The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A decade ago, these girls weren’t allowed to play lacrosse. Now they inspire a reservation.

“In a sense, it’s still a healing game,” says one parent of a Salmon River player. “To make you stronger, empower yourself. It lifts them up and makes them stronger as a person." (Ben Cleeton for The Washington Post)

FORT COVINGTON, N.Y. — Joryan Adams paced near the locker room and underneath the championship banners hanging inside Salmon River High, none of which represented her girls’ lacrosse team.

At 14 years old, she was among the youngest of the 29 Mohawk girls about to play in a state playoff game, yet she carried herself with a veteran’s maturity. She wore a black undershirt to steel her from the winds howling along the U.S.-Canada border and examined her stick, the one her father shortened with a saw blade to fit her hands and she keeps beside her bed on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation every night. She stopped to listen to her coach’s pep talk.

“This is the most important part: You guys are starting to believe in yourselves, and you’re believing in everyone else,” said first-year coach Ron LaFrance, a former tribal chief who at one time didn’t believe girls in his tribe should be able to play the sport.

“We’re more than just a bunch of girls from the rez …” LaFrance told them, and a few minutes later, the girls lifted their sticks for a chant before making the long walk to the field.

Reservation basketball stars rarely make it to Division I. But Mya Fourstar has a dream.

Joryan is the latest teenager from the reservation who has set her sights on a Division I lacrosse scholarship. A decade ago, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

The Salmon River girls’ lacrosse team, in just its eighth year of existence, represents another breakthrough for women on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, where lacrosse has deep and sacred roots. The game was founded in this part of North America and has been treated by men for generations as a gift from the creator, a “medicine game” to lift their spirits. At one time, the Mohawks manufactured more than 90 percent of the world’s lacrosse sticks.

But women have been discouraged from playing the sport for generations, too, and only about a decade ago were girls’ youth leagues introduced on the reservation. A varsity program at Salmon River, which is about 10 miles from the reservation, has been budding ever since, empowering girls at a time when indigenous women across the country are facing an epidemic of violence. In the past year, lawmakers in the United States passed legislation to address the overwhelming number of missing and murdered indigenous women across the country, and this month in Canada, a national inquiry labeled the crisis a “genocide.”

On the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which is also known by its Mohawk name, Akwesasne, activists are scrambling to spread awareness of the issue, and lacrosse has played a key role in those efforts. The sport has helped redefine gender roles in many cases; more men are attending girls’ games and coaching teams of all levels, including at Salmon River. The game has not only been tied to a cultural resurgence for the Mohawk tribe but also has helped girls better understand their own power and identity amid the challenges and dangers they face.

“In a sense, it’s still a healing game,” said Joryan’s mother, Shelby Adams. “To make you stronger, empower yourself. It lifts them up and makes them stronger as a person. If you’re living in a house where awful things are happening … the game can make it better, because it’s an outlet.”

A few months before her first playoff game, Joryan had stepped onto a different stage. It went dark, and the curtains shut. She wore a pink top, a feather and beads braided into her hair, and she beat a drum at a steady pace. Suddenly two hands grabbed her shoulders from behind and then covered her mouth. She dropped the instrument, which had the words “Help Me” stitched into it.

She looked into the camera, and a message appeared on the screen: “Is someone controlling you?”

It was a chilling acting job by the 14-year-old, and it served as a powerful public service announcement for St. Regis Mohawk tribal police as it beamed the message out across the reservation, just two months before tribal police assisted the U.S. Border Patrol in apprehending six people in a smuggling attempt just outside the reservation.

“It was meant to be scary,” Joryan said later, “but it opened people’s eyes.”

She had already drawn attention on the reservation with a lacrosse stick, earning a place on Salmon River’s varsity team as a seventh-grader, but this was a new chance to illuminate the risks facing so many of her tribe’s women. She watched her mother stay up countless late nights, trying to get a film company called Dreamcatcher Studios off the ground while splicing together more than 20 public service announcements, many of which focused on the violence perpetrated against American Indian women across the country.

“We’ve actually started to incorporate healing into it, because people still have trauma, carrying that,” Adams said. “Families carry that forever.”

Adams, like so many Mohawk women here, could rattle off the alarming statistics. Eighty-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have endured physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Justice. One in three has been raped or suffered a rape attempt, twice the national average, according to the Justice Department.

The National Crime Information Center in 2016 reported 5,217 missing indigenous women, with only 116 cases logged in the Justice Department’s missing persons database. The epidemic has been attributed to a number of factors, including institutional racism, lack of resources for tribal law enforcement and jurisdictional issues on reservation lands.

Adams grew up on Akwesasne, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border and is split by the St. Lawrence, Raquette and St. Regis rivers. The reservation sits in a remarkably complex geographical and cultural area — “a jurisdictional nightmare,” as Adams puts it — in two Upstate New York counties as well as two Canadian provinces, Quebec and Ontario. The main road through Akwesasne, Highway 37, is dotted with tobacco shops and convenience stores, leading to the tribe’s massive casino resort on the southern edge of the reservation.

Raising three girls here has not been easy for Adams, who has to get up twice in the middle of the night to treat the mercury poisoning in her blood and that of her 12-year-old daughter, JJ, who is autistic, with medication. Adams suspects their conditions have something to do with the decades-ago contamination of the St. Lawrence by aluminum manufacturers Alcoa and Reynolds Metals Company, as well as General Motors, in factories along the banks of the river.

Adams has seen the tension between her people and the complicated borders surrounding them her entire life. She had dropped out of high school for a few years to join the smuggling trade, giving it up only after she became pregnant with her first daughter, Jaiden. She was half-Mohawk and half-white, with blond hair and blue eyes, torn between parents of different cultures.

“I still struggle with my identity,” she said.

Joryan has encountered a similar path. As a young girl, she rubbed lemons in her hair, thinking that would make it blond like her mother’s. She was raised Catholic but plans to leave the church and fully acclimate to her tribe’s religion, which is known as Longhouse. She has grown fond of cultural days at Salmon River, which allow Mohawks, who make up 60 percent of the student population, a chance to celebrate their heritage in a place that constantly reminds them of everything that has been taken away.

“When we have Native American Day and we’re dancing, it’s really fun and more people want to do it,” Joryan said.

More girls also want to sign up for lacrosse in Akwesasne than ever. There are more than 100 girls in youth leagues, and the early development of Joryan and a cast of other middle schoolers on the Salmon River varsity team underscores how quickly younger players are developing.

Adams was never allowed to touch a lacrosse stick, she said, but her oldest daughter became one of the first girls in Akwesasne to play in an organized youth league. Those early days brought plenty of vocal opposition, especially from the tribe’s clan mothers and elder males. By 2015, as the documentary “Keepers of the Game” chronicled the program, it had received full funding from the school district and droves of girls had taken up the sport, even as some traditional men in the community refused to support the transition.

LaFrance, for one, would not attend his oldest daughter’s lacrosse practices less than a decade ago; he believed that the sport was a medicine game reserved for males. So he stayed in the car while his wife took her. When he adopted two foster children a few years later, he again took them to practice and realized that his culture should accept girls’ lacrosse.

“I was hooked,” he said, and he tried to treat each of his players like his daughters during his first season at Salmon River. He gave them each a leather band to put around their ankles in a show of unity, and when he heard the boys’ lacrosse team had food delivered by the school before a game but not his team, he called a friend at a sub shop to get free sandwiches for the girls.

Mostly he told them to look out for one another, knowing the potential risk of violence each faced as an indigenous woman. When the team played the day of prom, LaFrance made sure his players had his cellphone number and made them vow to call if anything suspicious happened. Many parents are already on alert: When Joryan recently received a text from a random number soliciting an inappropriate photo, her parents were reminded of just how vulnerable she might be on the reservation.

“Our girls are very aware of it,” LaFrance said.

Joryan never dealt with a father who didn’t want her to play the sport; Ryan Adams, who played lacrosse at Salmon River, had encouraged it since she was young. He taught her to take care of her equipment, traveled thousands of miles with her to tournaments along the East Coast and signed on as an assistant coach for Salmon River after gaining Joryan’s permission.

Father and daughter drive to school every morning down Highway 37, past the St. Lawrence and the casino resort, Joryan off to eighth grade and Ryan to his job as Salmon River’s building and grounds superintendent. They dream together of her one day earning a Division I scholarship.

“We’ll question each other about things,” she said.

In May, Salmon River pieced together the deepest playoff run in school history. It rallied from a seven-goal deficit to defeat rival Massena on the final day of the regular season and went on to upset Canton, 9-8, to win its first section title since 2015. Salmon River then earned its first state playoff victory and advanced to the regional finals before losing to a Syracuse-area school.

After the sectiontitle win, the players spilled out onto the field. Many of them were crying, including Joryan. She couldn’t wait to ride home with her mom, who never had this chance when she was in high school.

But before she could get there, Joryan found her father in the handshake line and gave him a hug. “I love you, kid,” he said to her, and she smiled. A few parents from the reservation screamed congratulations at them from near the stands, and Ryan Adams shouted back to them that he had never won a section championship when he was playing.

Then, he added, “My daughter did it for me!”

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