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The Iroquois Nationals Lose to Canada, but Show Huge Heart in Lacrosse Championship

As the tournament celebrates all that indigenous people have given and are still giving to the world

Armin Rosen
July 20, 2018
Roger Davis/World Lacrosse Championship
The Iroquois Nationals play CanadaRoger Davis/World Lacrosse Championship
Roger Davis/World Lacrosse Championship
The Iroquois Nationals play CanadaRoger Davis/World Lacrosse Championship

To read our full coverage of the World Lacrosse Championship, and to win Tablet Lacrosse-themed swag, click here.

The current version of lacrosse owes some part of its existence to the certainty the Iroquois were about to die out. As Donald M. Fisher recounts in his book Lacrosse: A History of the Game, George Beers, the Montreal dentist, sportsman, and early theorist of Canadian nationalism who wrote the sport’s first modern rulebook in 1860, “lamented what he saw as the passing of Canada’s ‘noble savage’ into history. Although the Indian faced extinction because of his barbarism … Canadian civilization could help itself by learning from him.” According to the racist thinking of the time, the white replacement of the natives was part of a logical and inevitable historical process. The higher races simply edged out the lower ones over time; however regrettable some of the results were, the whites had built a world in which natives were thought to stand absolutely no chance of integration or survival. Beers had played in Mohawk ball games and thought lacrosse could preserve the most admirable qualities of a doomed culture while forming an anchor point for a still-fictive Canadian-ness. “This game, being now purely Canadian, is likely to become the national game of Canada,” Beers wrote in 1860. “Long, long after the romantic ‘sons of the forest’ have passed away, long, long after their sun sinks in the west to rise no more, Lacrosse will remind the pale faces of Canada of the noble Indians that once lorded it over this continent.”

In codifying the sport’s rules—limiting fields to a half mile in length, for starters—Beers inaugurated an enduring national myth, turning a native game into a source of self-definition for people who were destroying native society. It is a tribute to Beers’ foresight that lacrosse is one of Canada’s national obsessions 158 years after his first rulebook and 151 years after the founding of the country’s National Lacrosse Association. It’s also a sign of how much the world has improved since the 1860s that the links between the modern sport and a centuries-long cultural (and literal) genocide are so invisible to modern enthusiasts that it takes a dip into Fisher’s book to learn that the connection even exists.

Today, the game highlights its inventors’ survival rather than their presumed extinction.The Iroquois Nationals are perhaps the highest-profile manifestation of their people’s continued sovereignty—one of the team’s supporters told me Iroquois believe the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to be the oldest government in the world. The sport has strengthened and connected dispersed communities, most of which are home to just a few thousand or even a few hundred people. “Within the Six Nations, between Onondaga, the Mohawk, Tuscarora, Oneida, the Seneca, and the Cayugas, we’re producing lacrosse players now,” Lyle Thompson said a few minutes after the Iroquois beat Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals, earning a semifinal rematch with Canada. “That’s what the youth wants to do. They want to get an education and they want to use the game as a vehicle.” Beating Canada the next night “would mean a lot to our people just to grow that youth and to take it to the next level. They’re all watching the Iroquois Nationals compete at this world stage.”

Many Iroquois players come from parts of the Northeast where there are epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse, problems that touch both native and nonnative populations. Lacrosse gives young people something to do and something to strive towards. “We call it a medicine game,” Thompson continued. “For a long time there were people who were going down the wrong path with a lot of things that are common within our communities,” Thompson said. “This game’s really helping us. It’s a medicine.” Beers was right that lacrosse could be an engine of identity and meaning. Perhaps this is something he also picked up from the sport’s originators.

The wide shots ESPN has been using during its broadcasts make it look as if the main field at the Wingate Institute is perched on the rim of Nahal Porat, a low, shrub-covered gorge almost a mile behind the grandstand. By halftime of the 6 p.m. games, the clouds are fringed in light orange and the surrounding patches the sky are a hypnotic gradient of blue and gray. For much of the first half of the Canada game, clouds would drift over the descending sun, setting off five-minute cycles of dawn and twilight. White-breasted birds with a row of antenna-like plumage bursting from the center axis of their heads circled the field as if nothing important were going on below them.

For the Iroquois, the key to beating Canada, earning a spot in the gold medal game at Netanya Stadium, and scoring not just the biggest win in program history but one of the biggest wins in lacrosse history was playing something approaching impossibly mistake-free ball. Canada is cohesive enough to run their offense blindfolded, and because they do not put the ball on the ground very often the opposition is dead if it can’t win what few battles for possession the northerners gift them. On offense, not a single touch can go to waste—Canada had such an exhausting and methodical attack that a team has no real margin for error when they’re lucky enough to have goalie Dillon Ward in the crosshairs.

Beating Canada takes a heroic effort and the Iroquois had every reason to believe it was in them. The Tehoka Nanticoke-Austin Staats-Lyle Thompson attacking line can embark on long, terrifying scoring runs. A three- or four-goal barrage in a space of a few minutes might implant a crippling sliver of doubt in the Canadians’ minds. Maybe Ward wouldn’t parry away 25 shots, like he had during Canada’s 10-5 win over the Iroquois earlier in the week. Maybe the long-sticks on defense would expose a Canadian attack that appeared to have no weaknesses. Before that first faceoff, it was all imaginable. “Nice and easy, guys,” Burnam said on the sideline, “nice and easy.”

On the opening possession, Canada’s Ben McIntosh flung a cannonball past Iroquois goalie Warren Hill. Canada won five of the first six faceoffs and the Iroquois didn’t string a convincing offensive series together until five minutes into the game—just for Curtis Dickson to scoop up a loose ball and turn a long Iroquois possession into an instant Canadian goal on the ensuing fast-break. “Ain’t nothing,” a player on the Iroquois sideline huffed. “It’s how we start every game.”

By the time they were down 5-0, the Iroquois had only touched the ball twice. On attack, Canada would rifle the rock faster than anyone could follow it, inching their wing players closer to the goal and reducing the attacking zone to no more than the width of a basketball court. On one visit to the Canadian end, Nanticoke was double-teamed so aggressively and menaced so deep into the corner that the crowd gasped when he somehow fed the ball to the high point. Lyle Thompson fed Brendan Bomberry for a goal late in the second, but only after getting checked to the hot turf. “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi played during the second quarter water break. It was 10-2 at the half.

An eight-goal run against Canada isn’t totally beyond the realm of the possible but in practicality the Iroquois had nothing to play for but pride. After the game, Mark Burnam told me that during the second half he offered his players the chance to dial back and rest their legs for the bronze-medal game. No one took him up on it. One shot nailed Ward in the chest protector. “C’mon guys, let’s get the woodies out,” one Iroquois player muttered—the wooden shafts are heavier and deliver harder checks, although referees are thought to call penalties more frequently when they’re in use. “Slash the fuck out of them, use the whole face of your stick,” one player yelled. It would have been unlike the Iroquois, and really unlike any of the teams I’ve observed at this tournament, to enact their frustrations on the field, though. It was 12-4 as the sunset seemed to burst from behind a passing cloud, and 15-4 when the sky finally settled into a field of soft darkening gray.

The result had put the entire team in a daze. “It was my fault,” defensive coordinator Lars Tiffany claimed, explaining something about the ineffective slide schemes the team had used in the first quarter. Was it really anyone’s fault, though? “They went crazy,” said Burnam. “What did we get, six? We hit three pipes … three pipes makes it a nine-goal game, if you get ’em.” It would have been a seven-goal game but the details hardly mattered—they had scored fewer than the Canadians had, and that was it. At least the Iroquois could get the bronze, equaling their performance in a 2014 World Championships where they’d won the program’s first-ever medal. “What’s that old saying,” Burnam replied, “a tie’s like kissing your sister?” Players were sprawled on the ground, and a couple of them looked asleep. “I’m ordering pizza—five boxes to myself,” Nanticoke dreamed aloud.

“It hurts,” Johnson Jimerson said as he walked off field. “But someone’s gotta win, someone’s gotta lose. That’s the way He intended it.”

About 30 minutes later the Iroquois and Peruvian national lacrosse teams stood in a circle facing one another under a basketball hoop in one of the Wingate Institute’s gyms. Ansley Jemison, the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals, stood near the center with Katherine Loh, his Peruvian counterpart. There was a special connection between these two teams, Loh said. Jemison had given advice and mentorship without which Peru might not have made it to the world championship. “It took a lot to bring this team here,” Loh said, in a tone confirming no one’s efforts had been trivial.

The Peruvians were newcomers to the world title and had only won a single game in Netanya. When it was his turn to speak to the circle, Burnam recalled that the Iroquois had finished last in their first world championship appearance 28 years earlier. “I remember standing where you stand. We traveled to Australia, we didn’t win a game.” Someday, he said, you’ll be on our side of a different circle: “Someday you’ll be here teaching someone else this game.”

When Jemison spoke, he acknowledged how many of the players on the Peruvian team had indigenous roots. The Iroquois Nationals were a representative of the native communities in the United States, he said, “and it’s important to keep contact between the nations.” When you’re playing lacrosse, you’re playing for your people, and for other indigenous people—for the Creator’s enjoyment, and for the joy of people around you. It was important for indigenous people to remember everything they had given to world and were still giving to the world, Jemison said.

The teams exchanged gifts. Loh presented the Iroquois with an Incan metal relief, framed against a colorful striped textile. It had a flat, curved blade at the bottom: The object was an ornamented traditional surgical implement, meant to represent “Good luck, but also good healing,” Loh said. Jemison gave the Peruvians a beaded wampum belt. At the center was an intricate symmetrical icon resembling a series of overlapping squares with a white bar in the middle. Jemison explained that this was the symbol of a long-ago treaty between the nations of the Great Lakes and Iroquois regions. The icon depicted the agreement as “a bowl with one spoon.” In peace, “we could all eat from the same bowl … we could take a little for ourselves and leave a little for others.” A spoon couldn’t be wielded as a weapon.

The Iroquois believe reality works in cycles that reinforce the ultimate harmony of all things. There’s the cycle of seasons and lives and lacrosse championships, and circles of meeting like the one gathered in the gym. “When we’re circling each other, we’re all looking at each other … We’re happy and we’re thankful that everything is coming to us again.” And finally: “It’s an honor you’re playing our game.”

But that’s not it for the Iroquois—if they beat Australia in the bronze medal game at 11 a.m. on ESPN+ on Friday, the team will leave Netanya with the second medal in the program’s history. Bad news for the Jews, though: Israel fell to Japan in the consolation bracket, which means they’ll miss out on the prestigious Blue Division at the 2022 worlds.

The U.S. plays Canada for the gold medal at 3 a.m. EST on ESPN2 on Saturday. The U.S. topped the Canadians in an 11-10 thriller during the group stage and are purpose-built to beat one another. If you’re a fan of interesting sports things and can’t get to sleep this weekend it’ll be well worth a watch.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.