At Corcoran Park in south Minneapolis on Wednesday, the scene looked just as it does in dozens of city parks every weekday summer evening. Boys’ and girls’ sports teams ran around chasing balls. Coaches shouted advice and encouragement. Parents sat on the sidelines armed with snacks and bug spray, chatting and watching their kids laugh, jostle each other and work up a sweat.
But this game wasn’t softball, or soccer, or tennis. It was old-style lacrosse, invented by indigenous peoples a thousand or so years ago, and the kids were part of an American Indian league begun in a Twin Cities school gym in January.
Saturday, the first Twin Cities Native Lacrosse Tournament will be held at Osseo Senior High School. Men’s, women’s, boys’ and girls’ teams from around the region, including Wisconsin and the Dakotas, will compete using the traditional wooden sticks of the Western Great Lakes tribes, each made from a single piece of ash, steam-bent into a small circle on one end that is lashed with deer-hide netting to catch and throw balls.
“We’re seeing a wave of cultural revitalization in our tribal communities right now, and lacrosse, which had been lost due to colonization, is a part of it,” said Sasha Brown, a volunteer coach for the boys’ teams.
Lacrosse programs have been popping up on area reservations over the past several years — including a boys’ team on the Lower Sioux Reservation in southern Minnesota, as well as youth, men’s and women’s teams in the Sisseton-Wahpeton community in South Dakota.
“The urban population is so tribally mixed, so it’s all that much more important for us to get together and stay connected to our identity, to feel like a community,” Brown said.
As the girls hurtled across their half of the field midgame, the boys’ teams broke to plan their next moves.
“You guys, we gotta act fast,” said Santino DeCory to his huddled teammates. “You gotta block! You gotta push!”
“Sssh,” cautioned his older brother Dalon DeCory. “Guys, they can hear us. OK, sticks up!”
On the sidelines, mothers and fathers watched the action, one woman beading baby moccasins. “My son never wanted to try any team thing like this before,” said Helen Waquiu. “But he has so much fun with the other native kids like him.”
The league was begun by John Hunter of St. Paul with a small grant — $2,500 from the Indian community-focused Tiwahe Foundation. The Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin is a major sponsor of Saturday’s tournament.
The program needs very little funding because everyone volunteers, Hunter said.
“Health and wellness for our kids should not have to cost a lot of money,” said his wife, Lonna Hunter, who is also very active in promoting the league.
Lacrosse has also given young players an American Indian sports idol to identify with. When Miles Thompson, of New York’s Onondaga tribe, arrived in January for his first game with the National League’s Minnesota Swarm, the local league was there to greet him.
“Our boys’ team is so proud,” Brown said. “They idolize Thompson and see themselves in him.” (Alas, Thompson, and the Swarm, will relocation to Georgia for the 2016 season.)
Almost every tribe played some form of “the creator’s game,” as it is familiarly called, with the rules and types of sticks varying by region. In the old days, lacrosse was played not just for fun, but also to settle disputes and teach values to “little warriors.”
“I tell the kids, ‘This is in your blood, your genetic memory,’ and to have respect for that and each other,” Brown said. “They take it seriously.”
While the kids get competitive in the heat of a game — bruised shins are a regular occurrence — they are taught that lacrosse is as much, if not more, about cooperation and respect for one another as it is about winning. When one boy hurt his arm in a fall, both opponents and teammates rushed over to ask if he was OK and help him up.
“Remember,” Brown tells her boys as they work on their defense plan, “humility is just as important as power.”
Could someone please send her over to advise the NFL?