When the Washington Stealth and the Rochester Knighthawks take the floor in the opening game of the 2013 National Lacrosse League season, more than 2,000 Native Americans will be on hand thanks to a cooperative effort by both teams’ management. The two pro teams, which together boast a list of the top Iroquois players, are looking to help grow the game by essentially giving lacrosse back to aboriginal tribes in the Puget Sound region.
Bill Watkins, who has ties to the Chickasaw Nation and is the husband of Stealth owner Denise Watkins, and Knighthawks owner/GM Curt Styres, a Mohawk from Six Nations, form a unique tandem as leaders of sports franchises with ties to the Native community, and the initiative for opening weekend is an extension of an existing outreach effort by the Stealth to engage the many tribes near Everett.
Last year, the Stealth appointed Robert Upham — a member of the Dakota Sioux Tribe — and Dave Waterman — a member of the Onondaga Nation and a former SUNY Cortland player and Iroquois Nationals member — as the team’s Native American liaisons. The Stealth celebrated the team’s Native heritage — highlighted by Brett Bucktooth (Onondaga) and Dean Hill (Six Nations) — and then sent Bucktooth and Hill to an inter-tribal Powwow held at the University of Washington last spring, where they engaged local Natives of all ages and worked to spread word of lacrosse.
That effort, Upham says, helped the Stealth gain momentum heading into the this season as plans were made for a greater effort. Styres offered up help with acquiring tickets to disperse to Natives throughout the area in order to give them the chance to see the game played at the highest level by their fellow natives, as Rochester brings a host of the game’s top aboriginal players to Comcast Arena this weekend.
“This is about connecting Natives with the sport, and once they get to a certain level of understanding it, getting them driven to be involved at the next level,” says Upham, who founded Blue Pony Lacrosse as an instructional and travel program for Native Americans in the Denver area. “I think lacrosse is primed for that. We see many of the Native players have excelled in the sport.”
It’s estimated that 13 tribes from the Puget Sound region will be in attendance. Tickets were given to people from the Payallup, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Skokomish, Squaxin Island, Suquamish, Tulalip, Duwamish, Snoqualmie, Quinault, Chehalis, Yakama, Stillaguamish, Lummi, Makah, Coeur d’Alene, Colville, Blackfoot and more communities. According to Upham, nearly all of the students in some tribe’s schools — 250 to 350 in some cases — will be at the game.
But Upham is also adamant that the event be viewed not only as an effort to bring lacrosse back to tribes in the area, but also an inter-tribal celebration of Native American diversity, featuring tribes from the South East, the South West, Oklahoma and the Northeast Iroquois. There will also be members of the Araphaho, Dakota Sioux, Lakota Sioux, Navajo, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee tribes. Members from almost all of the Iroquois Nation tribes will be on hand.
“This says a lot about the sport of lacrosse and a history that isn’t present in other sports,” Upham says.
The continent’s first sport, lacrosse itself in various forms existed in the region long before European settlers trekked out west. Eventually, Iroquois people traveled to the Northwest with European Missionaries, and it is believed they introduced Natives there to the form of the game developed around Lake Ontario — the basis for the popularized forms of box and field lacrosse.
Native Americans currently located near Vancouver, such as the Squamish, picked up lacrosse, but Upham says the US-Canada border worked to create a bit of a separation and the sport didn’t proliferate across the intangible stripe. And it’s believed that as Natives were forced to integrate into American culture and were placed into American schools, most likely in the late 1800s, lacrosse was lost by those people.
“It’s not that there wasn’t lacrosse out there,” says Styres, who played for the Iroquois Nationals in the early 1980s. “It was sort of taken from them. We are trying to give it back to them, so to speak.”
Upham led the effort to put the tickets in the hands of tribal members, and what he saw was an interest in learning more about the game. Some people actually said they learned of lacrosse through meeting Bucktooth and Hill at the Powwow, while others even referenced the film “Crooked Arrows” as their first exposure to the game.
“The Powwow and the movie ‘Crooked Arrows’ really helped to expose people to lacrosse here,” Upham said.
Crooked Arrows producer Neal Powless — a former All-American at Nazareth College and long-time pro player — and Mitchell Peck will be at the event. And at halftime, select tribal members will engage in a traditional Plains-style Round Dance, which will be performed around an Iroquois flag.
The celebration and outreach effort goes beyond the night of the NLL’s opening contest. Members of the Knighthawks will be staying in the area to visit four of the tribal communities. Through Right to Play, a campaign that Styres and Team 22 Lacrosse have connected with in order to grow lacrosse, the players will be handing out more than 500 Under Armour lacrosse sticks. The reigning league champs will also be bringing the NLL Champion’s Cup to show to community members.
“Curt and the Stealth are doing good things here,” Upham says. “We’re really trying to promote lacrosse. It’s good for our kids to see the excellence of these Native players.”
With the right promotion, Upham says, he believes lacrosse can become as influential as major sports like football, basketball and baseball.
“We need to let the cream rise to the top,” he says, referring to encouraging and helping Native players — who he says have the game engrained in their souls — reach their potential. “If we do that, I think this game could catch other sports. But if we keep trying to package it like other sports, it won’t happen. I think there’s a shortcut through the Native community.”
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