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Could A 'Spirit Game' Be The Medicine We Need?

Before the earth was even here, when it was just stars and the sky, a game was played: lacrosse.

"Our cosmology says that what's on the other side of the stars is a reflection of what's here," Chief Oren Lyons tells me. "In that story, on the other side, they're playing the game."

I didn't know this, and Lyons does not pull any punches.

"You know very, very little of your own history."

The tone of the Lacrosse Hall-of-Famer, Syracuse All-American, and global human rights leader who has worked with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu is unfailingly strong but devoid of ego.

It's also unapologetically devoid of any attempt to operate within the comfortable space of the narrative of American history that gets so neatly packaged as a lovely communal dinner between "Indians" and "Pilgrims" by institutions like, for example, every school I attended as a child.

Lyons doesn't care how little control I have over the actions of preceding generations. He speaks to me in a way that reminds me that none of that matters because the present is my responsibility. I can't help but wonder whether I even knew this before I spoke with him.

The story Lyons tells me is one of an against-all-odds victory, impossibly-achieved, tirelessly-fought — the kind of story that motivates, moves, and changes.

Buckle up — the ball will go where it will go.

Anyone who believes in a holy division between politics, society and sports can check that at the door of the Iroquois Confederacy. Oren Lyons can't remember the first Medicine Game he ever played, but the 87-year-old does remember his most recent appearance -- two years ago.

"Sometimes you have 80 men out there playing," he says. "It's very rough. It relates to the spiritual side."

The best lacrosse players in the world probably played in Medicine Games before they ever thought about the existence of the professional leagues that they now dominate.

That's because the best lacrosse players in the world grow up in the sovereign nation for which Lyons is responsible. Geographically located in upstate New York, its people have played lacrosse for thousands of years as a healing, community ceremony — a Medicine Game.

In 2015, as Lyons' new documentary, "Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation" chronicles, the Iroquois hosted the World Lacrosse Championships on native soil for the first time in history.

And the best players in the world?

They're Iroquois.

The recognition and acclaim that Iroquois players have recently attracted has been hard won, but perhaps not quite as hard won as their battle for recognition as a sovereign nation on the world stage.

And lacrosse has played a vital role in defining and standing up for the Iroquois Confederacy's right to exist.

Growing up, Lyons describes an idyllic childhood, where he would eat dinner at the home to which he was nearest in the early evening, where he would hunt and feed himself and others, where each generation cared for the next. He had no consciousness of racism or the violent history to which his people had been subjected until he attended Syracuse University. He became politically active in his native confederacy -- a participatory democracy based on compassion, peace, and "the Good Mind," concurrently with his success on the lacrosse field.

A heralded goalie, Lyons accepted the biggest defensive responsibility of all off the field-- protecting the right of his people to exist.

The fact this right remains deeply under threat may be best expressed in cold, hard, irrefutable numbers.

"In just North America, the 1900 census for Native people in the U.S. was a little over 250,000," Lyons says.

Prior records show a Native Population of between 10,000,000 and 16,000,000. Lyons poses a chilling question.

He adds, "That's a very difficult history to have."

The massive institutional denial in the United States about the genocide that unraveled as European immigrants stole land and slaughtered native people around the country means that our history in America remains open and contested. Wounds fester, instead of heal.

Lyons insists that such denial affects the direction that the country and the world are headed, and the existential crisis unfolding on the global stage.

"You have archives full of history that you don't teach to the general public," Lyons says. "The American public basically is ignorant of the native people here. You've not been told."

When I ask him why this is the case, he responds with questions of his own.

Lyons once asked a United States senator the "Why Not?" question.

"He said, 'Benign neglect. That's what we call what we do to Native peoples.' How can neglect be benign?"

So throughout his life, Lyons chose to fight that pervasive doublespeak, that threat to his very existence, by channeling the power of sport.

In 1977, he led a group of Indigenous people to Geneva, Switzerland, to challenge what was happening to Indigenous people in the U.S. and establish the sovereign status of Indigenous nations. The lacrosse goalie was legendary for his impenetrable defense, but his offense wasn't exactly lacking, either.

"We were persistent, and we were not backing down."

In 1982, The League of Nations gave them a designation, a working group for Indigenous Nations.

"We were very happy," Lyons says. "We were at the very bottom level of the human rights division. But we were there."

Lyons simultaneously applied that pressure in the world of lacrosse, as he petitioned in the 1980's for the Iroquois to join the Federation of International Lacrosse as a sovereign nation, representing themselves and their territory.

Initially, he was ignored.

And then his phone rang at 4 A.M.

The Haudenosaunee would appear on the world stage, and compete in the Lacrosse World Championships -- not as Canadians, not as Americans, but as Iroquois.


Lyons never censors himself. There is an urgency and a truth in his voice that stems from a deep capacity to care for causes and people he may not even know.

"What you have today," he says, "is a culture without compassion, a culture that's built on commerce instead of community. There's a big difference."

As Lyons says this, I wonder, would it be so hard to walk across the bridge of that divide?

"We're going to face the future as a human species. We have to be accountable."

He seems to think that with a little shift, a little responsibility, and maybe a little Medicine, we can.

In a Medicine Game, there are no boundaries, no limits, just the two goals. Every year in Onandaga, the Capital of the Iroquois Confederacy, the community plays a Medicine Game as soon as the snow begins to clear in the springtime.

"The game is played with intention for the (Iroquois Nationals) players to have a good life, not get hurt. It's played for the nations, and welfare for all people. Individual Medicine Games are played throughout the year for benefit, for welfare, and requires a different level of participation at the spiritual level," says Lyons.

"It's always fun, as well."

Now, teams like the United States and Canada play lacrosse in what Lyons calls its "secular" form.

"Today, there are referees, rules, stipulations. It's quite contained, quite domesticated," Lyons says.

In the sovereign Haudenosaunee Nation, anyone can approach the Nation's leaders and ask for a Medicine Game to be played. They could be ill, or depressed, or in need in any way at all.

The remedy? Lacrosse, in its deeply spiritual original form.

Maybe the Medicine Game will continue after, once again, there are just the stars.

And maybe, too, its healing power can save us all.


Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation screens October 8 at the Roxie in San Francisco. For tickets, click here.