Lacrosse celebrates its Native American origins during visit to the White House


The White House’s South Lawn was transformed into a lacrosse field Monday to celebrate the sport’s Native American origins. (FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Mike Wise
Columnist July 11, 2011

About 80 children sat in the oppressive heat on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday morning. White, black, American Indian children — a rainbow coalition itching for the adults to stop talking so they could grab their sticks and play their sport in the president’s back yard.

And then Jim Brown’s former teammate came to the microphone, a resplendent ponytail poking out of the back of his hat.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“The game you have now in your hands belongs to our nation,” Oren Lyons said, raising his lacrosse stick, admiring the wood workmanship.

The stick, he said, represents the trees. The webbing, made of deer gut, “goes to the honor of our four-legged friends.”

“For us, lacrosse is a spiritual game — a connection to everything around us, not just a sport,” Lyons said. “We forget that and we miss what the game can still be.”

The Onondaga Nation faithkeeper is 81 now, one of the most respected of elders in the Native American community. Few who attended the first lady’s Let’s Move! Indian Country initiative knew of Lyon’s glorious athletic past. He was a college all-American who played goalie on Syracuse’s unbeaten 1957 national championship team featuring a guy who would become the NFL’s most indestructible running back, Brown, and whom Lyons still considers a close friend.

They also don’t remember his first of many trips to the White House in 1972, when Lyons led a caravan to the District to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs to honor its treaties with Native American tribes — dubbed the Trail of Broken Treaties.

Or that he was traveling with the Iroquois Nationals almost a year ago to the day when the team — only the people who invented the game — was forbidden from competing in the world championships in Manchester, England, because its members’ sovereign-nation passports were not honored in a post-9/11 environment.

“Today is not for that,” Lyons said, diplomatically. “Today is to show the children where the game came from, what it still means to us.”

He was asked whether many of America’s high schools that offer lacrosse as a sport — including those in the Washington area — pay enough homage to its origins.

“No, not really, not all of them,” Lyons said. “I’m disappointed in some of that, how lacrosse is represented. Lacrosse players are always looked up to in the Indian community. They are very much role models who many follow.”

Before Duke and Virginia won the national men’s titles in 2010 and 2011, respectively, their teams became lightning rods for criticism of the sport and the majority of rich, white kids who make up so many rosters. They included George Huguely V, the former star at Landon and Virginia player who was indicted in April on charges of murdering Yeardley Love, a player on the Virginia women’s team.

Good, solid people in the lacrosse community hate that, using the most unseemly national stories about the sport to label everyone who plays. What they need to realize is, it’s still very much a niche sport, in dire need of crossover appeal.

In that regard, the alternative isn’t writing up their kids’ game scores; it’s writing about a living legend that shelved his activism for the day so he could bring President Obama a souvenir from the Iroquois Confederacy.

“I’ve been here many times with many presidents,” Lyons said. “But it’s the first time with a lacrosse stick.”

Danny Glading, who starred at Virginia and Georgetown Prep, and now with the Chesapeake Bayhawks of Major League Lacrosse, acknowledged he didn’t know the origins of the game when he began playing. “But now it’s something important to me, something I really enjoy,” he said before conducting a clinic at one of the five stations on the South Lawn.

Let’s Move! Indian Country brings together federal agencies, communities, nonprofits, corporate partners and tribes with the goal of ending childhood obesity in Indian Country within a generation. Given its beginnings with the Iroquois, lacrosse is many kids’ best shot on the reservation.

“When many of these children were born they were given a stick in their cradles,” said Nedra Darling, a public-affairs director in the Indian Affairs office at the Department of Interior. “When you think of the fact that Indian country has the highest rate of diabetes in the country, this is a good day for everyone.”

The legend agreed. “When you play this game, play hard and give no quarter,” Oren Lyons, young at 81, told the children. “But play clean. Remember that too.

“This game is our gift to you.”

Funny how life works, no? A year ago, almost to the day, the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was forbidden from playing in the world championships because Britain would not honor their passports and the State Department could not come through for them in time.

Monday, on the South Lawn of the White House, some of those players and their mentor put their pride aside and taught the game to children — because that was more important, more lasting, more about the values of the game they invented.

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