On Saturday, February 18, over the course of an afternoon, Brown University’s Men’s Varsity lacrosse team faced off against the Iroquois National under-19’s in an exhibition game on Meister-Kavan Field over the course of an early afternoon. To someone who has never seen the sport before, it comes across as at once very aggressive and very fast. This violence and speed, however, is belied by the fact that the sport’s requisite shoulder-pad-and-shorts combination will gives even a six-foot-tall athlete the proportions of a twelve-year-old boy. Helmets lend the impression of heads too big for bodies and oversized protective gloves suggest a wearer that has yet to grow into his hands. This my general and unsettling impression: watching the game was like watching a case of playground politics gone horribly wrong.
The match was the second of two lacrosse-related events to take place over the weekend. The night before, Oren Lyons, Faith Keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation and Professor Emeritus at the University at Buffalo gave a talk at the Granoff Center. The turnout was a mix of interested students, lacrosse players, and local Native Americans, and Lyons received a standing ovation from many members of the audience upon his introduction. The 81-year-old Lacrosse Hall of Famer, academic, and advocate for indigenous people took the stage to lecture on the relationship between lacrosse and the Iroquois people. In his two-hour address, Lyons discussed issues both lacrosse-related and otherwise—speaking in equal turn about the need for a shot clock in collegiate play and the plight of native populations all over the world.
The purpose of Friday’s lecture and Saturday’s game was to raise awareness of lacrosse awareness regarding both its rules and history. This mission is particularly salient considering that the sport is one of the fastest growing in the nation, especially in the northeast. There are currently 300,000 youth players in the country, representing a 138% growth since 2001.
In light of this growth, Lyons was sure to remind his listeners that it is important not to forget the sport’s history. The Onondaga word for lacrosse, he said, means “they bump hips.” Lyons noted that the hip check is now illegal in college play: “They took the name of our game and they made it illegal.” As it is known now, lacrosse roughly resembles the sport played by many tribes indigenous to North America. Originally, lacrosse occupied spheres recreational, spiritual, and diplomatic. Many historians believe that the activity was integral in keeping together the Six Nations of the Iroquois (of which Onondaga is a member). The games could number up to 1,000 players and were used in rituals, for resolution of inter-tribal conflict, and as training for combat when such resolutions failed. Given the vast array of lacrosse’s functions in American Indian culture, Lyons has trouble classifying it as a game: “Is that a game? Is that what the coaches tell you at halftime? I don’t think so.”
Lyons grew up in the Onondaga County of upstate New York, and has been playing lacrosse his entire life. The Onondaga start their children on the game at age four, contact and all. The fact that the Iroquois introduce their players to lacrosse so young gives the nation’s athletes an unprecedented maturity in their technique. “They play this game with a sophistication of stick work that you just don’t see at the collegiate level…The Iroquois team is well-schooled in how to handle the ball,” men’s varsity head coach Lars Tiffany said of the Iroquois Nationals. This mastery of touch was evidenced at Saturday’s game, when seventeen- and eighteen-year-old players held their own against Division I college athletes.
Lyons went on to play lacrosse at Syracuse University. While there, he earned All-American status and graduated from the school’s College of Fine Art. He would later be inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1993. This trajectory is all the more incredible considering that Lyons dropped out of school in eighth grade, saying that he did not much care for his teachers. That he is now a college professor seems to surprise him more than it does anyone else. “I always allow my class to chew gum,” he cheekily began his address. “Indians love to chew gum.”
As a former athlete and unconventional academic, Lyons enjoys an odd position from which he can afford both to talk about a game with a unilateral intensity and, in equal turn, to joke about serious matters. Far from being rhetorical, his couching the issue at hand within the context of a game is at once pointed and sincere. Lacrosse is integral to Lyons’s worldview.
Since his playing days, Lyons has turned to activism. After spending a good deal of his career working on behalf of Native American causes, he has now turned to more global concerns. He presented before the United Nations as the official opening speaker at the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1992 and served as member of the Indigenous Peoples of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.
Oren Lyons is interested in the healing of damage done—healing to be understood as an activity that takes place on both local and global scales. Coach Tiffany introduced Oren Lyons, telling the story of his first encounter with Lyons nearly 40 years ago. Brad Tiffany, Lars’s father, entered into a treaty with the Onondaga nation in 1973, lending the tribe eleven buffalo so that they could start their own herd—one of only six treaties between the Iroquois and non-Native Americans in the 20th century. “My father grew up having a great deal of empathy for the buffalo,” Tiffany said over the phone. “If he could have his own buffalo range, he would.” This empathy stems from the fact that buffalo populations thinned from tens of millions to a few thousand after the United States’ westward expansion. The elder Tiffany shipped in the herd from the Midwest to his family home in Lafayette, New York in 1967. It was Oren Lyons who negotiated the treaty.
“I remember Oren Lyons being in the farmhouse where I grew up,” Tiffany said. “Oren remembered me…probably because of my father.” From the Tiffany family’s eleven buffalo, Onondaga’s herd now numbers over ninety.
Lyons advocacy is wide in scope. His most recent work is in raising awareness of climate change. In explanation, Lyons talked about snow snake, a traditional Native American game in which a stick is hurled down a trough plowed of snow. “What do you need for snow snake? You need snow…This is the first time I’ve seen no snow in February.”
Saturday’s audience, however, appreciated the warm weather from Meister-Kavan’s aluminum bleachers. The players on-field looked comfortable in their mesh shorts. Conditions not great for snow make for great lacrosse, despite Oren Lyons’s warning: “There’s no mercy in nature, and it’s going to teach you something whether you like it or not.” Despite scoring twice in the early minutes of the game, the Iroquois lost to Brown, 11-7. While their stick-work and drive was admirable, the younger players could not keep stride with college athletes. Even still, to watch the Iroquois’s youth players is to watch the tribe’s young people engage with the Nation’s historical legacy. To call lacrosse a “game,” wherein teams win or lose by virtue of what’s on the scoreboard, seems crass. Lacrosse, for these players, is a given.
DREW DICKERSON B’14 is what you need for a snow snake.