How Indigenous Athletes Are Reclaiming Lacrosse

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Brendan Bomberry’s voice was growing louder, his words spilling out faster and faster as he unleashed a profanity-laced pep talk on his teammates.

The Haudenosaunee Nationals men’s lacrosse team, a squad that represents the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora — was preparing to play a competitively meaningless game earlier this month at the World Games, an Olympic-style event, after being knocked out of medal contention.

Bomberry, 27, was there to remind the players that, for them, every game and every minute spent in a Haudenosaunee uniform held deep significance.

“Sports may not be political, but for our people, they are,” he said, peppering his words with expletives and jabs of his fist. “Let’s show some heart on this stage. This means something to the people back home.”

His message was plain: Representing the Haudenosaunee (formerly called the Iroquois) has come to involve a set of larger, intertwined objectives beyond winning lacrosse games.

They are fighting, first of all, for official recognition in global sports — an effort symbolic of Indigenous nations’ broader efforts to assert their nationhood and sovereignty in the geopolitical arena. Their goal, in this realm, is acceptance from the International Olympic Committee, with the aim of appearing at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, where the sport could make a return to the medal program after more than a century away.

“One thing that I have come to realize is that lacrosse makes us relevant in terms of our place within the world,” Bomberry said in an interview.

The Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee) are fighting, too, for the very spirit of the game. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, but in recent decades its prevailing image in popular culture, the players said, has felt like a caricature of suburban white privilege — in Bomberry’s words, “a frat-boy persona.”

As some of the historical originators of lacrosse, as people who see it as a sacred “medicine game,” the Haudenosaunee want to reclaim its heart.

“Representation here matters,” said Cody Jamieson, 35, a member of the men’s team, describing the pride of seeing the Haudenosaunee flag at the World Games in Birmingham, Ala. “We are sovereign. Us being here at the World Games and being accepted is all the I.O.C. needs to know.”

The Haudenosaunee men’s team — formed in 1983 and known as the Iroquois Nationals until recently — was officially recognized by lacrosse’s international governing body in 1988, while the women’s team was recognized in 2008. The squads claim to be the only Indigenous teams in any sport competing at a world championship level.

Despite operating with a fraction of the talent pool enjoyed by other top teams such as the United States and Canada, the Haudenosaunee Nationals have thrived in recent years. The men’s team finished third at the past two field lacrosse world championships, in 2014 and 2018. The women’s team finished eighth out of 29 teams at the women’s world championship this month in Maryland.

This made it all the more perplexing when the men’s squad was initially left out of the field for the 2022 World Games — in which men’s lacrosse made its debut and the women’s game had its second appearance — because of some apparent confusion between World Lacrosse, the sport’s global governing body, and the International World Games Association about the team’s eligibility. The Haudenosaunee are spread across Ontario, Quebec and upstate New York and carry their own passports. They are not currently a member of the United Nations or the I.O.C.

The news caused a minor uproar. Lacrosse officials eventually signaled a willingness to change course, but there was one problem: By then, the eight-team men’s field was considered locked. The situation was resolved, finally, when the Irish national team agreed to give up its spot in Birmingham to let the Haudenosaunee compete. (The women’s field wasn’t set until this month’s world championship, after the Haudenosaunee had been ruled eligible.)

“What kind of competition would you have in lacrosse if the first nation to ever play, and still one of the best, isn’t represented?” said the men’s team’s coach, Peter Milliman, who does not have Indigenous heritage.

That very question could echo until the 2028 Olympics.

In 2018, the I.O.C. offered so-called provisional recognition to World Lacrosse (then known as the Federation of International Lacrosse), which meant the federation and its several dozen member nations could receive financial support from the I.O.C. The decision was also interpreted as a sign that lacrosse, last contested as a medal event in 1904 and 1908, could make a return to the Olympic program in time for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

But if the Olympic community embraces what is, in a way, the most quintessentially American sport for an upcoming U.S.-based Games, can they reasonably exclude its creators?

For the Haudenosaunee, there are some theoretical pathways to participation.

There are already close to a dozen territories that have I.O.C. membership despite not having membership in the U.N., including Puerto Rico and Hong Kong. To be formally recognized by the I.O.C., the Haudenosaunee would need to form a National Olympic Committee, which, among other administrative details, would require them to assemble athletes in at least four other sports.

Some see the traditional path to I.O.C. membership as onerous, given the time constraints. The I.O.C. could also extend a special invitation of sorts to the Haudenosaunee, perhaps akin to how it has allowed teams of refugees to compete at recent Games.

“You see some of the sports in the Olympics, and it’s like, ‘How is lacrosse not in the Olympics?’” Cassandra Minerd, 27, a member of the women’s team, said. “And if you’re going to have lacrosse, the people who created the game need to be there.”

In Birmingham this month, lacrosse was contested in the “sixes” format — smaller and faster than the established field and box lacrosse disciplines — that international officials have developed for potential use at the Olympics.

Neither the men’s nor women’s Haudenosaunee team made the podium — a letdown particularly for the men, who entered the Games ranked third in the world — but the players found the experience fulfilling nonetheless. One night, they accepted an invitation from the Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama for dinner at a local hotel.

“The game that you see out there, the long-stick game, is our game,” Oren Lyons, 92, who founded the Haudenosaunee team, said to the assembled group. “It’s taken our team around the world. And it’s given an opportunity for people to understand that the Indian nations are still here.”

Later, Greg Drowning Bear, one of the Cherokee members, led the players and coaches in a traditional quail dance. Hands on their hips, elbows jutting out to their sides, the players doubled over in laughter as they bopped to a drumbeat around the hotel conference room.

Before everyone dispersed, Tracy Shenandoah, 65, the spiritual adviser for the men’s team, put out a call for reinforcements. A recent influx of funding has allowed the Haudenosaunee to start building a dedicated youth-development program — including for players from other Indigenous nations.

“If you guys have players, and they can cut it, we’re open to other Native Americans,” Shenandoah said to their Cherokee hosts.

Shenandoah plays a central role in the men’s team. Before each game this month, he gathered the players on the field for a moment of reflection. Standing in a circle, the players took puffs from a pipe filled with tobacco. Then, they passed around a blue cooler, taking sips of medicinal tea, wetting their hands and heads with it, too.

Throughout the tournament, the players embraced any opportunity to educate onlookers about their culture.

“It’s liberating to be here, liberating to have our flags out and liberating to have the Haudenosaunee name across our chests as we walk around and play,” Minerd said.

Such pride has become an important antidote to the pain of discrimination some players faced growing up around the game. Lois Garlow, 21, a member of the women’s team, rattled off a number of such incidents in quick succession.

There were the times opponents and fans hurled slurs or made tomahawk gestures, the time at a tournament in Albany when a man told her and her teammates they were “pretty good for a bunch of Indians” and the time her cousins were told during a game to “get back on the Trail of Tears.”

Garlow also mentioned a National Lacrosse League game three years ago when Lyle Thompson, one of the best men’s players in the world (who was out this month with injury), was subjected to repeated joking from a public-address announcer about snipping his long braids — an important symbol in his culture — and taunts from fans about scalping him.

“It’s dehumanizing,” Garlow said. “As a society, we’re growing, but there’s definitely more education that needs to happen.”

Yet there are signs, too, that an awareness of the game’s origins, and a willingness to learn more, is spreading.

At the women’s world championship a week before the World Games, the Canadian team wore shirts bearing the logo of Every Child Matters, a campaign supporting survivors of Canada’s residential-school system, in which Indigenous children were stripped of their culture through often brutal means.

The Premier Lacrosse League has begun conducting land-acknowledgment ceremonies before games, recognizing the Indigenous people of an area.

And in more and more lacrosse arenas, the U.S. and Canadian flags commonly seen in venues across North America now fly alongside a purple Haudenosaunee flag.

That is why the visibility they enjoyed in Birmingham — and the recognition they crave for the future — matters so much to them.

“Western society keeps trying to push us back down and erase us from the history books,” said Kason Tarbell, 25, a member of the men’s team, “but with our flag showing with every other country, we’re still here and we’re still fighting.”