Lacrosse, or the “medicine game,” has connected Haudenosaunee people to the spirit of our continent for over a millennium. The stick itself begins as a hickory tree that sprouts decades before a player is ever born. The spirit of the tree, then, connects the player to Mother Earth in the form of a lacrosse stick. It is said that in birth and even in death, a man’s stick is present because the game continues on into the next realm amongst his ancestors. It is also said that every time a medicine game is played on Earth, a parallel game is played in the sky world. Fundamentally, our medicine game is a part of our identity, and helps us to understand the continuing union between our people and the Earth.
Lacrosse is one of the most prominent of Haudenosaunee traditions to have successfully made the transition from pre-contact to modern times. In the Onondaga language, lacrosse is called Deyhontsigwa’ehs, which translates to “They bump hips.” It exists in two forms for Haudenosaunee people, the ceremonial game, and the more visible form, modern day lacrosse. Lacrosse serves as an insulator to protect our communities from the breakdown of individual and community identity during colonization. As our communities continue to heal from colonization, our game has become much stronger.
Jaxen John Jacobs holds onto his lacrosse stick after his birth on September, 10 2015 to Katsitsianentha Boots and Tehronioh:ton Jacobs of Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Photo courtesy by John Jacobs.
Why is it called the medicine game? To get a players perspective, ICTMN caught up with Iroquois Nationals veteran, and first All World player, Neal Powless of the Onondaga Nation. The Onondaga Nation will host the 2015 FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championships at Onondaga Nation Territory September 18, with the Iroquois Nationals vs. United States as the opening game.
Logan: So, lacrosse is known as the medicine game …
Powless: Yes, so the game of lacrosse is traditionally a medicine game. Lacrosse is one of those things that brings medicine. Generally its medicine comes in the form of a healing energy. Good thoughts, good emotions, happiness. Medicine is in the ball. Medicine is in the stick. The team has medicine as they work together. It comes back to the concept of “One dish, one spoon.” Community. When all those energies are brought together, it makes our medicine. Even when it’s not a medicine game, the Native players still carry that energy, and the understanding of that energy.
When we play field or box lacrosse, there’s still that connection, you’re still playing the sport. When you look at it from it origins, or from clan games, you have the Mohawks playing the Onondagas, the Senecas playing the Cayugas, or the Tuscaroras playing the Oneidas, or however that goes, right? Those communities come together, and that strengthens our bonds as communities. When we talk about the Great Law of Peace, it wasn’t just politically on Grand Council that we came together. We came together as children, all the way up, playing lacrosse.”
Logan: What do you think that tradition means today?
Powless: At this point now, where lacrosse has come, we get to share it with the world. So you have the Thompsons, and people are watching, and people are amazed at what they can do on the field. It really warms my heart, to not only see what they are doing on the field, but also off the field. To connect all those dots, to say, this is my medicine game, this is my medicine. I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke and I don’t do all these things, because I honor, not just the game, but I honor myself by how I conduct myself. It’s just really cool and really good for the sport. You see a lot more kids that want to grow their hair out, you know? Because, they see the hair flying!!”
Logan: I’ve heard people say lacrosse is “The Little Brother of War,” right?
Powless: “That’s always bugged me even since I was a kid, because I always had lacrosse taught to me as a different way. It’s never been a replacement of war, or a replacement of training for war. It’s an expression of your gifts from the Creator. So you have the Great Law of Peace, and you have our communities that are caring and loving of each other. It created an opportunity for those communities to come together. So when you have the clan games, you don’t just have a game, they actually have a meal and a feast together afterward. It’s turned into comradery within the community. You celebrate afterward. You celebrate the game, and you celebrate the gifts. See, that’s what I think kind of gets missed now.”
Logan: So for the World Games that is about to happen, for all the people that are watching, from other communities, what do you hope they will get from this?
Powless: “Take from it an understanding of the spiritual importance of the game. I’m really happy to see that the true origins of the game, that it is a community game, bringing good medicine and communities together. That is still happening. And this world tournament, and the fact that all these people are coming to Onondaga? It means that the game is still doing what it was originally intended to do. And that really is best part of it.”
Haudenosaunee people play lacrosse first and foremost to honor the Creator, and then for the well being of their families and themselves. They are taught to play always with a good mind and a good heart, and to only get on that field if they are ready to give their best.