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The Original National Pastime

03/13/1994, 10:40am EST
By National Lacrosse League

Almost forty-five years later, Oren Lyons can still see Angus Thomas' eyes.

Lyons was a 19-year old goaltender for the Onondaga Athletic Club when his team faced the Mohawks at Hogansburg. Thomas, nearing 50, was returning from a long suspension after his fearsome shot had killed a player.

"Angus Thomas was a BIG man. I was in the goal and was pretty hot stuff. I hadn't run up against what I call 'the men' yet," says Lyons.

The game was tight, perhaps even tied going into the final minutes, and Lyons had been handling Thomas' shots most of the game. The game was nearly over when Lyons saw Thomas getting ready to shoot. Lyons screamed at his brother, a defender, to get out of the way as Thomas hop-skipped into the underhand shot.

Lyons remembers: "The ball just flattened out and I could hear it sizzling. Instead of catching it with my stick, it was coming right at me, so I just stuck my chest out. I had two baseball chest protectors on, and other pretty solid padding underneath that."

The shot blew Lyons off his feet and into the goal, but he managed to knock the spinning ball into a teammate's stick. That was the last thing he remembers.

"It was like getting hit in the chest with a baseball bat," says Lyons. "I'd never taken a shot like that, not that hard."

Three of his ribs were broken. Since teams carried only one goalie, the game stopped until the Onondagas revived Lyons and stood him up in the goal. The Mohawks scored the last three goals of the game to win.

Thomas found Lyons after the game and asked, "Did ya get hurt boy?"

Lyons answered, "Nah." Thomas said "Pretty good goalie. Keep it up," and walked away.

It was coming of age for Lyons. He once told the New York Times, "There are not too many ways a young Iroquois could prove his manhood beyond high steel, the Army and lacrosse."

Native Americans have been proving themselves on the lacrosse fields for centuries. Games involving hundreds of players from different tribes were being played in North America long before the Europeans arrived - tribes used the game rather then battles to settle many disputes. The matches could go on for days and cover a playing field more than a mile long and wide.

Lyons' game was box lacrosse. It is a rough-hewed, largely Native American version of the game that provided the roots for the six-team Major Indoor Lacrosse League that has exploded in popularity in places like Buffalo (where it sells out the 16,325-seat Memorial Auditorium), Philadelphia and Detroit. The league's average attendance topped 10,000 in 1993.

The rougher parts of the game have caused some field lacrosse purists to recoil. For one thing, the box game allows cross-checking with the stick. Although the MILL game bans that, there is still vastly more physical contact than in field lacrosse.

"I've gone to one box lacrosse game in my life, and I personally will never go to another," says Donald T. Fritz, archivist of the Lacrosse Foundation. "What box lacrosse players do in the box game would never be allowed in the field game. The owners require the players to play viciously.

"The ice hockey crowd was there, not the field hockey crowd. People who violent sports appeal to - box lacrosse appeals to them."

Lyons, now a Native American Studies professor at the University at Buffalo, scoffs, suggesting, "It's a biased remark that reflects attitudes more than it does understanding of the game."

Field lacrosse, played outside with 10 men to a team, has a playing area roughly 330 feet long and up to 180 feet wide. The hard indoor box lacrosse floor is approximately 200 feet long by 90 feet wide. It has six players to a team.

For the uninitiated, the game is similar to hockey or soccer in that the point is to put the ball in the other team's net. The players can run with the ball in the pocket of their stick or they can pass it.

With the success of the Native American players on the champion Buffalo Bandits in the MILL, indoor lacrosse has at least partially returned to its Native American roots more than a century after that very tradition was turned out of the international arena.

Thanks to the Bandits' territorial draft rights in the MILL, the team has been able to draw on players of the Iroquois Confederacy from throughout Upstate New York and Ontario - players like the Kilgour brothers (Darris and Rich) of the Tuscarora Nation, the Senecas' Glen Lay, and other Native Americans like Robert Henry, Ross Cowie and former Bandit Barry Powless, an Onondaga traditionalist.

The surge in lacrosse's popularity isn't its first. Field lacrosse games drew crowds estimated as high as 40,000 in the late 19th century, making it a major sport in cities from New York to Boston to Toronto and Buffalo. Iroquois touring teams played the sport before Queen Victoria's time and lacrosse became the national sport of Canada (a title it, not hockey, still holds).

But as white players came into the game, the Indians found themselves pushed aside. The game was reorganized as an amateur sport in 1880 in Canada, effectively limiting the play for any teams that couldn't pay their own travel expenses.

For example, a Mohawk team in Canada was preparing to travel to Europe in 1890. Because it charged admission to games to raise money for the trip, Lyons says, the team was banned in Canada as professional. The situation was similar in the United States.

"That was the same time, in 1890, of the Massacre at Wounded Knee," says Lyons. "The 1880s and 1890s were pretty hostile to Indian people, no matter where you were. The national champions of Canada were Mohawks and Iroquois, perennially. They were just better teams, it was their game. And the fact that there were Indians beating white people was clearly a problem to some people."

The Six Nations and other Native American groups were eliminated from world championships, and field lacrosse became largely the province of some of the more elite private universities and the service academies.

The Six Nations never stopped playing the game, of course. Box lacrosse is believed to have been introduced in Montreal in the 1920s or '30s. It was a game played on a smaller, harder surface, with walls to keep the ball in - and to check the opponents against - and the Native American players rapidly adapted to it. In part the box game developed due to the availability of ice arenas in the off-season in Canada.

The game remained a key social component of Iroquois culture. Wesley Patterson, a Tuscarora stick maker, says that the game traditionally served to keep peace among the Six Nations.

"You had all these tribes mingling around in the same area, and if they said 'Well, this is our territory,' or got into a dispute, they said 'Let's settle it.'

"They'd have a game of lacrosse, winner takes all, and after that they had a big feast," Patterson explains. "It was not as violent as everybody thinks it was. True, somebody might get hit in the head and blood would come out, but for the most part they were very skillful and cautious not to hurt each other."

By the time Patterson started playing, he recalls, "we used it as a social type of thing to keep in touch with all the rest of the tribes. You knew all the kids and players, Onondaga, Seneca. As we've grown older, we've kept our confederacy kind of close-knit by playing against each other. We always had that big feast after, the corn soup or whatever."

Patterson didn't discover the field game until he went to Springfield College after World War II, but he starred nonetheless. After recording one of the highest-scoring games in college lacrosse history with 13 goals in one game, he went on to coach the field game in the Baltimore area for 20 years before he returned to Western New York, coaching at Niagara University and starting his factory on the family farm in Sanborn. Today, he says, he makes about 10,000 wooden lacrosse sticks per year.

He also served as an early teacher to the Bandits' Kilgour brothers. Their family lived just down the road, and their father worked for Patterson.

"I used to hang out as a kid and Les used to show me different things. He's the one that first taught us how to catch, throw, backhand, little trick things," said Darris Kilgour, who said he was about 3 when he was introduced to the game.

By the time the Kilgours, now in their early 20s, started playing as teen-agers, the social interaction was fading from Confederation games. Teams were more likely to just go, play and return.

The major box lacrosse competition in Western New York is in the Can-Am League, in which there are teams from the Seneca and Tuscarora nations. With a season running from late April to the championship game in early September, the Seneca team plays out of the Gil Lay Memorial Sports Arena in Irving and the Tuscarora squad plays at Sportsplex in North Tonawanda.

High school field lacrosse has grown in the area (there are now about a dozen teams), and Kilgour's Niagara-Wheatfield teams, drawn largely from the school district's Native American population, were among the area's best. The squad's games with the Nichols School played out some of the same tensions that had existed between players from Native American and prep traditions.

"When I played, we didn't like Nichols and Nichols didn't like us. There was a lot of friction," said Kilgour. "We looked down on them, and perhaps they looked down on us, that's what we thought anyway. We thought of them as a bunch of rich kids, and they thought of us as a bunch of Indians, so it wasn't really very friendly."

Patterson is more the diplomat. In fact, he is an international ambassador of sorts for the game. He has been to world championships in Australia and Europe to market wooden sticks, the preferred implements in women's lacrosse and in the Canadian men's game. ("When you go up to Canada, people use the slash a lot more, and it hurts a lot more with wood," said Kilgour, who has played in the summer major league there.) Through his exposure to high school and college lacrosse, Kilgour has grown more accustomed to the sticks with aluminum or plastic shafts.

"Since we're the stick makers, we're involved with the world," said Patterson. "At one time, before I started all this, I thought lacrosse was here, this is it. We were playing in front of 5,000 people in our arena in those days, but when I got down to Johns Hopkins (the Baltimore area's traditional lacrosse powerhouse) they were only getting a couple of hundred or a thousand. They thought 2,000 was really big.

"But now, I think we're instrumental in helping it grow as fast as it has throughout the world." The field game - and Patterson's stick market - is growing fastest with girls in the U.S. Midwest and overseas.

Barry Powless is more concerned with bringing the game back among the Six Nations. A former Bandit who had a minor role in the movie "The Last of the Mohicans," Powless has played box lacrosse, indoor lacrosse and now is trying to emphasize the field game - and its spirituality - from the Onondaga reserve in Central New York.

"There are the two roots, the spiritual and the political," he says. Among the Iroquois names for the games were "The Bumping of Hips" and "The Little Brother of War," because it was used to settle disputes between nations.

"In those days, villages were miles apart, and the males would participate," he says. "There were no rules. It was a hard game, a rough game, with no referees. The only referee was your self-discipline. When we play the spiritual game today, there're no pads, no equipment.

"The game was a gift to the people from the Creator, and the people use the game as a healer."

"Of course, that's the nature of the game," says Lyons, a faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan and member of the Onondaga Council of Chiefs. "That's what it was first produced for, the medicine game. It's a game that anyone, in any of the Nations, can call to have. It's up to them. They sponsor it. When they make their request, the players are bound to respond.

"They have a game, and of course it goes back to the old rules where you play one house (clan) against the other house, and that's when you'll find the son playing against the father, because the mother's a different clan (clan membership is traced through the female side of the family)...So it's quite a surprise to the youngsters when they look across the way and their father's on the other team."

Powless, who confesses to growing up a "rink rat" like his father, says his grandfather was responsible for handing down the spiritual element of the game.

"In my senior year in high school, my grandfather and I took a walk in the woods and picked some medicine a lot of our people would take to purify the body for spring activities. A lot of our people used to take these to prepare for the rigors of lacrosse, to prepare not only physically but mentally.

"Last spring we had a box team and we offered it to them, this ceremony of cleansing of body and mind."

Most of the participants were Onondagas and members of the team Powless coaches, but one Mohawk took part as well. It's a ritual the coach hopes to repeat this spring.

Powless has mixed feelings about the box-indoor game. He says that after Native American players were effectively eliminated from the international game, "they needed an outlet to play the game. They never stopped. Since they couldn't play the international game, they picked up box games, and there have been generations of Native box players.

"They saw their fathers play (box), and then their children saw their fathers play. The field game was taken away.... Right now the national organization is trying to promote the field lacrosse game and educate our people on the history of lacrosse and let them know the field game was our game... a lot of our young people don't know that."

Powless has been active with the Iroquois Nationals, a team that was started in 1984. It was denied recognition as a national team by the International Lacrosse Federation until 1989 and finally competed in its first world tournament in 1990.

While Powless has channeled his energies toward the field game, he also can appreciate the thrill of indoor lacrosse.

"Due to the excitement of the game, college players - when they get a taste of the box game - they end up liking it better," he says. "That's why you have the MILL, and it's very evident with the crowds in Buffalo."

Oren Lyons has played both the box game (that's where he encountered Thomas) and field lacrosse (he was on Syracuse's national championship teams with football great Jim Brown).

He's also one of just two Native Americans in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in Baltimore which is oriented toward field lacrosse, particularly in the colleges. Outside the hall, though, there stands a statue, sticks raised, of the original lacrosse players - Native Americans.

Lyon credits the fact he was only the second Native player inducted into the hall as much to economic and social factors as to any organized exclusion from the larger-scale game at that point.

"Myself, coming from Onondaga, I was the first to graduate (in 1959) from a university since 1936," he says. "So from '36 to '58-59, where are you going to get your hall of famers? It's not that we didn't have the quality players. We certainly did. But never mind going to universities, people weren't completing high school.

"That's how I think it was exclusionary. If you didn't go to the Ivys, or the academies, you didn't play (field) lacrosse. It just wasn't done."

Lyons was recruited from the box game by Syracuse University coach Roy Simmons when he had returned to Onondaga land after having received his high school equivalency while in the Army Airborne division. He backstopped the 1957 Orangeman team to an undefeated season.

He currently deals with difficult issues in his roles with the Onondagas, as a writer on American Indian affairs and as a professor, but there seems to be a little extra spark when his conversation gets back to lacrosse.

"Both games (box and field) are compatible. I've played them both, they're the same basic skills," he says. "It's just that the box game is faster and it's rougher. It's unlike the field game where there are times where at one end of the field you can be talking with the attackman... because all the play's down at one end. In the box game, you never get that kind of rest. It moves too fast.

"When you play the box, you wear more pads. Hitting is heavier, and there you've got the boards to deal with and you've got a concrete floor to deal with and you've got some very tough players in there. You can't walk into that game wearing the light padding that field lacrosse players wear."

Lyons says that Buffalo's love affair with the MILL variation isn't its first relationship with the box game. In the 1930s and '40s, he says, teams in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester (including the Onondaga Red Devils) were successful.

The current game has some differences from pure box lacrosse.

"You know, they took the wooden stick out of the game. You can't very well cross-check with one of those aluminum handles, and the cross-check...that's the tough part of the game," he said. "If you watch the Indian leagues, they still cross-check. You wouldn't have people sprinting by you like you do in the MILL league if you could still cross-check. They'd be right on their back.

"I love to see the game, and I like to see the boys playing, no matter who they are," he says. "I hope they keep up, but I'd sure like to see them put that wooden stick back in there... and then see how fast they go down."

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