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An Old Sport Acquires New Fans

Lacrosse, a sport for the young, has old roots in games played by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Today, lacrosse is still treasured by the communities where it was first played.

Lacrosse is very popular in the eastern part of the United States. Similar to ice hockey and soccer, the object of the game is straightforward -- shoot the ball into the opponent's goal. The team scoring the most goals wins.

Although the objective is simple, lacrosse is a fast paced, high impact sport that demands tremendous physical stamina.

Players Matt Murphy and Patrick Meade play for Hobart College in New York State.

Matt says the sport is full of action, "It's just a more active sport. You are constantly running, constantly involved in action."

Patrick states that the sport may look violent to some, "I know it looks like a pretty violent sport when you first see it."

The excitement has made what was once a game played primarily on the East Coast of the United States and Canada into one of the fastest-growing sports in high schools and colleges over the past ten years.

But it's a sport that was first played in the East hundreds of years ago, among the Iroquois Indians.

Tony Wonderly is an historian for the Oneida people, part of the Iroquois Confederacy. He provides his perspective on the sport: “The game that is played today professionally and at college level is directly taken from this ancient Iroquois, Hodeoshoni (the Iroquois name for themselves), game.”

The Iroquois say the game was a gift from the Creator, intended as a way of resolving disputes.

Marilyn John is an Oneida who still remembers the days when hundreds of her fellow tribesmen played lacrosse for three to four days at a time.

“That's when lacrosse started. It became a medicine game to the point where He said, 'You need to play this game and play it ‘till your energy has run out, this hatred and suffering that you are doing, has run out.' I mean if there is a dispute between clans, get the game going, and run it out ‘till you are all exhausted and the feelings are gone.”

The game was adopted by whites, first in Canada at the end of the 19th century. Since then, it has evolved into a hi-tech sport that appeals to fans of extreme sports. Despite the start-up costs for sticks, helmets, and other specialized equipment, it is no longer a sport for just a few.

As the game has grown, it has been reintroduced to some Native American territories.

Ron Paterson grew up in New York State. He says lacrosse is part of the daily life in his native community. But it was not always that way.

“There was no lacrosse here, there was nothing here. You didn't see kids running around with lacrosse sticks, you didn't see guys all playing lacrosse. Basically it was a run-down Native American community.”

Oneida historian Tony Wonderly says, over the years, the marginalization of Native Americans in North America has led to the disappearance of much of their culture.

“People have to hide their traditions away and not practice it openly because Iroquois and Iroquois people were literally under attack by the dominant people around them.”

Poverty and the pressure for assimilation forced the Iroquois to give up many traditions, including lacrosse. But economic conditions in some native territories have improved since the 1980s, and that has enabled native American communities to have a stronger voice in maintaining old traditions.

Ron continued, “So when we said, ‘We are going to try to bring lacrosse back to the community,’ a lot of parents came over and say, ‘Yes, we’d like to see that, we don't know how to do it, but we want to see it back here’.”

In a new community sports center, kids from the ages of six to 12 are once again playing a game their ancestors invented.

Matt Kerwick is the head coach of the Hobart College lacrosse team. “I think the history of the game is so strong. I think if we can get it out to people and let them experience that, and what it meant to the Native Americans who founded this country and who started this game many, many years ago, it's just going to grow leaps and bounds, and people are going to love the game as we have loved it on the East Coast of Northeast for many years.”

To recognize the origins of this increasingly popular game, the Iroquois now compete as a national team at the world championships, which are held every four years.