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An Indigenous lacrosse team is reclaiming its native identity

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A top lacrosse team is reclaiming its Indigenous identity after generations of being known as the Iroquois Nationals. Current team members say that name was derogatory. Noelle Evans of member station WXXI caught up with the team just before the world championship.

NOELLE EVANS, BYLINE: We're in the parking lot of a hotel near the Buffalo International Airport. Lacrosse player Tehoka Nanticoke stands by a pickup truck, where there's a handful of equipment duffel bags.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER OPENING)

TEHOKA NANTICOKE: These are what - so that's a helmet.

EVANS: That's pretty.

NANTICOKE: Yeah.

EVANS: He holds up a helmet with a pattern of repeating squares and a leaf - a symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy wampum. Nanticoke played with this team when they were known as the Iroquois Nationals. The origin of the word Iroquois is the subject of debate, but present-day Haudenosaunee connect it to a French variant of snake and murderer. Leo Nolan is the executive director of the Haudenosaunee Nationals program.

LEO NOLAN: The Iroquois is a bit of a disparaging label more than anything else. We really felt it was incumbent upon us to really look at who we really are and how we refer to ourselves.

EVANS: Haudenosaunee means people of the longhouse. The name officially changed last year. Under their former name, the team won bronze at the last World Lacrosse Championship. Nanticoke agrees with the name change, but he says he doesn't feel any difference on the field.

NANTICOKE: It's awesome now that we have the Haudenosaunee, but it's always been our people who we're playing for.

EVANS: His family is the reason he became a lacrosse player. His older brother gave him his first lacrosse stick as a baby. His grandfather, Papa Jote, encouraged him to pursue it.

NANTICOKE: I write Jote on my wrist every time 'cause I tape my wrist up 'cause - (crying) no one really knows this, but, like, my Papa Jote on, like, his deathbed, like, basically told me to go play lacrosse.

EVANS: Lacrosse comes from the Haudenosaunee tradition. For centuries, it has been embraced as a sacred gift from the creator, ceremonially played as a medicine game.

LARS TIFFANY: I grew up with the Onondaga people. This is the people who gave us the game of lacrosse.

EVANS: Lars Tiffany is a white man who is now the team's head coach. He shows me some footage of the team playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible, shouting).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's go, let's go. Let's go, let's go...

TIFFANY: It's amazing the talent that you can find with the Haudenosaunee men.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Let's go, let's go, let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

TIFFANY: I don't believe there's another game that is connected to a spirituality like this game is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: What?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: If you want to grab it, I'll leave it...

EVANS: He says this is the spirit and intensity they'll bring with them to the World Lacrosse Championship. But right now, they're waiting on a few more players to arrive ahead of an early morning flight to San Diego, where they will compete among 30 different nations. General manager Darcy Powless says the energy this time around feels different.

DARCY POWLESS: They're hungry. They want the gold medal.

EVANS: Powless says this is about more than striving to be champions. This is an opportunity to uplift an indigenous tradition that survived colonialism and the cultural genocide of Indian boarding schools.

POWLESS: They always say, play for those who can't. And there's thousands of kids that never got the chance. You add those up to - in the families - like, that's probably hundreds of thousands of people that never got an opportunity to do anything.

EVANS: So for him, this is about way more than a sporting event.

POWLESS: Having 30 teams and this many players come to San Diego to play the game that our people, our families have created and helped grow to this point - it's huge.

EVANS: Lacrosse is currently shortlisted for the 2028 Olympics. Powless says the tournament is also a chance to show the International Olympic Committee the significance of lacrosse and the Haudenosaunee's participation.

For NPR News, I'm Noelle Evans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noelle E. C. Evans
Noelle E. C. Evans is a general assignment reporter/producer for WXXI News with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.