January 24, 2013

Beyond the Story: Censer's Iroquois Reading List

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive

A number of pieces have been written about the Natives' intimate relationship with lacrosse. Lacrosse Magazine's Joel Censer used a few in reseach (and for enjoyment) to help write the feature, "For Iroquois Nationals, It's More Than a Game."
© Tero Wester

Last week, LaxMagazine.com published my #longread about the Iroquois historic win over the Americans at the 2012 Federation of International Lacrosse U19 World Championships. Of course, the Nationals’ victory was a remarkable feat on a number of levels. First, with an estimated player pool of 265 kids, the Iroquois, in Spartans-at-Thermopylae-like-fashion, defeated a U.S. team with more than 600 times the number of players to choose from. Maybe even more interesting, most of the Iroquois didn’t even grow up playing primarily field lacrosse. Oppression and racism in the latter parts of the 19th century led the Natives to eventually focus on another version of lacrosse entirely. An indoor version that — in an irony of ironies — has made them more suited for today’s field game.

A number of pieces have been written about the Natives’ intimate relationship with lacrosse by journalists, writers and historians much more talented than I. Here are some of my favorites:

"Lacrosse: A History of the Game" by Donald Fisher

By far the most comprehensive history ever written about the development of modern lacrosse. Particularly fascinating (to me at least) was how the sport’s changing demographics ultimately led to Natives being barred from international field competition. Victorian William Beers, a Montreal dentist who codified the game and drafted the sport’s first rulebook in the 1860s, wrote: “No Indian must play in a match for a white club unless previously agreed upon.” But Fisher argues that Beers was mostly concerned with Canadian club teams hiring Natives as ringers and turning an upper crust, amateur activity meant to develop young men, into a game mostly focused on winning. It wasn’t until a decade later, when working-class Canadians began picking up lacrosse en masse, that Native teams were specifically targeted and barred entirely from international play.

Fisher explains: “Apparently clubs did not trust one another about hiring native talent, but allowing all-Indian teams to compete was not a problem. Eventually, however, the new competitive ethos led organizers to move away from viewing the game as a respectable recreational activity that tolerated Indian participation and toward seeing it as a more diverse, multiclass sport that was hostile to Indians.”

"American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War" by Thomas Vennum

Vennum, the preeminent Native lacrosse scholar, recounts with vigor and detail the origins and history of the Indian stick-and-ball game. It’s not just a dry, wonky history book either. Various moments in Native lacrosse history — from French Jesuits early encounters with the Hurons all the way to Freeman “Bossy” Bucktooth Jr. bringing his kids to watch Gary and Paul Gait play in Syracuse’s Carrier Dome — are recreated in narrative form.

"Choctaw stickball: A fierce, ancient game deep in Mississippi" by Baxter Holmes

Before I started to research for this story I had no idea there were different adaptations of lacrosse that used different equipment and were played by different native tribes in different parts of the country. But in the American South, Choctaws and the Eastern Cherokees among others play “double-stick lacrosse,” using two smaller sticks to cup the ball when advancing it downfield.

Here, Los Angeles Times reporter Baxter Holmes does a nice job recreating the Choctaw World Series of Stickball tournament in Mississippi, where more than 5,000 fans came out to watch the Beaver Dam and Conehatta teams duke it out for double-stick supremacy.

The article also makes you wonder what lacrosse would have been like if Beers and the rest of the Canadian pioneers hadn’t discovered, and become fascinated by, the Iroquois single-stick tradition.

"The Gathering of the Tribes" by John Seabrook

"Most of the guys on the bus were holding their sticks, tying and untying the knots in the webbing of the pockets, and spinning them in their hands. Lacrosse players seem to have a fetishistic relationship with their sticks..."

— Excerpt from "The Gathering of the Tribes"

In my mind, the best non-fiction piece ever written about lacrosse. This New Yorker article discusses how Natives and “preppies” make up the two distinct “tribes” playing lacrosse (although times have clearly changed) but how they rarely faceoff against one another. The story ends with the Iroquois going head-to-head against the Americans at the 1998 World Championships in Baltimore.

Seabrook’s prose is world class, and I get jealous just by the fact that he writes as seamlessly about music, food, and everything else as he does about lacrosse (his Mid-Atlantic, Princeton credentials probably help).

Here’s Seabrook description of members of the Onondaga Athletic Club team tweaking their sticks on the bus ride up to play a Kahnawake Mohawk box team:

“Most of the guys on the bus were holding their sticks, tying and untying the knots in the webbing of the pockets, and spinning them in their hands. Lacrosse players seem to have a fetishistic relationship with their sticks, which are part hockey stick, part tennis racquet, and part club. In field lacrosse, sticks vary in length, depending on whether one plays attack, midfield, or defense (also known as longstick). Indian stick-makers used to supply most of the world's sticks. A hickory trunk was split, steamed, and bent at one end, and the pocket was woven of leather and catgut, which had a very particular smell in the rain. But in 1970 the Brine Company, based in Boston, introduced an aluminum stick with a molded plastic head and a rubber-and-nylon pocket, and within five years the Indian wooden-stick industry had all but disappeared.”

"Pride of a Nation" by S.L. Price

Sports Illustrated’s Price documents the Iroquois’ cultural relationship with the game, while also reflecting on modern Native identity and the subsequent sovereignty issues involved in the 2010 Iroquois team not participating in the World Games in Manchester, England.

Highly enjoyable were the “war stories” involving former Syracuse coach Roy “Slugger” Simmons Jr. and all-time NFL great Jim Brown.

“To the wider world, NFL legend Jim Brown is the most famous Syracuse lacrosse player, often deemed the greatest of all time, supposedly never knocked off his feet. But on the reservation they remember the pickup game in 1957 in which the 155-pound Irving Powless, a future chief, sent the 230-pound, new-to-the-box Brown tumbling with a brutally precise hip check. "Brown never left his feet the rest of the day," Simmons says. “He just destroyed them.”


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