to have confidence to voice my opinion.”

It seems Staats, 28, was destined to be a lacrosse player. “I was born with a stick in my cradle,” he says with a laugh.

As a Mohawk growing up in Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, the game was passed down to him through the generations by his elders.

Staats’ father, uncles and grandfather all played. “[It] just goes to show, in our culture, what it means. You enter this earth with a wooden stick and when you leave this earth you have a wooden stick in your casket.”

A tweet from Staats about the World Games sparked attention, leading to an outcry, says teammate Brendan Bomberry, also a Mohawk from Six Nations.

“We really saw the power of social media and the power of our voices that, if we speak up, we can make a difference and that was really awesome to see.”

The resulting uproar and the voluntary withdrawal by Ireland Lacrosse’s Senior National Team from the international competition caused World Lacrosse and the International World Games Association to reverse their decision and include the Iroquois Nationals in the coming 2022 World Games.

It was a recognition of the central place the Iroquois team holds in the lacrosse sphere.

The Irish lacrosse association saw that it was important for the Iroquois team to be there as the originators of the game and they stepped back, says Leo Nolan, executive director of the Iroquois Nationals. “It was a magnanimous gesture on their part to do that.”

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy views lacrosse as a gift from the Creator.

“We have a modern version now, but the medicine game was originally given to us by the Creator to help us heal spiritually, physically, mentally,” says Nolan, a Mohawk who grew up on the Onondaga Nation.

“It’s an integral part of our culture, of our lifestyle, of our way of dealing with adverse things that happen sometimes in our lives, so it’s a good way of helping us deal with everyday life struggles and stresses. The game, of course, has changed dramatically from those times, but we continue to hold that very close to us.”

While the Haudenosaunee are considered the originators and stewards of the game, many First Nations played a version of lacrosse.

Many cite the early ball games known as baggataway and tewaarathon as forerunners of the modern version. In those times, hundreds of Indigenous players might compete on a field stretching kilometres, with games lasting days.

The ball was originally made of wood and later deerskin filled with fur. Deer sinew was used for stick netting.

The name “crosse” or “la crosse” was coined by French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf in 1637 based on his observations of a game.

In the 1860s, standardized lacrosse rules were developed by Montreal dentist William George Beers, an avid promoter of the game who also exchanged the traditional deerskin ball for a hard rubber one.

In 1867, the National Lacrosse Association was formed and Beers later published a guide and rulebook titled "Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada." Among the rules: “No Indian must play in a match for a white club, unless previously agreed upon.”

The National Lacrosse Association became an amateur organization in 1880, with Indigenous players barred from championship competition.

Don Morrow, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western University who studies the history of sport in Canada, has written that implicit in this practice was the assumption that Indians had an unfair advantage because of their skill and, very likely, “the perception of them as racially inferior.”

“Thus, the group that was leaned on when (the modern game) was in its infancy, was summarily dismissed — except for exhibition matches and the showcase tours — once the institution of lacrosse was able to stand by itself.”

As a result, Indigenous teams played one another but were not allowed to compete for a Canadian title, says historian Allan Downey, author of “The Creator’s Game” and a professor in the history department and Indigenous studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“It had the effect of limiting, if not almost eliminating, the right of the Haudenosaunee to represent themselves as a sovereign nation, as a team in, not only Canadian championship classifications, but also in international competitions.”

Downey sees the developments as an appropriation of the Indigenous game to shape a distinctly Canadian identity.

Two teams — the Mohawk Indians and the Winnipeg Shamrocks — competed for Canada at the 1904 Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis, with Winnipeg winning the gold medal. Lacrosse was also featured at the 1908 Games, but it was relegated to demonstration status at a handful of future Olympics.

The birth of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, initially as a one-time venture in the 1980s, marked a path toward change. The team strived to become part of the International Lacrosse Federation, a forerunner of the World Lacrosse Championship.

The federation didn’t know the team or the confederacy’s history, Downey says. “So the question becomes immediately: what do you mean you’re a sovereign nation? How can you prove that you’re a sovereign nation?”

For the Iroquois Nationals, the path back to the Olympics involves being competitive enough to qualify, forming a national Olympic committee and applying for recognition by the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC is built upon the recognition of nation-states, and Indigenous sovereignty challenges the autonomy of those states, Downey says. The Iroquois Nationals will have to convince the IOC that they represent a sovereign nation that can compete on that basis, he said.

“So, there needs to be a reworking of the political process for their recognition and I’m hopeful that that will take place but it’s not going to be without a long difficult struggle.”

The only other option would be to compete under the IOC flag, rather than the Haudenosaunee flag, which defeats the purpose, Downey says.

The decision on the Iroquois’ National Olympic Committee application for the 2028 Games is scheduled to be made in 2024.

“We basically have to sell the IOC on our international experience, our international standing, our sovereignty, and the good things that’ll happen if we’re there playing lacrosse, the game we originated,” Nolan said.

The team is “very optimistic” about the prospect, he added.

“We think it’d be a great gesture, a great symbolic step for Indigenous communities — not just us, not just American and Alaska natives, or First Nations folks — but for Indigenous communities around the world.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.

———

This story was produced through the Journalists for Human Rights Indigenous Reporters Program under the mentorship of The Canadian Press, with funding from the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch.

Laurent Beausoleil, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the sport of lacrosse has been granted provisional status for the 2028 Olympics.