Spirituality's place on the playing field Lacrosse: Iroquois National Team plays with the Creator in mind.

July 15, 1998|By Young Chang | Young Chang,SUN STAFF

Take the 6-feet-wide lacrosse goals of today and widen them a few miles. Strip away the painted boundary lines and plant a tree or a stone somewhere far away, maybe where the next country starts. Multiply the number of team members from 10 to 1,000, and you've got lacrosse the way it was originally played -- back in 1636.

The Native-American way.

"We lived by what the Creator had given us, and lacrosse was one of them," says Wes Patterson, founder and director of the Iroquois National Team, which will be competing in this week's 1998 International Lacrosse Federation World Championship at Johns Hopkins University.

Lacrosse was first played not just for the game's sake, but to sustain life and to amuse the Creator. It's a special relationship to the game that Native Americans still have today, one that the Iroquois National Team will bring to the field tomorrow through July 25 as it rivals teams from the United States, England, Scotland, Japan, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany and Wales. The Lacrosse World Championship, begun in 1967 and held every four years, was last held in Baltimore in 1982.

The game originally was called baggataway by the Algonquin Indians because it involved "a stick and a bag and you go away with it," says Patterson. In a slow Native American rhythm, he explains the game's genesis: "Natives are very close to the earth and, of course, trees are of the earth." So when the Creator created the tree, providing material for the sticks, the Native Americans invented lacrosse. They called it the Creator's Game.

With goals that were miles apart, boundary lines that were marked by the next bordering country, and games that could last for days, lacrosse kept its players healthy, both physically and mentally -- sustaining life.

"As I was growing up, I was taught that it was a 'medicinal game,' " says Gewas Schindler, who plays attack for the Iroquois National Team and who grew up on the Onondaga Nation, near Syracuse, N.Y.

"It was a healing process for the community," he says. "If anyone was sick or if any danger was coming to the nation, they played lacrosse." After all, what better way to amuse and please the Creator of lacrosse than with lacrosse? As Native Americans have always been a spiritual people, they even played the game to prepare for war.

Schindler, 22, has "probably played every sport -- soccer, basketball, baseball, everything," but when it comes to lacrosse, there is something deeper at stake.

"I mean, I don't think about it every minute," he says, "but it really doesn't leave my mind that ... it's the Creator's game, so I treat it differently."

Having played lacrosse since age 4, Schindler remembers "always dragging around a stick as soon as I began to walk.

"Lacrosse is a huge part of our community," he says, "so even if you're not really good at it, you're still a part of it ..."

Now a senior at Loyola College in Baltimore, Schindler is looking forward to his second World Lacrosse Championship. He began with the Iroquois National Team, based on the Tuscarora Reservation in New York, in 1992, playing the International Lacrosse Federation's Under 19 Boys World Championship in Long Island, at age 16. Two years later, he participated in the Men's World Championship Series in Manchester, England. Most recently, in 1996, he helped coach a junior team in Tokyo.

Lacrosse was not the celebrated sport it is today in Maryland when Patterson arrived in the '50s from his Tuscarora Reservation home in New York. He moved here to coach after hearing about lacrosse in Baltimore from teammates at Springfield College in Massachusetts.

But when he got here, "nobody knew of it ... and they didn't have lacrosse for the little fellers," he says. So he started a Little League Lacrosse and, by the time he left 20 years later, to retire on the Tuscarora Reservation, Baltimoreans "sure had it, lots of it." Today he's known as "the father of lacrosse."

Along with Patterson's contribution, lacrosse's presence in Baltimore is actually more "the result of a marketing strategy," says Thomas Vennum, author of the 1994 book "American-Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War."

After the Civil War, a man named Peck Auer, founder of the Bacharach Raison, a Baltimore sporting-goods store still in business today, made a deal with the Mohawk Indians that changed the status of lacrosse in the area. "He had a monopoly arrangement, an exclusive arrangement, with the Mohawk stick producers to retail all of the sticks," Vennum says.

Shipments of lacrosse sticks arrived in Baltimore every spring, and schools such as Loyola College, Towson University and Hopkins picked up the sport simply "because the equipment was there," says Vennum. "Then this kind of mystique grew up that Baltimore was the spiritual center of lacrosse ... next to probably Long Island."

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