Lacrosse offers lessons in community, Native American culture

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 1-08

On Tracy Goodluck’s office wall are two sets of sticks central to a game that has long been used to train Native Americans for war, solve disputes between tribes and bring out the competitive spirit.

She talks about the days when lacrosse was played to bring tribal ceremonies to an end.

The sport is immensely popular among tribes in the eastern United States and in Ivy League schools. And Thursday’s scrimmage between students at the Native American Community Academy could be a sign that the sport is attracting a following in the Southwest.

“It was really neat to see a bunch of Native American students playing an Indigenous game but not really indigenous to the Southwest,” said Goodluck, the dean at the academy. “This is something I never thought I’d see.”

Nearly 50 players and coaches from Dickinson College, a liberal arts school in Carlisle, Pa., traveled to New Mexico to teach young tribal members the basics of the game.

They spent the a week of their winter break conducting lacrosse clinics at the academy and at Laguna and Taos pueblos. They also planted trees along the Rio Grande and made a walkway and garden area at the academy.

“It was a decision we made as a team,” said head coach Dave Webster. “Part of the commitment we’re making is to make a difference on and off the field, and this is part of our learning experience.”

The team also donated 20 sets of equipment, including sticks, gloves and pads, to the American Indian charter school that represents students from 45 tribes.

Before the school opened in August 2006, officials brainstormed to come up with sports that could be taught that also would offer lessons in culture and community.

Few of the students knew about lacrosse but easily picked up the game, said James Simermeyer, who coaches lacrosse in an after-school program at NACA.

Through readings and discussions, students learned that the origin of the game varies from tribe to tribe and region to region. Most often it’s seen as a gift from the creator and tribes use it to teach children about fair play and acceptance, Simermeyer said.

Thomas Vennum, who has written two books on the subject, said today’s college game is similar to that played by Mohawk Indians in the 1850s and 1860s. School children in Montreal copied what they saw on the nearby Mohawk reservation, he said.

In New York, six Indian reservations have lacrosse teams that compete against one another, said Gary Sundown, president of the North American Minor Lacrosse Association.

For Sundown, the game he has played since he was a toddler represents tradition, pride and honor. Even though his son hasn’t learned to walk yet, Sundown has placed a lacrosse stick in his bassinet to get him familiar with the equipment.

“There’s certain things you teach your kids, and lacrosse is one of them,” said Sundown, a member of the Tonawanda Seneca tribe.

At NACA, between 20 and 40 students participate in an after-school program that allows them to play lacrosse at least twice a week. By springtime, school officials hope to have a team assembled.

Brittany Lucero, 12, of San Felipe Pueblo, said she’s thinking about joining the team.

As the Dickinson lacrosse players left Thursday, she handed them a letter she wrote to say thank you for the walkway and for teaching her how to play lacrosse.

“It was fun because they taught us how to pass and scoop up the ball, which was really easy,” she said. “I hope they come back one day.”