Tradition. In the sport of lacrosse, and for those who are passionate about the game, tradition is a word that means practically everything.
Where did you go to high school? Whom did your brother, your father and your sister play for? How many times did your family make the trip to watch the Final Four? Maryland or Johns Hopkins, whose side are you on? Do you remember Paul and Gary Gait? Do you know the story of Morgan State and the Ten Bears? Does Boys' Latin vs. St. Paul's mean more to you than Ravens vs. Steelers? Did you learn how to cradle while you were still sleeping in a cradle?
It's easy then - especially at this time of year, with all the hype surrounding today's NCAA championship between Virginia and Massachusetts - to forget that the word "tradition" has a much deeper meaning to a select group of lacrosse players. It's a meaning that spans not only generations, but also centuries. Though lacrosse is considered by many to be the fastest-growing sport in the country, and though it has evolved into an important part of East Coast private school culture, the game still means as much today to some American Indians as it did in the early 17th century.
"This game was a gift from the creator," says Leo Nolin, who played lacrosse for Syracuse from 1968-70, but grew up playing the game as a member of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York. "For us, it's a medicine game, a healing game, a community game and a spiritual game. It's really our national sport. But it's not just a sport for us, it's a way of life."
Most historians agree that lacrosse is the oldest sport in North America, and possibly one of the oldest team sports in recorded history. According to the book American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War by Thomas Vennum Jr., French and English missionaries observed members of the Haudenosaunee (or, what is often called Iroquois) people playing the game in the 1630s. That aspect of the game's origins is a serious point of pride for Indians still playing back home, making their own sticks, and carrying on those traditions today.
"At that time in Europe, people were playing around with swords and fighting each other," says David Bray, a member of the Seneca Nation who played for Cornell in the early 1970s and is now an assistant director of affirmative action at the University at Buffalo. "It's pretty unique when you think about it and the history of team sports."
Even though the game evolved significantly after it was embraced by Canadians and then eventually Americans in the mid- to late 1800s, Indians like Nolin say there's no bitterness that the sport has been swallowed up by mainstream culture. In fact, most of the Onondaga Nation takes great pride in watching the Final Four each year, and following Indian players like Brett Bucktooth, an All-America sophomore attackman for Syracuse.
"We have a saying: Anytime you give something to the non-Indian, it's going to be exploited," Nolin says, laughing. "Over time, everything changes. You have to respect that. The game changed even when it was in our hands. It builds camaraderie, and I know that sharing it with the non-Indian was the right thing to do. But we still feel an obligation to make sure the many folks who play the game understand where it came from, and understand why it's such an important part of our community."
The lessons of peace and brotherhood seem especially important to pass along this year. Lacrosse has taken considerable heat the past few months after rape accusations involving the Duke University men's team became national news, and many people have been quick to criticize the sport, saying too many of its players have grown up with a sense of entitlement.
"You have to remember, the spirit of the game is what's important," says Chief Oren Lyons, the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, and former All-American goalie for Syracuse in 1957-58. "A lot of people in America now, they get so caught up on who is No. 1. That's short-sighted. It doesn't matter who wins. We don't worry about who is No. 1, No. 10 or even No. 500. That's not our perspective."
Lyons, 76, started playing the game at age 14, and was one of the first Indian players to experience major success at the collegiate level. At Syracuse, he played on the same team as Hall of Fame football player Jim Brown, and says he has always seen the sport as a way to spread the message of peace and tolerance.
"At the World Games this year in Ontario, I think there will be 22 nations playing," Lyons says. "The first year they were held in 1987, there were only five nations. We've passed on the game to people in China, Argentina, Italy, Australia, the Czech Republic. Sometimes I think other countries know more about our contributions to the game than Americans do."