ONONDAGA NATION TERRITORY -- With a flick of the wrist, Iroquois Nationals lacrosse players passed the ball up, down and across the box, displaying deft stickhandling and a lethal scoring touch, on the way to a commanding 13-9 win over visiting Team USA in front of a sellout crowd Friday night at the War Memorial Arena in downtown Syracuse, New York.
The Thompson brothers -- Lyle, Miles and Jeremy -- led the Iroquois to victory. Lyle Thompson, a two-time Tewaaraton Trophy winner as the most outstanding player in college lacrosse (he shared the trophy with his brother Miles in 2014), paced the Iroquois in scoring, along with teammate Jeff Shattler. Both players recorded a hat trick, with three goals apiece.
The win left the host nation Iroquois with a 1-0 record in the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, which began Friday and continues until Sept. 27 in the territory of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York.
But this was about a lot more than a game.
Lacrosse, a sport often associated with elite prep schools, actually originated among the people of the Iroquois Confederacy, who call themselves the Haudenosaunee, which means the "people of the longhouse." The Haudenosaunee are comprised of six nations: the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora and Onondaga, with reservations located in New York, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, as well as the Canadian provinces of Québec and Ontario.
The Haudenosaunee have been playing lacrosse, which they consider the creator’s game, for centuries.
"We invented this game, our people brought to us this game, played for centuries around this, our Haudenosaunee lands," Tadodaho (Onondaga Chief) Sid Hill told The Huffington Post. "You come into the world and they put a stick in your hand, and when we go out, there will be a stick in our hand."
Opening ceremonies for the tournament before the Iroquois-USA match featured traditional Haudenosaunee singing and dancing, as well as a re-enactment of the Haudenosaunee creation story and the origins of lacrosse.
"It’s our lifeblood," Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, told HuffPost. "I mean, it’s beyond a game. It’s part of our cosmology, it’s part of our history, it’s the beginning of our lives. It’s played on the other side of the stars while this earth was still full of water -- that’s how old the game is with us."
Lacrosse runs deep among the Haudenosaunee, who, drawing from a population of less than 150,000, are consistently among the best nations in the world at the sport. In 2014, the Iroquois Nationals defeated Australia for the bronze medal at the World Lacrosse Championships. At every World Indoor Lacrosse Championship since 2003, the Iroquois have finished second to Canada.
The Haudenosaunee also are the only indigenous people to compete as a nation in a world championship. For this reason, lacrosse has become an important symbol and expression of indigenous sovereignty on the world stage.
Each of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee comprises a sovereign nation that has maintained its right to self-government stretching back before the settlement and colonization of North America. During the colonial era, European powers signed more than 50 treaties with the Haudenosaunee, and after the Revolutionary War, the United States signed three additional treaties with the confederacy, affirming recognition of the six nations’ sovereignty.
"Here in Onondaga, it has always been Onondaga land, it has always been Haudenosaunee territory as far back as we can go," Hill said. "We feel that this is our land, it has always been our land, and it’s going to be our land forever."
As an affirmation of their sovereignty, the Haudenosaunee have traveled using their own passports since 1923, when Chief Deskaheh went to speak to the newly-formed League of Nations in Geneva.
Indigenous sovereignty, long contested in the United States and Canada, became a subject of international controversy in 2010, when the British government refused to accept the Iroquois Nationals’ Haudenosaunee passports, citing security concerns. The move prevented the Iroquois from competing in the World Lacrosse Championship.
The diplomatic slight remains fresh in Haudenosaunee memory, and for this year’s World Indoor Lacrosse Championships, the host Onondaga Nation stamped the passports of visiting players and spectators as a reminder that this is, and always will be, Haudenosaunee land.
Since Friday’s opening night victory against Team USA, the Iroquois Nationals have once again established themselves as a team to beat in the tournament. On Monday, the Iroquois defeated England 20-6, and on Wednesday, they defeated the Czech Republic 17-4 in group play, securing a spot in Friday’s semi-final and guaranteeing themselves a chance to compete for a medal.
Standing in their way is Team Canada, the reigning champion, undefeated in the history of the tournament.
During group play, however, the Iroquois almost dealt the Canadians their first loss, jumping out to an 8-4 lead in the third quarter before the Canadians mounted a methodical comeback to win the game 11-9.
Despite the loss, the Iroquois have advanced to the semi-final and may well have a rematch with the Canadians in the medal round.
Asked what it will take to unseat the Canadians, star forward Lyle Thompson replied:
"It’s going to take discipline, it’s going to take believing and confidence. This is my first year playing in the world games, and we all know Canada is the favorite, we all know they’re a great team, but it’s about believing we’re a great team, too. And I know everyone in that locker room knows we can come here and we can take gold."
Playing their creator’s game in Haudenosaunee homelands might just provide the Iroquois the spark they need to become world champions for the first time.
"Putting this jersey on gets me fired up, hearing our national anthem gets me going." Thompson said. "I know it gets me and my brothers all going, and I hope it does that for the whole team."
The World Indoor Lacrosse Championship bronze and gold medal games are scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 27, at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern time. They will be played at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. The gold medal game will be televised on Universal Sports Network.
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