I know almost nothing about lacrosse. We never played it in Israel, where I grew up, land of soccer and hoops. When I moved to New York, it was the Mets and the game of baseball that captured my tragically addled imagination. But I do know a little about American history, and hearing that the world’s lacrosse championship will kick off this week in Netanya, Israel—the first time in history the tournament is held outside the United States, Canada, England, or Australia—got me thinking about the game and what it means.
Lacrosse, you probably hardly need an Israeli to tell you, is a significant part of the spiritual heritage of the Iroquois, who refer to it as “the Creator’s game” and who engage in it, still, as a communal healing ritual rather than a mere competitive sport. As the proud son of an indigenous people that returned to its ancestral homeland after millennia of imperial persecution and forced exile, I’ve always felt tremendous empathy for Native Americans, whose systematic devastation at the hand of European colonialists is the ur-crime on which this great nation is founded.
Don’t get me wrong: To riff on Balzac’s wisdom about money, show me a great nation, and I’ll show you a great crime. For New Zealand to be born, the Maoris had to perish. For Japan to rise, the native Ainu had to be murdered. Dozens of indigenous tribes disappeared when Brazil appeared. History is not a domesticated animal; it feeds when it’s hungry, paying little attention to its prey.
None of that, of course, is an invitation to shrug off genocide as somehow normal or acceptable. Our responsibility, as moral and mindful and modern human beings, is to commemorate these crimes, comfort their victims, and rectify, to the extent possible, the evils done.
This, I think, is not a particularly complicated sentiment almost everywhere in the world. America, however, seems to be an exception: Here, the Great Crime has been eclipsed by another Great Crime, the sin of slavery. It’s the latter that moves moral ground from sea to shining sea, that animates our discussions and informs our politics even today, 153 years after slavery had been abolished.
Pardon this immigrant his possible ignorance, but it seems to me that this great nation is working out ways to address one of these great evils while having little to say about the other. Like many Americans, I felt deeply moved watching the inauguration of Barack Obama, our first African-American president. Yes, the hope that the election of one man of half-African and half-white descent would somehow cure the continuing evils of slavery and race-based discrimination and dehumanization was a childish one. But history moves on.
And Obama’s election indeed was important. The American people clearly stating that it was their wish to be governed by a man who, in addition to his other attributes, identified himself with the African-American experience was a declaration that slavery was, as most of the Founding Fathers believed, a temporary and contingent aberration of the sound Enlightenment principles on which America was founded. While I thought that some of President Obama’s policies while in office, like the Iran Deal, were truly hideous, I also thought that some of George W. Bush’s policies were misguided. But when it came to ratifying and re-affirming the underlying principles on which America was founded, Obama’s election was a significant, even a necessary act.
Can you imagine a Haudenosaunee ever taking the oath of office? Or a Cherokee sparking even a momentary national conversation about reparations, as Ta-Nehisi Coates did? Or even, say, a Navajo rapper holding the same cultural prominence as Kanye West? Of course not: For the Native American, there is no healing, no promise, only a past drenched in blood and a present drenched in alcohol and despair, in the face of a blanket, suffocating denial of their existence as peoples on this land, which we now call America. The crime of slavery was terrible, but it was not foundational to America’s existence, and the country fought a bloody war that abolished it forever. The extermination of the aboriginal peoples of America was our nation’s bloody crime of origin, which allows for no hopeful narratives about forging a more perfect union.
But whereas America’s native cultures were mercilessly crushed, some mementos of their glory remain. The newcomers to New England, being the ones who had lived among the Native Americans the longest, adopted the game of lacrosse, which still thrives in their parts and in their fancy boarding schools. Never exactly the exterminating brutes we sometimes imagine all those colonialists who devastated the Native Americans to be, the Puritans, or some generations of them, had hoped to convert the natives to the civilized ways of Christianity, even as they often loathed and despised them.
In the beginning, the newcomers needed to learn from the natives in order to simply survive. The American holiday of Thanksgiving, the only place in the civic religion where Native Americans are mentioned, commemorates the sharing of a meal that the would-be colonists seem to have needed much worse than the tribes, who knew how to hunt and grow corn. As the New England colonies grew, it was enough of a porous environment for the newcomers to adopt some of the locals’ customs in a bid for imagined continuity between indigenous and invader; lacrosse was one of those customs that New Englanders adopted, an American game played by the continent’s native sons and now by their tormentors.
What is to be done about all that history? Not much. You may, like the mad howlers on the regressive left, argue that America’s transgressions somehow rob it of its wonder, a nutty argument that not only denies this nation its exceptional greatness but denies the basic observation about humanity, offered long ago by America’s greatest poet, that we are all stuffed with the stuff that is fine and stuffed with the stuff that is coarse. But when the world’s most successful manifestation of an indigenous people reclaiming its heritage and its homeland hosts the world’s lacrosse championship, there’s only one team to root for: the Iroquois.
For the next two weeks, Tablet’s Armin Rosen will cover the competition from Israel, as a way of recognizing the above by paying tribute to the continuing courage of the Iroquois people, on whose bones a great nation was built. While I’m excited to learn more about the game and its strategies, I’ll be watching for different, more emotional reasons. I was deeply privileged to be born into a thriving Jewish state, established after millennia of exile and round after round of exterminations and exile carried out against my people by our supposed conquerors—Persians, Syrio-Greeks, the Roman Empire, invaders from Arabia, Ottoman Turks, the British Empire. We prevailed, and as a result I was able to live daily as a little boy and into adulthood according to the traditions of my people in our ancestral, sacred land. The Iroquois do not enjoy these privileges and never will. But as they prepare to compete in the Creator’s game, they should know that many of their fellow indigenous folks in Israel will be cheering them on, and also that some of us in America are conscious of the great crime that was committed against them in the name of the country that we—and I—now call home.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.