Lacrosse at the Olympics gives Native Americans a chance to see their sport shine

Nearly 1,000 years after lacrosse was first played across the Haudenosaunee confederacy, the sport will be on the Olympic schedule in 2028

Eddie Pells
Thursday 19 October 2023 17:26 BST

One of the first gifts any member of the Onondaga nation receives is called a “crib stick” — a small lacrosse stick given to babies that symbolizes the importance of that sport to people who invented it.

Nearly 1,000 years after lacrosse was first played on fields that could sometimes stretch for miles across the Haudenosaunee confederacy, the sport will be on the Olympic schedule in Los Angeles in 2028. Whether the Haudenosaunee, a collection of six Native American nations whose territory covers upstate New York and adjacent sections of Canada, will have a spot in that tournament is a question that will keep the lacrosse world on edge between now and then.

The final call will come down to whether the International Olympic Committee will buck a decades-old tradition of only allowing participants from countries with a national Olympic committee, or whether it will find a way to include players under the Haudenosaunee (formerly known as the Iroquois) flag. Such a move would pay homage to the Native American roots of the game in an ecosystem that is always seeking more inclusiveness and diversity.

“Growing up an Onondagan, when we had a game in our territory, the whole community came out,” said Leo Nolan, the executive director of the Haudenosaunee national team. “It's a community spirit, not just a sport. It's an integral part of who we are and what we're about. How many other sports have that kind of wherewithal, something that really has a true meaning? I don't know of many sports that have the same spiritual meaning that this has.”

Working with World Lacrosse, the sport's international federation, organizers for the Los Angeles Olympics leaned heavily into the Native American history of the sport to sell the IOC on bringing lacrosse back to the games as a medal event for the first time since 1908.

The story goes back much farther than that — to around the year 1100. Tribes In northeastern North America often played games involving more than 100 men on a side. Lacrosse was used to help tribes get ready for wars; it was focal point of social gatherings, a religious experience and also sometimes a diplomatic tool used to settle disputes. As the story goes, Canadian settlers liked what they saw when they first laid eyes on the game. A dentist named George Beers wrote the sport’s first rulebook in 1867.

Established in 1983, the Haudenosaunee national team has been a regular participant at world championships since 1990.

“I got a glimpse of it, and everybody else did, too,” one of the team's founders, Rex Lyons, said in an interview on the team website about the feeling of his people being included in a global competition. “We talked about having our ancestors standing right there beside us, and we said, ‘Look where lacrosse has taken us.'”

In 2014, the Haudenosaunee men's team won its first world bronze medal. Last year, at the Olympic-style World Games, the men's team finished fifth (out of eight) and the women finished seventh.

To compete there, it took sign-off from the Olympic committees in both the United States and Canada. The team from Ireland sacrificed its own spot to allow the Haudenosaunee to play. The decision for LA will ultimately rest with the IOC, which did not immediately respond to emails from The Associated Press seeking comment on its plans, which have not been finalized.

An LA spokesperson said "together, we intend to find creative solutions that honor the sport’s heritage and allow participation for Haudenosaunee athletes, while respecting the Olympic Games framework established by the IOC.”

World Lacrosse CEO Jim Scherr is also hoping there's an opportunity to include the confederacy.

“There’s a direct line from the origins of the game throughout their culture up to today where they still participate," Scherr said. "It’s the only sport they participate in. We think it’s a unique circumstance in sports.”

Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said honoring the Haudenosaunee's role in the sport “is something we look at and say, it's very cool and exciting.” In a nod to the political realities of the situation, she said if the IOC approves a pathway for the Haudenosaunee, “we would want to make sure that everyone feels that the process to get there is very, very fair.”

Nolan said that while the dream is for the Haudenosaunee to play on the world's biggest stage, simply getting lacrosse back into the conversation at the Olympics is a victory of sorts.

“I think there are Olympic people involved who know this is really important, not just for indigenous communities, but for all of us,” Nolan said. “It's a chance for us to share, more and more, about who we are and what we're all about.”


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