PERTH, Australia ? In the end, the inventors of the game failed to take home a medal. But the players and coaches of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team can hold their heads high. Their strong fourth-place showing at the recent World Lacrosse Championships here is as much indicative of the explosive growth of the sport over the past decade as any measure of wins and losses. The Iroquois have only 100 or so world-class players from which to select their squad, making their ability to compete with the world's best teams that much more remarkable.
If not for the ancestors of today's Iroquois lacrosse players, there would be no game to play. The Haudenosaunee, Iroquoian for "people of the longhouse," have been playing lacrosse for centuries. Indeed, the game forms an inherent part of their culture and is considered a gift from the Creator.
The Iroquois role in the creation of lacrosse was recognized at the beginning of the tournament. Mohawk Elder Eddie Gray performed a traditional ceremony in which he burned tobacco and prayed in the Mohawk language for good weather for the tournament and protection from injury for all the players.
"The first purpose of the game is spiritual," says a statement on the team's web site. "Lacrosse is a 'medicine' game because it promotes the health and strength of the Nation, ensuring a continuance of our tradition and an understanding of our ways ... There are traditional processes of preparation for the individuals who play. This requires discipline and special instruction. The process includes the understanding and use of traditional medicine gathered from the forests. Accordingly, reverence, respect, responsibility and language are fundamental to the process. ? [Lacrosse] requires cooperation, fair play, discipline, stamina, pride and good health."
Traditionally, the Iroquois played lacrosse on a field with goals at each end; the object was to put the ball into the opponent's goal. In years past, the playing field could have been anywhere from one hundred yards to two miles in length. Teams could number anywhere from five players each to one thousand per side.
Today, two modern versions of the game are played. In "box" lacrosse, at which Iroquois players have traditionally excelled, teams of six players compete in an ice-hockey style enclosure; in "field" lacrosse, which was played at the championships, 10-man teams play on an outdoor field roughly the size of a soccer field. Both styles feature hard hitting, rapid ball movement and strong teamwork.
The Iroquois Nationals are unique in that they are the only American Indian team sanctioned for international competition in any sport. Team members travel under Haudenosaunee Confederacy passports and play under the purple-and-white flag of the Iroquois, which features a motif of the Hiawatha wampum belt, representing the Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) of the Confederacy. The team received sanction from the International Lacrosse Federation in 1990; this marked the Iroquois' fourth trip to the world championships. They are the only team to use the traditional wooden sticks.
The tournament at Perth, which took place between July 5 and 14, featured 15 teams in three divisions. The Nationals were grouped in the Blue division, the tourney's toughest, with squads representing the U.S., Canada, England and the host nation, Australia. Arguably, the Nationals faced the most grueling schedule of any team in the tournament's rugged preliminary round.
With only a week to practice, the team played four games in four days, after travelling halfway around the world. They defeated England 17 - 9, while losing to the U.S, Canada and Australia by scores of 22 - 6, 20 - 8 and 19 - 5, respectively. The Nationals qualified for the medal round with a hard-fought 19 - 14 overtime victory over Japan, in which they scored five overtime goals, limiting the Japanese to a goose egg.
The first medal-round game brought the opportunity for revenge against the talented U.S. squad. It was not to be as the Nationals could not overcome an early 8 - 1 U.S. lead and lost by an 18 - 8 tally. Midfielder Delby Powless' play highlighted the Iroquois effort, however, as he scored three straight goals within a five-minute span of the third quarter, including a spectacular behind-the-head shot, and finished with four on the day.
Host Australia was the next opponent in the Bronze medal game. By halftime, the teams had battled evenly, with the Aussies holding a slim 8 - 7 lead. The Nationals took a two-goal lead early in the fourth quarter, but the host team rallied with help from a boisterous hometown crowd. The Iroquois team took a tough one on the chin, losing 12 - 11 and ending their medal hopes.
The U.S. topped Canada 18 - 15 to win the gold medal.
Iroquois players Neal Powless, Onondaga, and Gewas Schindler, Oneida, both finished among the top-10 scorers in the powerful Blue division. Powless had 17 goals and 5 assists for 22 points for a fourth-place finish, while Schindler tallied 13 goals and 3 assists for 16 points, good for tenth on the list.
The Iroquois Nationals were one of eight tribal government programs recognized earlier this year by the "Honoring Nations" effort at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The school awarded the Nationals with a $10,000 prize for promoting Indian sovereignty and excellence on the playing field. The team has conducted lacrosse clinics at Indian communities in the U.S. and Canada, which have helped to revitalize the sport among native youth.