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With a new name, this Indigenous team is honoring the sacred origin of lacrosse

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Noelle E. C. Evans
Two teammates of the Haudenosaunee Nationals women's team attend a tryout for the upcoming Super Sixes tournament in Canada. Sept. 19, 2022.

Bean Minerd runs onto the field wearing a white pinny with the word “Haudenosaunee” printed across her chest. Some of the other players wear older ones that read “Iroquois Nationals” instead.

“It feels liberating when you get to ... put the Haudenosaunee jersey on and get to wear it around and play and know (where) you're coming from,” Minerd says.

Listen to the podcast version of this story on Ear Shot >>

After nearly 30 years as the Iroquois Nationals, Haudenosaunee lacrosse athletes are embracing their roots as they vie to be world champions. The Indigenous lacrosse program’s name changed earlier this year to better represent the people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, who travel on their own sovereign passports.

Minerd is one of about 20 athletes here at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park on a Sunday in late September. They’re competing for a spot in an international tournament this month in Canada: The Super Sixes.

“I'm from Onondaga,” Minerd says. “I represent my people and my nation, as well as I get to represent everyone from all across Indigenous countries.”

The word Iroquois is rooted in colonial influences. It’s a French variant of a word that the Algonquin American Indians bestowed on the Haudenosaunee people around the 1600s during the Fur Trade Wars.

The word “Iroquois” is derogatory. The Algonquins and Haudenosaunee were enemies. While there’s no clear definition of the word, it is often understood as meaning “snake” -- but according to a researcher with the University of Amsterdam, based on the etymology, the word could also mean “murderers.”

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Noelle E. C. Evans
Haudenosaunee lacrosse players scrimmage in a tryout in Orchard Park for an international tournament in Canada in October.

‘We created it’

To center the teams’ identity from within their indigenous nations’ roots is a matter of justice, Minerd says. This is where the sport of lacrosse, as it is known today, came from.

“We created it. So, you know, it's just like paying that respect,” Minerd says. “It's supposed to be a gift, and it’s a gift of peace and bringing everyone together as one.”

The origins of lacrosse go back centuries, when it was part of sacred medicine games. According to the Smithsonian Institute, Indigenous nations across North America often played lacrosse ceremonially to cure illness or prevent it. Among them: the Cherokee in the southeast, the Menominee in what is now Wisconsin, the Winnebago in current-day Nebraska, and the Mexican Kickapoo.

Researchers with the Smithsonian Institute say it has also been performed as funeral and memorial rites, so long as someone requests a game be played. Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons says it has been a way to lift spirits and settle disputes within a community and between communities, as well.

But the complex history of lacrosse goes back much, much further in time, Lyons says.

“That game was in our cosmology,” says Lyons, chairman of the Haudenosaunee Nationals. “That game was played on the other side of the stars, while the Earth was still covered with water.”

Lyons, 92, is a legendary lacrosse goalie himself. He and the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee founded the Haudenosaunee Nationals program back in the early 1980s. At the time it was known as the “Iroquois Nationals.”

Their teams compete internationally, including at the World Games this past summer.

However, that tournament appearance almost didn’t happen. Initially, the Haudenosaunee were barred from participating because organizers said they were not from a sovereign nation and therefore were not eligible, despite ranking third in World Lacrosse, according to NPR.

In response, the Irish team dropped out, giving the spot to the Haudenosaunee.

"As far as I can see, (lacrosse is) the only peaceful game that we have with our non-native brothers,” Lyons says. “They love that game. The players know. They know there's something special about that game, but they don't really understand how deep it is. We said, ‘Don't you worry about that. You just behave yourself and play the game.’”

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Noelle E. C. Evans
Claudia Jimerson, program director of the Haudenosaunee Nationals women's division, oversees the Super Sixes tryout in Orchard Park.

Game’s restorative power remains

In Orchard Park at the team tryout, women’s program director, Claudia Jimerson stands on the sideline carrying a clipboard under her arm and wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. She watches the scrimmage intently.

“It's really been a blessing for me to see how the game has evolved,” Jimerson says. “Because it's so fun to watch now.”

Jimerson also has a storied career in the sport. In 2013, she played in the World Games in 2013 alongside her teenage daughter. Jimerson turned 40 just after the tournament ended.

Her work is about more than preparing for the next tournament. It’s about developing and uplifting excellence among the athletes on and off the field. It's also about serving the community of Haudenosaunee people and Indigenous people at large.

“Our people have suffered a lot of trauma through the years,” she says. “And we're at the point now, where we acknowledge it, and we claim it, but now it's time to break that cycle.”

Just as lacrosse was created as a medicine game, that same restorative power exists today, Jimerson says.

“Part of why we can do that is to empower our young people to believe in themselves and let them know that, you know, this game is a part of who we are, but it's also given to us to help heal,” she says.

Lacrosse is currently on the shortlist for the 2028 Olympics. If it ends up being included, Jimerson wants to see the Haudenosaunee represent their people and what the game stands for.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.