Playing in the Cup of Nations in Annapolis is a big step for a girls lacrosse team that has to worry as much about unhappy elders as it does its opponents.

Tight spot for Iroquois

July 02, 2005|By Kate Crandall | Kate Crandall,SUN STAFF

The opening ceremony for the Cup of Nations girls lacrosse festival had just been completed at the Naval Academy when the purple-and-white Iroquois flag that was flying alongside those of the 10 World Cup nations was taken down.

The flag was placed in the hands of First Nations coach Sandy Jemison, who was informed that only flags of member nations of the International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations could fly during the World Cup.

Jemison's heart sank, as it did in the summer of 1987 when Onondaga clan mothers informed her and the rest of the Iroquois Nation women's team that there would no longer be a team, that women playing lacrosse disgraced the sport's tradition.

"It's frustrating," Jemison said. "Getting here [financially] was the first step. But I guess we have a long way to go."

Alongside this week's IFWLA World Cup, the Cup of Nations girls festival - featuring 15- to 18-year-olds - was organized to give youth teams from the burgeoning international and domestic lacrosse communities a chance to compete.

The First Nations girls team is one of eight international squads competing in the 50-team festival, which ends today.

After reading about the Cup of Nations, Jemison organized an inter-reservation team - the first of its kind in 18 years - and called it the First Nations girls team. First Nations consists of girls from all of the tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy - Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Tuscarora - except for the Onondaga.

Eleven of the girls are from the Six Nations reservation in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, where people from all six of the Iroquois nations live.

The other nine live on reservations in upstate New York.

Although girls lacrosse has become increasingly popular on the reservations, the Onondaga reservation does not allow women to play for reasons of tradition.

There is plenty of similar feeling on the other reservations, as well. Each aspect of ceremonial lacrosse derives from an ancient creation story, with the game serving a healing purpose. For example, in cases of sickness, a lacrosse game could be held by the men to help with a cure.

Today, even on reservations where girls lacrosse is allowed or even encouraged, the girls know there are boundaries.

"You're not supposed to touch a guy's stick," said midfielder Samantha Skye, a Seneca from Six Nations.

But the fine line between competitive lacrosse and tradition has only applied to women since the Iroquois women's team was disbanded.

Since 1987, the Iroquois Nationals men's team has competed internationally in World Cups and other tournaments. Like Rutgers All-American Delby Powless, who now stars for the Buffalo Bandits of the indoor National Lacrosse League, Native American men have gone on to play NCAA Division I lacrosse and professionally.

A Seneca who lives on the Cattaraugus reservation in western New York, Jemison said that while lacrosse has afforded men travel, education and money, that is not the case with girls.

"The reason [the men] are playing is not the same [as the ceremony]," Jemison said. "The girls deserve the opportunity to go to college, where they can play lacrosse and get an education."

Tired of waiting

Despite the debate over tradition, Jemison felt the Cup of Nations was an opportunity for her players to showcase their skill.

"We've been waiting for this for 20 years," Jemison said. "We just said that we can't wait any longer. The girls are losing out on opportunities."

While three of the First Nations players will join Division I programs next year at Syracuse, Canisius and Niagara, Jemison said that, on the reservations, younger girls have few examples to follow.

"Many of the girls have no family members who have been to college, no one telling them what it will be like and no support system once they get there," she said.

Jemison said she hopes playing lacrosse will lessen the culture shock of leaving a close-knit reservation for a college campus. At least by playing for a team, the girls will be able to identify with a peer group, First Nations coach Kim Abrams said.

Leading scorer and captain Awehiyo Thomas will attend Canisius on a full scholarship. A Cayuga from Six Nations, Thomas gained international experience on Canada's U-19 team.

National team dreams

Three of her future Canisius teammates played with her on that team, which should help ease the transition.

Looking on as Team Canada played Japan on Thursday, Thomas said she dreams of playing on an Iroquois national women's team.

According to Jemison, the Onondaga elders' stance prevents the formation of such a team. Fiona Clark, president of the IFWLA, said an Iroquois national team would be allowed to become a member of the IFWLA and participate as a World Cup team.

"Iroquois is a nation recognized in lacrosse and the IFWLA would recognize it as a nation," Clark said. "We would open our arms."

Thomas' mother, Karen General, is a faithkeeper in their longhouse, meaning she is responsible for maintaining the ceremonies of the community.

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