Milwaukee, WI (TFC) – The struggle at Standing Rock, North Dakota grabbed the world’s attention for a time. It’s a fight which isn’t halting, even though signs of scale-back are beginning to surface. Among the many things Standing Rock’s resistance has reminded us of is Native American heritage, and its place in our country. It’s for these reasons that I’ve played the traditional game of lacrosse recently as a kind of symbolic support. Hoping to reach into the game’s old role as remote spiritual reinforcement, hundreds of miles away.
For those unfamiliar, lacrosse is a sport often compared to field hockey. It’s very different, however, and has been modified over the decades. It’s always required a lacrosse stick, which is a metal pole with a head and net on one end. Many players customize their sticks, and with endless marketed varieties each one is unique. Pads, helmets, and other things were added and evolved respectively as time went on. The original game, however, was bare skinned and gritty.
The game’s objective is to capture the ball and score goals with it, simply put. A total of twenty players, ten on each team, can be on the field at a time between two teams. These include three midfielders, three attack, three defenders, and a goalie. Lacrosse is as physical and violent as football, quicker than soccer, and quite a spectacle to behold. It’s rough and swift vibe has earned it the nickname “the fastest game on two feet” in modern days.
Today lacrosse is often regarded as “for” the wealthy or preppy, and with good reason. Firstly, it’s quite expensive to start playing. Team registration alone can cost over $50. Then comes the $250 helmet, another $200-$300 for pads and cleats, $70-200 for gloves, and finally $50-$200 for a stick. As you can see, even cheap gear that breaks within a season is outside the budget of some.
Secondly, it’s not diverse and struggling to be as inclusive as possible. Starter programs have done a good job spreading the sport around, but it remains relatively exclusive. According to Inside Lacrosse, 85.5% of male lacrosse players were white, while blacks made up barely 3.5% in a 2015 analysis. Incredibly, just 50 Native American men were registered under NCAA as of last October. Almost to spite that statistic, Native players consistently continue to represent the best of the best on the field.
–War’s Little Brother–
Lacrosse was originally played by Native American tribes across North America for centuries before settlers arrived. Many variations of the game existed, all bearing different names. Among its many aliases was “war’s little brother”, because some tribes used it to settle disputes instead of warfare. It was a cornerstone of a Native society, where children essentially were born with sticks in their hands. Traditional sticks were carved from thick wood, and remained until the 1960s or 70s. Today, unfortunately, though the practice continues in some places, wood sticks are considered a rare treat to encounter.
Lacrosse was and is also referred to as “the Creator’s game”. Native tribes, despite having played it for centuries, don’t credit themselves with its creation. According to legend, they were given the game by the creator, or “god”, if you will.
The first game, legend tells, was played by the animals and birds. A little twist in the story involves the bat, which was rejected from the birds’ team but accepted in the land animals’. As the story goes, a tie-breaking goal was made by the bat which proved that every player is valuable, and anyone can play. With that kind of history, it’s a wonder how the sport has ended up the way it has.
–Me, Lacrosse, And Its Race Issues–
I first got into the sport during sophomore year of high school, and played for two years. Although I loved it, there were tensions with me being the only African American on the squad. As it turned out, a joke here and there on the team wouldn’t prepare me for how other teams would treat me.
Here’s the god’s honest truth: When you’re on a lacrosse field, and non-white, you’re targeted with aggressive or illegal hits, and badgered constantly. The first time I was ever called a “monkey” by someone, was during a lacrosse game. Native players often report similar harassment, and unless the game gets more inclusive this will just continue. It’s like everyone wanting to let you know that you don’t belong. As if you’re an invader, or alien.
You walk past and an entire team will turn their heads together. Coach tells you to ignore, and play through it. After a while, though, the message gets across clear enough. To say the least, it’s an unexpectedly racially tense sport from an outsider’s perspective. Let alone for someone obligated to spend months in it. You’re left with two choices: Give those individuals what they want, or show them why you’re there. Personally, I realized I cared more about the game than the other players, or what they thought of me.
Not all teams are this way, thankfully, and mine was one of them. Although I was the only African American, I wasn’t the only minority. We were also an inaugural team and by all means the underdogs. Camaraderie found us through growing into the sport together and allowing it to feed each of us a personal lesson.
Lacrosse, in addition to settling disputes or conjuring spiritual strength, is also regarded as a medicine game. It heals, and that’s what it did for a teenage version of myself. The same goes for so many others I’ve had the pleasure of battling on the field, and those I’ve never met. That’s why I play to this day, by myself even, barefoot, several times a week. It’s a love that only another lacrosse player–who stuck with it–could understand.
At Milwaukee’s annual Indian Summer festival, a game is organized for a specific purpose. May it be to pray and send good energy to a loved one in pain, or hope for a prosperous year. It’s in this spirit that I play the game in Milwaukee, for water protectors in North Dakota. Whether one likes it or not, the same themes present at Standing Rock have become embedded in the identity of lacrosse.
–Why I play For Standing Rock’s Resistance–
I play for the men, women, children, teenagers, and journalists bravely standing up to brutal authoritative crackdowns. I play for those who weren’t deterred by DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) dog attacks, or surveillance. My muscles ache and my lungs constrict for those giving so much to stop a billion dollar project. A project which, if completed, will not only endanger Standing Rock’s water supply, but likely lead to environmental havoc. Sweat runs down and burns my eyes for the few police officers who’ve stood up to what’s going on there. Absent of all these qualities, Dakota Access, aiming to transport 500,000 barrels of crude a day, still represents an energy model which humanity has outgrown.
The struggle in Standing Rock has forced America to ask damning questions, and probe its history. War’s little brother was taken from Native culture and re-branded as DAPL’s corporation is now attempting to do to Standing Rock’s land and water.
The words of DAPL security contractors, filmed with bats in their hands threatening water protectors, exemplify this well. “I don’t care about you people”, one said at 3:04 in a TYT politics video, “you don’t get it. Fucking scum of the earth. Go fucking live somewhere else.” Countless other accounts of sheer brutality and designed dehumanization continue to pour from the camps. These very things drive Standing Rock’s spirit, as adversity drove me as a lacrosse player. It’s for these reasons that I, and my lacrosse stick–named Tris Megistus “Thrice Great”–play for Standing Rock.