THE sport of lacrosse is hardly mainstream, it’s anything but.
However, it is a sport you have heard of, there’s every chance your school included it in a physical education class and whilst it isn’t basketball, soccer or athletics it is a game played all over the world.
There are world championships every four years with too an indoor world championship occurring quadrennially in between, all four corners of the Earth are represented in a sport definitely on the rise internationally.
As it is their national summer sport, the Canadians are one of the worlds very best, along with the United States, Australia and the UK nations.
The majority of world championships have been won by the two North American powerhouses, the passion and pride of the Canadians, the brute force and resources of the Americans.
But there’s one ‘national team’ in world lacrosse which stands up to these two heavyweights in a sheer display of wonderment, astonishment and an homage to history.
A ‘country’ that has only been allowed participation by the world governing body since the late 80s, a team that plays for a lot more than money and success but to represent their ancestors going back thousands and thousands of years.
This team is the Iroquois Nationals, and this is their remarkable story.
Firstly, who are the Iroquois exactly? Loosely, they are the indigenous people of north eastern North America, primarily from the US state of New York and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
Six nations made up this confederacy as first discovered by the early French settlers. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘Mohawk’ associated with Native Americans, that refers to one of the six peoples that make up the Iroquois league of nations.
Of course, like with many parts of the world and its story, there are countless stories of conflict between these indigenous civilisations and the French, English and Dutch who formed new colonies in what we now know today as the heavily populated area between New England on the Atlantic and the Great Lakes further north.
So today, they have little left but to hold onto their story and traditions like the Indigenous people all over the world do, particularly as the Western world now rules the roust in the areas they once not only called home, but had all to themselves.
One of those traditions is indeed lacrosse; the Iroquis people actually invented the sport far before it became a prominent sport in the universities and colleges of North America.
As a result we have seen many Native Americans and Canadians make it in the sport’s elite competitions, much alike the Indigenous heroes celebrated in Australian Rules football.
But depending on what side of the 49th parallel you were from, the Iroquois’ best lacrosse players would represent Canada or the USA at international level.
However, such is the talent, the history and the narrative around these people, this wonderfully ancient but ever so interesting pocket of indigenous North America, in 1987 the International Lacrosse Federation made a landmark decision.
They granted the Iroquois nationals, the people of those six nations that have been grouped together for donkeys’ years, admission as its own team into international competition.
Sons, grandsons, and young girls too, all just another chapter in an amazing lineage of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples, could now represent their ancestry on the world stage.
Sure, the world championships in lacrosse aren’t the FIFA World Cup, but it’s a far cry from the Geelong table tennis regionals, so this was quite an accomplishment.
It should be pointed out that whilst the United States, for example, has a population of over 300 million to draw its best lacrosse players from, only 130,000 people identify as being Iroquois – that’s the population of Bendigo.
So every two years, be it an outdoor or indoor championships year, the Iroquis national team fronts up to play the likes of England, Japan, Serbia, Australia and of course, the might of the United States and Canada.
To those outside of North America very few would recognise, understand, and cruelly be tolerant of what may appear as a novelty or disrespect to the tradition of truly recognised sovereignties participating at such an event.
Sure, it’s a wonderful gesture to have the founders of the sport participate as their own side but they aren’t a nation, everyone in that side was clearly born within the well-known borders of Canada or the United States.
But the success of this team has been far more profound that anyone could imagine, be it the celebrators, the supporters or even those naysayers or detractors.
Because don’t forget, whilst ‘western’ North America, ‘white’ North America, has played this sport for some time now, it’s only been five minutes compared to the Iroquois people.
And whilst it’s too hard to scientifically understand, it appears that long history pays off – because the Iroquois are remarkable.
Where you see refugee teams participate under the IOC flag at the Olympics, you get a tear in your eye at the notion of their story full well in the knowledge they’ll be non-competitive, but who cares, think of the story.
Now with the Iroquois it’s a bit different. The team can already attest to being a great story but they are far from non-competitive.
In six of the seven world outdoor championships they’ve participated in they’ve finished no lower than fifth and in the most recent edition in Denver two years ago, they won the Bronze medal, defeating Australia twice during the tournament.
And whilst they weren’t able to get over the might of the USA or Canada, they ran Canada to within one goal in the pool stages.
Their indoor world championship record is even better, they’ve played in all four editions and been runner-up every time, in 2007 they got so close narrowly losing the Gold Medal game in overtime.
One day they will win a world championship. They are immensely talented and inspired, by not wearing the maple leaf of Canada, or the red, white and blue of the United States, but the totem-style eagle symbol that represents their people and has done so for generations.
Players often wear their hair in the traditional style, long and platted down their backs, representing their ancestors; whilst their lands may have been taken their spirit lives on through this national identity on the lacrosse field.
Indigenous sporting stars are, in relative terms, starting to receive the kudos they deserve for their talents and not discounted for the colour of their skin.
We see in Australia that racism against our indigenous AFL and NRL heroes is thankfully waning and we put the likes of Cyril Rioli and Jonathon Thurston high on a pedestal not just because they are fantastic at their craft but because they are great examples of a people who were here long before Captain Cook landed.
But take a moment to reconcile the feats of the Iroquois national team. Do an image search on them and let what appears speak for itself.
Sure, they aren’t a ‘proper’ country. They never have been. They are effectively a collective of old Native tribes dating back to yesteryear BC.
But the fact such a tiny population, built, fantastically built, on years of history, years of pride, years of family and love for their people, can step up on the world stage and take on the might of the bigger countries and succeed; you couldn’t make this stuff up.
They will win a world championship one day soon, they just will. And I hope the rest of the world, even though its ‘just’ lacrosse, can sit up and recognise just what an achievement, and statement, it would be in the pages of our planet’s history.