Two teams and two traditions face off on local lacrosse field

The crowd at the Surf Club in Madison, Conn., trickled in slowly — a parade of youngsters in full pee-wee lacrosse gear accompanied by their smiling parents. They chatted amiably and took seats on the bleachers, excited to be watching two elite lacrosse teams on a beautiful shoreline evening.

On one end of the field, the Yale men’s lacrosse team sprinted and ran drills to the sound of Iroquois drummers. On the far side, their opponents, the Iroquois Nationals team, danced around the goal, taking pot shots on goalie Spencer Lyons, who stood unflinchingly as the white balls sprayed around him.

For a moment, it almost seemed like the two teams shared just a field, not a sport. The Iroquois cradled their sticks with one hand; the Yalies with two. The Bulldogs formed sharp lines on the field and executed play after play; the Nationals stood around in groups, every now and then ringing a ball off the top of the goal.

But from the first play, it became clear that two traditions of lacrosse ­— not two different sports — were meeting on a makeshift field in Madison. For a few hours Saturday night, a crowd of area lacrosse enthusiasts watched the sport’s past, present and future scramble for position on a changing field.

“Native American people invented the sport, and they bring a different sort of passion to the game,” Yale attackman Tyler Casertano ’08 said. “It’s something they’ve grown up with — not like throwing the ball around outside or playing [recreational] lacrosse. It’s a part of the larger culture.”

By the game’s start last Saturday evening, the crowd filled the bleachers and ringed the yellow-topped fence surrounding the field. Drawn by community postings of the event, pee-wee announcements and high school flyers, the Madison-area lacrosse community turned out in full force for the game, attracted by the prospect of a great night of sport.

“In some ways, [lacrosse] has become more refined,” Onondaga Faithkeeper and Iroquois lacrosse legend Oren Lyons said before the game. “The Americans have taken it to a very engineer-style of playing with patterns and picks.”

As the teams warmed up on opposite ends of the field, an eager crowd leaned forward to watch. The more scripted style familiar to the Yale team was about to meet the Iroquois’ fast and loose play — what one Iroquois coach called “stickability” — head on.

“We are so excited for this opportunity for our Shoreline boys and girls to witness lacrosse at this level,” said Madison First Selectwoman Noreen Kokoruda during the game’s opening ceremonies. “We are so proud to have these two teams here today.”

In the 1920s, it was not unusual for Yale to travel to Onondaga or Tuscarora to play teams of Iroquois players on the Six Nations reservations in upstate New York, Lyons said. But Saturday’s match-up was the first meeting of the Bulldogs and the Iroquois Nationals since the Nationals’ formation in 1983.

Lacrosse is now one of the fastest-growing team sports in the United States, according to the Web site of USA Lacrosse. Since 1999, youth membership in U.S. lacrosse programs has more than tripled, rising from 40,000 to over 125,000, while the number of high school lacrosse players has increased to an estimated 169,000.

The thrill youngsters around the United States are now discovering for the first time is a thrill that Native American children have understood for centuries. But for the Iroquois, the game carries a deeper significance, said Scott Burnham, who plays with and coaches for the Nationals.

“I’ve heard it said that lacrosse was the only game that wasn’t invented out of boredom,” he said. “It’s a sacred game. It deserves the respect that we give it.”

The sanctity of lacrosse was a central theme of Saturday night’s contest. The game was billed as the highlight of the Hammonassett Native American Festival, a two-day celebration of Native American culture and heritage that began in 2005 and is now coupled with an environmentalist message. Before the teams took the field, Yale coach Andy Shay took a moment with the Elis to talk about the meaning of the game.

“[Before the game] I told the guys that this was a great opportunity to be a part of something pretty special,” he said. “I don’t know if they recognized that as much before the game as they did after.”

Under Iroquois tradition, lacrosse was given to the Iroquois by the Creator, who is said to take pleasure in watching the game. The pre-Columbian version of the game, translated from the original Mohawk as “the little brother of war” would be played out for days across miles of terrain. According to “American Indian Lacrosse: The Little Brother of War,” a book written by Thomas Vennum Jr., a Senior Ethnomusicologist Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, lacrosse was often used as a means to settle disputes between tribes or as a religious ritual.

“Lacrosse is within the theology of our world religion,” said Iroquois National Board Member Denise Waterman, a member of the Oneida Tribe from Onandoga. “It’s [played] in the communities — and never with a plastic stick. The wooden stick is one of our four major religious items.”

Lacrosse continues to play a central role in the Iroquois communities. Several Iroquois spectators at the game said no other sport is nearly as popular or as prominent on the reservations.

“I play because it’s a way of life for us here on the Onondaga reservation,” Schindler said. “It’s something that everyone here grows up doing. It’s in our blood, it’s in our heritage and it’s accessible to everyone. When I get out [on the field], I’m always trying to play with a good mind, to play for our Creator.”

These days, the Iroquois play box lacrosse — a faster, shorter and rougher version of the game that resembles hockey more than anything else. The field shrinks, the goalie stays closer to the net, and the sticks shrink to 42 inches, compared with field lacrosse’s maximum of 75 inches for defensemen. The box lacrosse stick is cradled in one hand — an Iroquois trademark that reinforces their reputation as expert stick handlers.

Eyje Shenandoah, an Iroquois spectator on the sidelines of Saturday’s game, said lacrosse carries the history of his people. Centuries-old rivalries between nations, like the Mohawk and Onondaga, persist on the lacrosse field and make for raucous matches that bring out entire communities. In that context, the Nationals form an all-star team that has passed on lacrosse talent from one generation to the next.

“If you look at certain players here, their father was an all-star player, their grandfather was an all-star player, their great-grandfather was an all-star player — it runs in the family,” Shenandoah said. “Right when you’re growing up on the rez, when you’re walking — or some kids before they’re walking — the first thing you get is a little wooden [lacrosse] stick. That’s the first thing you learn to do, is check and throw a ball.”

The game would never have occurred but for the friendship of Burnham and Shay, the two teams’ coaches, who used to coach lacrosse at separate colleges in Delaware. Burnham met Don Rankin, one of the co-organizers of the Hammonassett festival “when I was picking out a Christmas tree” last December, he said, and the idea moved forward from there.

Game organizers hope to make the match an annual event.

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