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Oren Lyons: The Legacy of Lacrosse

22 June 2012
Oren Lyons with camera (AP Images/Itsuo Inouye)

Lacrosse leader: Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons attends an Iroquois Nationals team meeting during their match against Japan at the 1996 Lacrosse World Championships in Tokyo.

This article is part of the eJournal USA issue "Sports Strengthen Communities."

by Mary-Katherine Ream

Oren Lyons, a member of the Iroquois’ Onondaga nation, is turning 82 years old this year — but that will not prevent him from playing in Onondaga’s first lacrosse game of the season.

“When you talk about lacrosse, you talk about the lifeblood of the Six Nations [Iroquois]. The game is ingrained into our culture, our system, our lives,” Lyons said during a lecture.

Playing lacrosse provides Native Americans a way to honor their heritage while being part of a greater community. Lyons, who was inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame as a goalie in 1993, earned a scholarship to attend Syracuse University thanks to his skill at the sport. Now a professor emeritus at State University of New York Buffalo, Lyons remains close to the game as an Iroquois Nationals board member.

When he plays in Onondaga’s first game of the season, it will be a medicine game, as is the tradition. Lyons said it is played “on behalf of everyone in the whole world because that’s our style, that’s our thinking.”

For members of the ancient Onondaga nation, the game is pronounced “guh-jee-gwah-ai,” which means “they bump hips.” When the Iroquois played centuries ago, there could be teams of 1,000 players on fields that stretched for miles.

Today, lacrosse games consist of two 10-player teams using long sticks with mesh baskets to catch, carry and throw a small ball downfield. Each team scores points by placing the ball in the opponent’s net. After four quarters, the team with the most points wins.

While lacrosse can appear violent and fast-paced, it serves medicinal, physical and diplomatic purposes for Native Americans. They believe the game is a gift from the creator to be played for the creator.

“The game itself is first a medicine game,” explained Lyons. It is played to heal. Any individual can request a game for themselves or on behalf of someone else and then “the whole community gets mobilized.”

Game day is celebrated with a feast. Everything that will be used during game day — from the food to the ball — must be created that day. After preparations are made, players gather around a sacred fire to listen to a spiritual leader explain who convened the game and what the game symbolizes for the community.

“The stick is made from hickory, so [the spiritual leader] explains the importance of the trees and what they add to this game … and the deer provide the leather, and he explains the importance of the animals,” Lyons said.

Before starting, teams decide whether the groups must reach three, five or seven goals to win. After agreeing, the teams take the field, the ball is dropped and the game begins.

“For that moment,” Lyons explained, “all the players are in an elevated space. They are spiritual beings playing for a much higher authority and realm.”

For the Iroquois, lacrosse has historically played a dual role in dealing with conflict. On one hand, the game prepared men and boys for battle. On the other hand, it helped feuding tribes avoid war by allowing them to settle their differences on the playing field.

While it may have lost its historic conflict-prevention role, lacrosse continues to bring diverse groups of people together. Made popular in the United States and Canada by local settlers who picked the game up from the Iroquois, lacrosse is now expanding its fan base to countries such as the Czech Republic and Japan.

The sport is also enjoying renewed appreciation on its home turf. According to a 2011 survey on team sports, lacrosse participation in United States increased 218 percent in the last 10 years, making it the fastest-growing sport in America.

Lyons is happy to see lacrosse’s reach expand. “It is based on peace and it is based on community, so, hopefully, that aspect is what will help to prevail, to bring peace to the world,” he said.

Mary-Katherine Ream is a staff writer with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.