Lacrosse Returns to its Native Roots
Rare game played between two reservation teams to showcase lacrosse as an American Indian sport
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PABLO – As the sun broke through a wall of dark clouds, a group of high school kids wearing lacrosse pads and dirt-streaked jerseys kneeled at the center of a grassy field on the Flathead Indian Reservation, arms on each other’s shoulders, and prayed.
“Dear Creator, we thank you for the opportunity to play your game,” one of the boys said aloud, while the other teenagers and their coaches bowed their heads in reverence. Cars could be heard on the highway but on the field there was only silence except for the boy leading the prayer.
The teenagers were gathered at the Two Eagle River School football field that day for a rare lacrosse matchup between two teams from Western American Indian reservations. In fact, none of the coaches or parents were aware of any other reservation lacrosse teams in the West beyond those two teams – 10Sticks of the Flathead Indian Reservation and Nadzitsaga affiliated with the Burns Paiute Tribe in Oregon – except for a team from Prairie Island, Minn., if that counts as the West.
“Those are the three we know of,” said Alex Alviar, program director for the Flathead’s 10Sticks lacrosse team. “West of the Mississippi you’ve got almost zero reservations fielding lacrosse teams that we know of. Maybe they’re out there but I can’t find any mention of them.”
Alviar said both teams, the players and coaches, grasped the significance of the April 27 game in Pablo, from a cultural and historical perspective. The Oregon team had eagerly made the long trip for the chance to promote lacrosse’s native origins.
“We’re both really trying to showcase lacrosse as an important contribution to the world,” Alviar said before the game started. “This is a big day.”
Lacrosse is an American Indian game, indigenous to North American tribes in a variety of forms. Some tribes of the Northwest, including those that inhabited parts of Montana, played a game called double ball. A French Jesuit priest named Jean de Brebeuf is credited with coining the term “lacrosse” after observing American Indians out east playing the game in the 1630s.
On that recent Friday evening on the Flathead Reservation, proud coaches and parents looked on as a new generation of kids, both with American Indian heritage and not, played the “Creator’s game.” The Flathead team was short-handed from injuries and other absences, but even in losing 18-4 the 10Sticks crew was chipper. Alviar and JR Daniels, 10Sticks’ head coach, looked as if they could not have cared less about the score. The day was a success.
For Daniels and Alviar, the game between 10Sticks and Nadzitsaga was an important step in achieving their vision of reintroducing lacrosse to Western Indian communities. Alviar, a teacher at Salish Kootenai College and a longtime lacrosse enthusiast, started the 10Sticks program last year amidst a sudden rise in the sport’s popularity in Montana, with teams sprouting up across the state.
Alviar said after a 16-year hiatus from the sport he began playing for a Missoula team in 2010. One evening he brought up the idea of starting a reservation team to Kevin Flynn, who has been instrumental in lacrosse’s recent growth across Montana. Flynn said “all you need is 10 kids,” which gave birth to the team’s 10Sticks name. A program was born.
Daniels, who has years of lacrosse coaching experience in Indiana, signed on later and took over day-to-day head coaching duties while Alviar holds the position of program director, heading up the logistical side of running a team: securing grants, organizing games and so on.
Now in its second year, the 10Sticks team has 15 kids from Arlee to St. Ignatius to Polson. In addition to growing the local program, Daniels said he and Alviar hope to encourage other reservations to start their own programs. After conversations with people on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Daniels said there is plenty of interest there but so far no coach has emerged.
“Alex and I have spent a lot of time talking about building a template,” Daniels said. “Then we can take it to other reservations and start it there.”
Toward the end of the April 27 game, parents and spectators on the sidelines discussed the players’ postgame meal. Would there be fry bread? Yes, was the definitive answer. Conversation then drifted into heritage. Three parents, thinking of the players’ family trees, quickly identified more than a half-dozen different tribes represented on the field and sidelines: Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Arapaho, Salish, Kootenai, Navajo and more.
Wendy Askan chatted on the sidelines with Aileen Plant. Askan’s sons, Michael and Ambrose Brown, and Plant’s son, Al Plant, carpool together from Arlee each day for lacrosse practice. The three boys attend Arlee High School. Al Plant’s cousin, Jarrod Plant of Polson, also plays on the team and his father was refereeing the game.
“I think it’s important to have a team like this on the reservation for awareness reasons,” Askan said. “I think it’s important for people to see it.”
Jarrod Plant said the game’s native origins have meaning for him.
“It’s great to know the roots of the game and the spiritual connection,” he said.
After the game, the players, coaches and parents gathered in a classroom on the Salish Kootenai College campus, munching on fry bread and other snacks. Alviar introduced kids from both teams to double ball, which he said was played by a number of tribes in the Northwest. The kids quickly took to the game, first playing in a circle inside the classroom and then moving outside for a more rambunctious rendition.
Watching the kids eagerly engage in a double ball game immediately after a hard-fought lacrosse match demonstrated to Alviar that this younger generation was truly embracing the “Creator’s game.” He was thrilled.
“That to me right there is the real true vision of the program and what we’re aiming to do – bringing kids together who are often complete strangers, making links to lacrosse as a native game and also making links to native culture,” Alviar said.
“That why we’re here, to provide those games and let those games be what brings people together.”