Homelands: Lacrosse in the Seneca Nation

what we already own
there is no need
for you to give
back to us.

-Eric Gansworth, ‘Repatriating Ourselves’

We wend our way north on some state highway in Pennsylvania, approaching the New York state line. Rainclouds threaten to the northwest, putting our entire trip in jeopardy. And we are a long way from home, too far to turn back now.

“Are we lacrosse nerds for driving all the way up here?” I ask my friend Ken.

“No. We are not lacrosse nerds. You are a lacrosse nerd because this is your idea. I’m just along for the ride.”

“Yeah, but you actually came. You get some degree of nerd-ness out of this.”

“Nope. No I don’t.”

Maybe he’s right. I got up at 3:45 this morning to take my wife to the airport, and promptly turned around, grabbed my rucksack, met up with Ken and aimed the car north. Seven hours north, towards the homeland of the Tonawanda band of Seneca, in order to watch the Tonawanda Braves play the Newtown Golden Arrows. Of course, I would pick the team with the outdoor arena, with those storm clouds moving closer.

It’s been a dream of mine, a kind of bucket-list thing, to see a lacrosse game where it was born, up in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) territory in upstate New York. Our high school coaches, way back in the 20th century, used to regale us of stories of Indian warriors playing days-long games, of hundred-member teams battling it out over miles-long valleys, playing to resolve a dispute or avoid a war or appeal to the Creator for health and healing. That’s heady and atavistic stuff for an un-athletic, aimless kid trying to find his way through an un-challenging suburban life, and it definitely helped me find mine. The best part is, this is an eminently accomplishable bucket-list goal. Just need to take a weekend to do it. So I did, and here I am, purring our way north in Ken’s Prius.

The game has given me so much, whether it’s playing or organizing or coaching, and I need to experience more of it, and give it the respect it deserves. I mean, here’s the thing. It’s not as if I’m a particular gifted or skilled lacrosse player. I play a very simple game on those very few occasions when I even get to play anymore, and get frequently embarrassed by younger players when I do. But you know what? Fuck it. I don’t have to be good at something to love it. It’s given me best friends, unforgettable experiences, confidence, fitness, and a hand up out of some dark times. Yes, I want to honor this game. As the fat raindrops pelted the windscreen, I offered up my own request to the Creator, pleading that he take favor on our journey to come up here and honor his game.

As the miles melt away, and while Ken snores away, the clouds break over the southern Adirondacks and the sun bathes the valley as we keep north. The Creator favors us after all. As Lockport disappears behind us, the farms grow further apart, roads grow rougher, traffic gets thinner. Endless spans of corn, punctuated by treelines and barns, remind me of mid-Missouri. Sure doesn’t feel like New York. Then, almost like a knife was slashed across the road, the landscape changes. If you were on Google Maps street view, you would hit a dead-end, because I checked. You’re entering terra incognito. Farmlands become wild woodland, the asphalt changes color, and I see the sign:

 Even without the translation, the message comes across crystal clear. I just crossed into another homeland. I’m the foreigner here.

We wind the tribal roads, tentatively following our spotty satellite reception to the Braves home field. We scarcely see anyone out, save for a few cars leaving the rez smoke shops. No one is at the field. The clear skies bathe the complex in brilliant sunlight. The turf is in excellent shape, ringed by white boards and chain-link fence. Beyond that, thick arboreal forests crowd the field, and we don’t hear a sound. We have five hours to kill until gametime… and already, my anticipation is taking control of me.

We kill a few hours at a bar, putting away some beers, talking over the game. Ken and I both played together in high school, and got different things out of the experience. But, much like any of my teammates or players I’ve coached, once you share a lacrosse field with someone, you share a connection. No matter what else, you’ll always have that. The very nature of lacrosse makes you connect with your teammates. I believe that unlike any other sport, it is impossible to succeed in lacrosse without the support of your teammates. Teamwork and cooperation are built into the game. Anyone selfish enough to be a ball-hog is going to find themselves ineffective at best, flattened at worst. If ego keeps you from working together on defense, your team will find themselves behind quickly. Moving the ball around the offensive side of the field requires the skill of everyone, and on everyone finding their role. The long poles require the vision of the goalie to work, and rely on each other to coordinate the defense. And midfielders do it all. Everyone needs everyone else. There’s no room for superstars.

Is it any wonder that this is the game that served as glue in Haudenosaunee culture, practiced to please the Creator and appeal for healing? Or that it’s southeastern cousins, practiced by the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw, used their stick-and-ball games to avoid war and provide communities the outlet to resolve their disputes? It is a game where the will of a community is expressed by it’s warriors. Where the many become one, in pursuit of something greater than victory. I’ve played on a lot of losing teams, but when you can build connections with your teammates, you gain a lot more than a win or a loss. The game becomes something greater. It becomes the generator of medicine for the men who participate, which is exactly what it has provided to me throughout my life.

This is all on my mind as we return to the rez to take our seats. The parking lot, previously empty, is now full. We walk up to the woman taking attendance. “How much is it?” I ask.

“Six dollars.” She smiles, warmly. Ken and I both dig through our wallets.

“No worries man, I got it.” I wave him off. “I owe you anyway.”

“Are you Peter?” She asks me, suddenly.

“Ah,” I stammer, “Yes, I am.”

“Oh, you’re taken care of. Roger said you are our guest. Come on in!”

“Wow, ah, thanks!” I want to pay anyhow, to show my gratitude, but I’ll not refuse a gift and just buy a lot of hot dogs instead. I’m glad that I reached out to the team prior to coming, and spoke briefly to Roger Hill, the general manager. I guess it paid off.

The only sound, other than the cicadas filling the trees, is the echoing thud of errant shots crashing into the boards as the teams warm up. Otherwise, there is an almost respectful silence at the arena, pregnant with anticipation. None of the music and chatter fill the air like at any other sporting event I’ve seen. A few groups of people are in the bleachers, and a few more groups of kids are running around with their sticks. Not even the players are talking to each other. Only after the clock winds down to zero do the players come together, give their cheer, and take their positions in the box.

Box lacrosse is a whole different animal than field. All the speed, power, and finesse of field lacrosse is crammed into a much smaller space in a much shorter time. The game adapts. It’s nasty, brutish, and short.

What was a hush over the field, only the soft conversations of the couple dozen fans and the snap of mesh as passes are made and caught, becomes near total silence. Even the cicadas hold their breath as the players take the faceoff circle. They each face a sideline, crouching down to fight for the ball. The whistle blows, and the game is on. The Tonawanda midfielder makes a near-clean faceoff win, and sprints towards the Newtown goalie, immense and unmoving. With all his padding, and his traditional goalie stick, there’s not more than maybe a few square inches in any one place to bury a shot. A cross-check to the back, legal in this game, doesn’t stop the Tonawanda midfielder, but it does put his shot about an inch higher than he intended, right into the thick shoulder plate of the goaltender with a sickening crack. He shrugs off the shot, scoops it up off the crease, and fires it off for a counterattack.

The action rages back and forth, punctuated by missed shots, the ping of metal sticks denting each other, and directions shouted from the sidelines. Newtown pots the first net on a beautiful shot into the top corner. Tonawanda answers on an odd-man rush, which occur rather frequently for such a small space. Speed kills. Newtown nets another goal, and the first period concludes with them up 2-1.

We leave our seats in favor of standing at the chain link fence ringing the arena; a lot of the boys and young men are doing that, and the bleachers seem high enough to not block the view. The last thing I want to do is wear out my welcome by being the too-tall jackwagon standing in the way. As I begin my hot dog party at the concession stand, I hear someone come up behind me.

“Excuse me, are you Peter?”

I turn around to see a shorter man with long black hair pulled behind his head, under a baseball cap, extending his hand. I take it, “Yes, that’s me.”

“I’m Roger, I’m the GM of the team.”

I talk to Roger for a few minutes, and am struck by how much he unreservedly loves this game. He ‘spirits’ for the team on the field, which is only one under the Braves banner– they also field teams in eight different age groups, from age four until whenever the flesh is no longer willing. And there’s no telling when that will be, not for these guys.

“This isn’t some beer league,” he muses, turning back to the field. “We don’t stop playing. Our goalies, they are in their fifties.”

Unbelievable, but believable. At any glance, it’s clear this is no old-boys beer league. It’s not just a game here, and it involves the entire community. By now, the bleachers are full of spectators, and happy chatter fills the air. “Everything here, the referees, the scorekeepers, the concessions, the tickets… it’s all volunteer. We all pull together to make this happen.”

I’m struck dumb for a moment. As someone with an abiding love of lacrosse, and who struggled mightily to have it take root in Richmond and Washington DC, to see this kind of devotion and community is heartening. It’s more than heartening; it’s inspiring. It makes me feel that putting the game is such high esteem isn’t a mistake. Roger gets it. Everyone here does.

“This field, it’s such a fantastic venue,” I say, taking in the cool night air. “It’s in great shape!”

“It’s new!” Roger beams. “The Nation paid for it all, I think it was $1.5 million. All of it from cigarettes.”

“Cigarettes? Really?” The preponderance of smoke shops makes sense. I later learn that the Seneca are able to sell smokes at a steep discount, as they don’t have to collect New York taxes. Of course, New York is trying to horn in on that revenue, mercifully with no luck so far.

“Yep, all cigarettes. We take something bad, and we turn it into something good. Any child, if they want to play, the Nation pays for it– all the gear, stick, everything.”

I’m so happy that the Braves are able to do that for their kids, but it makes my heart hurt a little. Roger returns to the bench to coach for the second period, while I chew on that some more. I just spent a few weeks driving all around Virginia, cold-calling old teammates and friends, and asking that they do the same, to gather enough used sticks to pass on to the kids in my program in the District. I think of them when I see these young boys running around with sticks, laughing and carrying on, yet still absorbed in the game. I spent a night sawing old defense poles into attack sticks for our 3rd graders, and I know it wasn’t wasted effort. I’m just glad the Braves have that taken care of, and it’s something that I need to aspire to.

Sadly for the Braves, Newtown really puts the pedal on the floor in the second period. Blown passes become fast breaks become goals. I can get an inkling of the skills these guys have developed from a lifetime of playing lacrosse. They don’t make dumb mistakes. There’s a willingness to take a gutsy chance, and they have the skill and toughness to make it work. Occasionally make stupid decisions on coverage or offense, but I almost feel like they have an extra-normal sense of where the ball is, where their teammates are, and the motion of the action. It’s a sense that even in my best of moments, when I can see the direction the next two passes are going and anticipate, is only fleeting and impermanent. These guys have it as default-setting. That’s the kind of mastery that only a real love of the game, and thousands of hours of practice, can instill. It’s beautiful to see it in action.

What they do with it, that’s another matter. Even the highest levels of skill have to grapple with ego. An odd-man rush forms, with a Newtown attacker sprinting down the left side, cradling to the outside. One of the Braves is slowly backpedaling, stick up to the inside, with a teammate to his right.

“Let him shoot!” the first defender shouts, a taste of mirth in his voice. “Let him shoot.”

The Newtown player does, and promptly pots another goal, contested by a futilely shrugging goalie. Two more follow shortly thereafter. The Braves put in two goals on their own odd-man rushes, but a sense of impending doom has descended on the arena. That sense was accurate. The game concludes in much the same manner, with Newtown coming out on top, 19-6. As the players shake hands, I’m transported back to my own games at Herndon High, in a context as different as could be, and still, both then and now have the younger brothers and friends of the players rush the field to shoot on the nets. Laughter and thumps. We’re not so different.

I find Roger again after the game. “You know, when I got your email saying you were coming up here from DC, I said to myself, ‘These guys are full of shit.’” He laughs, as do Ken and I. “People email me all the time saying things like that. But they don’t come.”

I can tell that he appreciates my seriousness, and respect for what I’ve just seen. We talk more about our respective youth programs, and how our kids face many of the same problems, just in different flavors. He invites us up for a game, if we can make it happen. To bring my boys up here for a game would make me freak out, so I can’t imagine what it would do for them. For kids who are brand new to lacrosse, and who scarcely ever make it out of city limits, to come to the ancestral homeland of lacrosse. I must find a way to make this happen. It has the potential to be a transformative event.

For me, it already has become that. I came here not fully knowing what I would find. I’ve always felt that the white, prep-school version of lacrosse had taken primacy from the native game, and become the definition of the game in the eyes of the common man. Maybe it has for some people. I anticipated asking Roger or others about how to ‘take back’ the game, to make it theirs again. But upon seeing the community, and feeling the passion they have for the game, I realize what a wrong-headed and offensive premise that is. Lacrosse is the native game; it can never be anything but. We are all just lucky that we get to play it. They approach it with a studiousness, commitment, and utter joy that we can only aspire to possess. Whether we play in Washington or Munich or Hong Kong or Arlee, Montana, we’re at our best when we can tap into that next level.

And more than that, the best things provided by lacrosse aren’t even on the field. I saw it here in Tonawanda when I saw a whole community out in support of their boys, with whole teams of younger ones waiting in the wings to follow brothers, uncles, and fathers into a jersey. The game isn’t a cure-all for the problems facing any community, be it here or in the inner city. But it does enhance lives, and serves the important function of reinforcing identity. On the field, you remain an individual and have the means to express yourself creatively, but without the support of your teammates, you cannot succeed. You must rely on your teammates to give you the space to succeed, both literally and metaphorically. You are nothing without each other. This is exactly the kind of lesson that a lot of young people need to hear.

Lacrosse demands teamwork, discipline, resistance to pain and the value of effort. In return, it gives you a brotherhood, one that lasts forever. Wherever you go, you’ll always have that bond, even with strangers. I felt it in Tonawanda Seneca country, I felt it in Richmond, and I feel it in northeast DC. This is why I love this game. I’m in it for life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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