There is only one sport played by people that wasn’t invented by humans. That sport is called Tewaaraton, and the people who play it are called the Haudenosaunee. You may know these things better by their Europeanized labels: the sport is lacrosse and the people are the Iroquois. They believe lacrosse is the ‘Gift of the Creator,’ to help them be healthy, resolve disputes, demonstrate creativity and to share a ton of joy. As such, it is way more than sport, it is their ‘Medicine Game.’
Over the past 500 years, the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy have taught the world their game, while struggling to maintain their sovereignty. They have dealt with the Dutch, French and English, individual American states, and the United States itself. (They even influenced the framework of our Constitution with their governance model.) And they have succeeded. The Iroquois Confederacy is an independent nation, and its citizens carry Iroquois passports when they travel internationally.
Which recently caused a problem. In 2010, the paper passports issued by the Iroquois were rejected by England, and as a result the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was denied entry to play in the World Lacrosse Games, even after Secretary of State Clinton pleaded with London. And this insult came at a time when Iroquois players were exploding onto the modern lacrosse scene – with native players flooding onto NCAA teams, and two brothers named Lyle and Miles Thompson winning the Tewaaraton Trophy, the Heisman of lacrosse.
And the challenges continued. For the 2022 World Games, the Iroquois were not included on the list of eight invited teams, despite the fact that they were ranked 3rd in the world, behind only the U.S. and Canada. The lacrosse community erupted in protest, putting the governing body on the hot seat. World Lacrosse reversed course and decided that the Iroquois could compete as long as the governing bodies of both Canada and the United States agreed. But by the time that happened, the field had already been set. Thankfully, the Irish national team, which was ranked the lowest in the field, graciously stepped aside. And with that, the Iroquois Nationals were in.
Though they came in 5th in those games, the Haudenosaunee had their eyes on a bigger prize. The ’22 Games were seen as a dry run for ‘28 Olympics, which will be the first to include men’s and women’s lacrosse. Which leads to the next challenge: the Olympic Committee has only very rarely allowed teams and players to compete unless their nation is an Olympic member, and the Olympics don’t recognize the Iroquois nation. Despite the fact that the Iroquois Confederacy predates the Olympic Committee by, you know, something like several thousand years.
(In the meantime, the Nationals have recently changed their name, from ‘Iroquois’ – a derogatory term, derived from a French variant of a Huron word that means, ‘Snake’ – back to the more traditional, ‘Haudenosaunee,’ which means ‘People of the Longhouse.’)
Which brings us to this past week. Speaking at the Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, standing alongside Deb Haaland, the first native Cabinet Secretary in U.S. history, President Biden supported the cause, saying, “Their ancestors invented the game, they perfected it for millennia, their circumstances are unique, and they should be granted an exception to field their own team at the Olympics.” But so far, the IOC has stood firm and said the Haudenosaunee players can only compete under the banners of the USA or Canada.
And so the struggle continues. And for the time being, we are only left to imagine. The opening ceremony at SoFi stadium; the nations of the world stream in; and in walks a brand new Olympic nation, the Haudenosaunee, under the purple flag of the people of the longhouse.
If and when that happens, after 500 years of teaching their game to others, they will be ones to present it to the world.
That’s some medicine the world could sorely use.
Behold! Tewaaraton, Gift of the Creator.
– Mike Keeler