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An Indigenous lacrosse team reclaims its native identity

The Haudenosaunee Nationals walk on to the field before a match against England at the World Lacrosse Championships on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
Alan Nakkash For NPR
The Haudenosaunee Nationals walk on to the field before a match against England at the World Lacrosse Championships on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

At this year's World Lacrosse Championships happening now in San Diego, one team has a new name and a fresh dream: to be the best in the world and showcase its Indigenous excellence.

"The quest is gold medal," said Haudenosaunee Nationals Head Coach Lars Tiffany ahead of the World Lacrosse Championships. "The challenges will be real and large."

Tiffany grew up near the Onondaga Nation in New York. He was the team's assistant coach at the last World Lacrosse Championships in 2018 in Israel, where they placed third.

Then they were known as the "Iroquois Nationals," but that's changed now.

The origin of the word "Iroquois" is the subject of debate, but present-day Haudenosaunee connect it to a French variant of "snake" and "murderer."

The Haudenosaunee Nationals warm up before their World Lacrosse Championship tournament match against England.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
The Haudenosaunee Nationals warm up before their World Lacrosse Championship tournament match against England.
Supporters hold up a banner displaying the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Wampum as they cheer for the Haudenosaunee Nationals against England match on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
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Alan Nakkash For NPR
Supporters hold up a banner displaying the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Wampum as they cheer for the Haudenosaunee Nationals against England match on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

"Our proper name is Haudenosaunee, and that means 'people of the longhouse.' So, we decided it was time that people got our proper name," said Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons, honorary chairman of the Haudenosaunee Nationals. "It's a correction of history, basically."

Lyons, 93, is a legendary goalie. He founded the "Iroquois Nationals" lacrosse program back in the early 1980s with the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee.

"It's awesome now that we have the Haudenosaunee [name], but ... it's always been our people who we're playing for," Haudenosaunee lacrosse player Tehoka Nanticoke said.

Nanticoke's family is the reason he became a lacrosse player. His older brother gave him his first lacrosse stick at birth. His grandfather Lawrence Nanticoke, Papa Jote, encouraged him to pursue it.

Chief Oren Lyons attends the Haudenosaunee Nationals match on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif. At 93, he's a legendary goalie who helped found the team in the 1980s.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
Chief Oren Lyons attends the Haudenosaunee Nationals match on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif. At 93, he's a legendary goalie who helped found the team in the 1980s.
As the Haudenosaunee Nationals listen to their national anthem, Head Coach Lars Tiffany (left) holds a traditionally-crafted lacrosse stick handmade by Alfie Jacques, a renowned stick maker who recently died.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
As the Haudenosaunee Nationals listen to their national anthem, Head Coach Lars Tiffany (left) holds a traditionally-crafted lacrosse stick handmade by Alfie Jacques, a renowned stick maker who recently died.

"I write 'Jote' on my wrist every time because I tape my wrist up. I write 'Jote' with a heart and then I put on the other side 'Remember why,'" Nanticoke sobs, "Because ... No one really knows this. But my Papa Jote, on his deathbed, basically told me to go play lacrosse.

The sport of lacrosse comes from the Haudenosaunee, but many Indigenous nations across North America have their own lacrosse traditions. For centuries, it has been embraced as a sacred gift from the Creator, ceremonially played as a medicine game.

"That game was in our cosmology. That game was played on the other side of the stars, while the Earth was still covered with water," said Oren Lyons. "It's a spiritual event and is played for the welfare of the people."

The Haudenosaunee Nationals warm up before a match against England on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
The Haudenosaunee Nationals warm up before a match against England on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
The Haudenosaunee Nationals warm up before their match against England on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
The Haudenosaunee Nationals warm up before their match against England on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

At the World Lacrosse Championship, the Haudenosaunee Nationals faced off against England in their first game of the tournament. They triumphed with an 18-5 win. Dazzling highlights display a chemistry, artistry, and spirit unique to the players.

Their second game against the defending champions, USA, was an intense battle that ended with a 7-9 loss for the Haudenosaunee. The Nationals lost to Canada on Sunday and play again Monday night against Australia.

"In the past they've always just been content 'Yeah, we're going to be in the bronze medal game,' but now they're hungry," said general manager Darcy Powless. "They want the gold medal."

This is about more than striving to be champions, Powless said. This is an opportunity to uplift an Indigenous tradition that survived colonialism and the cultural genocide of Indian boarding schools in the U.S. and residential schools in Canada.

"In the past they've always just been content 'Yeah, we're going to be in the bronze medal game,' but now they're hungry," said general manager Darcy Powless.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
"In the past they've always just been content 'Yeah, we're going to be in the bronze medal game,' but now they're hungry," said general manager Darcy Powless.
Haudenosaunee Nationals goalie Warren Hill leaps into the air in their match against England - a contest won by Haudenosaunee 18-5.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
/
Alan Nakkash For NPR
Haudenosaunee Nationals goalie Warren Hill leaps into the air in their match against England - a contest won by Haudenosaunee 18-5.

"They always say play for those who can't, and there's thousands of kids that never got the chance," he said. "You add those up to into families, like that's probably hundreds of thousands of people that never got the opportunity to do anything."

For him, this is about way more than a sporting event.

"Having 30 teams and this many players come to San Diego to play the game that our guys, our people, our families have created and helped grow to this point. It's huge."

Lacrosse is currently shortlisted for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Powless said this tournament is also a chance to show the International Olympic Committee the significance of lacrosse, and the Haudenosaunee's participation.

Young Haudenosaunee Nationals supporters after the England match on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
/ Alan Nakkash For NPR
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Alan Nakkash For NPR
Young Haudenosaunee Nationals supporters after the England match on June 23, 2023, at Torrero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

Copyright 2023 WXXI News

Noelle E. C. Evans
Noelle E. C. Evans is a general assignment reporter/producer for WXXI News with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.

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