Iroquois keeping the faith: Lacrosse's native traditions collide with the game's commercialization at the world championships Print E-mail
Saturday, 22 July 2006 09:54
Toronto Star
Jim Byers
Jul. 22, 2006

LONDON, Ont.—The words "Tradition — The Creator's Game" sit beneath a stylized image of an Iroquois with a  wooden lacrosse stick resting on his shoulder on a print for sale at the world lacrosse championships.

At another booth inside the University of Western Ontario stadium, a Nike rep hands over a glossy press kit with a DVD on Team Iroquois.

This is where the distant, mystic past collides with the hard-drive, hard-sell future of lacrosse. It's where Iroquois faith-keepers waving long staffs covered with eagle feathers mix with Japanese team members videotaping opponents in search of a winning edge, and where a company based in Gibraltar has a play-by-play broadcaster in the steamy press box because the company is taking bets on games.

The origins of field lacrosse are wrapped in mystery, but the people we call the Iroquois were playing similar games called baggataway or tewaarathon when the first Europeans hit the shores of North America five centuries ago.

The games were played to settle territorial disputes and as entertainment and often involved hundreds or even 1,000 warriors at a time on fields up to 25 kilometres long.

"The origins of the game are with the Creator," explained Ed Martin of Oakville, who was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford and who was cheering on the Iroquois team in London this week. "The Creator asked the people to play the game for his pleasure."

"There's usually a pipe with tobacco passed around by players before a game," said Leo Nolan, executive director of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Federation. "We say a special prayer to say thanks to the Creator for us being here and for our good health and good minds, and to say thanks for the game."

French missionary Jean de Brébeuf was the first to chronicle the mysterious game. The natives had other names for it, but Brébeuf thought the sticks used to hurl the deerskin ball looked like a bishop's crozier, or "acrosse," and called the game lacrosse.

Deerskin balls are a thing of the past, replaced long ago by India rubber. A few of the Iroquois players use old-style wooden sticks but most have switched over to plastic.

Nike has provided the team with uniforms that include jerseys with "four-way stretch Darlington mesh" and boots with detachable cleats so they can be used on both grass and artificial turf. At the same time, the purple-and-yellow uniforms also pay homage to the past. There's an eagle head on the back and elements of the Iroquois flag on the sleeves.

On the back of the shorts is embroidered the phrase "Dey Hon Tshi Gwa'ehs," which means "to bump with hips" — the name given to the original sport by the Creator.

Hip bumping, as anyone who's seen a lacrosse game, is the least of a player's physical concerns. It's a brutal game that features violent whacks with the stick. Cross-checking is legal, although not on the neck or head.

"I think people like the fast pace of the game," said Colin Doyle, a Canadian team member who also plays for the Toronto Rock. "It's athletic like soccer, there are pick-and-roll plays like basketball and it's up and down the floor (in box lacrosse) like hockey. There's a lot of history, too, and it's pretty cool when you look into it.

"When you see how much the game has grown across the U.S. and rest of the world, it's pretty amazing," said Doyle, alluding to the 21 teams that converged in London for the world championship, including entries from Latvia, New Zealand and even Bermuda.

Box lacrosse, which has its own world championships, is the game most Canadians know. But the version played in London this past week is the traditional field version, which has different rules. Some players find it difficult to make the adjustment. The Americans have traditionally stuck to field lacrosse, which helps explain how they have won 32 straight games in international competition and captured the last six world championships.

The Canadians almost ended that streak last Sunday but lost 13-12 when the U.S. team scored with three seconds to play.

The two teams will meet again in today's final (3:30 p.m., CBC). Canada crushed the Iroquois Nationals 16-6 in one semifinal on Thursday, while the U.S. beat Australia 13-10 in the other.

In recognition of their role in inventing the game, the International Lacrosse Federation in 1990 voted to accept the Iroquois as a full-member nation. The Iroquois have a population pool of only about 80,000 people, mostly from the Six Nations Reserve and in upstate New York. But they play in the top division with the U.S., Canada, Australia, England and Japan.

The Aussies finished third in the world championships in Perth four years ago, and there was a huge group of green-and-yellow clad Australians chanting the traditional "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi" cheer at games this week.

"We all play back home," said Eben Lok of Adelaide. "There are eight teams in Adelaide alone, and every team has a league squad, a reserve team and junior teams of all ages."

Tohru Hayashi, dressed in a University of Tokyo Blue Bullets lacrosse shirt, travelled to the championships in North America with 25 other Japanese lacrosse fans.

"I think people like the speed and the contact," said England player Will Stelfox. "They (fellow Britons) don't always know what it is when you mention it, but you show them the game and they love it."

Delby Powless, an Iroquois Nationals player who hails from one of the most famous lacrosse families, said his people are thrilled that the world is finally paying attention to their game.

"They say when you play lacrosse the Creator smiles," Powless said. "It's our pleasure to share the game with the world.".
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