Lacrosse comes back to Fond du Lac Reservation
Organizers of the first ever lacrosse camp at the Fond du Lac Reservation didn't start with the rules of the game, or a suggested fitness regimen. Instead, they started with a history lesson. The fact that lacrosse was first played by Native Amer...
Organizers of the first ever lacrosse camp at the Fond du Lac Reservation didn't start with the rules of the game, or a suggested fitness regimen. Instead, they started with a history lesson. The fact that lacrosse was first played by Native Americans - not prep school students - was the core of that discussion.
Professional lacrosse player Travis Hill told the 26 Native American teens, whether they knew it or not, lacrosse is in their blood.
"For Natives, there's a deeper connection to the game," said Hill. "We play for different reasons, mainly that it's 'The Creator's Game.' We play to entertain Him. It's a medicine game, too. If someone is sick, they'll call for a game to help them heal."
With the exception of a few boys who had played once or twice in physical education class at school, last week's free LAX-for-Life camp at Fond du Lac was the first time many of the attendees had played lacrosse.
Ranging in age from 12 to 16 (with all the accompanying shapes and sizes of boys in that stage of puberty), the campers embraced the game, learning more skills in the four-day camp than many players grasp in two years of playing, said Andy Arlotta, co-owner of Minnesota Swarm professional indoor lacrosse team.
Area residents embraced the game as well, stopping their cars to watch from the sidelines as the young men trained and scrimmaged each other.
In their helmets, with shoulder and chest pads covered by either a blue or white jersey, it wasn't easy to tell which players were local boys and which came from other reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
No matter. They were learning together, playing together and growing together.
Although Native Americans were playing lacrosse in the Great Lakes region as long as 900 years ago, the sport was nearly lost to its first practitioners. After Montreal dentist William George Beers wrote up formal rules of field lacrosse in the 1860s, the sport gained popularity in Canada as well as the U.K. In 1880 all Native Americans were banned from international competition because it was discovered a few had taken money (likely to pay for travel) to play amateur field lacrosse. The ban would last more than 100 years. Natives who still played were marginalized, because they were unable to play at the sport's highest level.
Enter, box lacrosse. Box lacrosse has fewer players (six on a side), no goalie and moves much more quickly than the 10-on-10 field game. According to a recent Sports Illustrated article on the Iroquois Nationals team, box lacrosse was invented in 1930 "to take advantage of unused hockey rinks" and quickly swept across reservations, mostly on the eastern coast of both the United States and Canada.
In Minnesota, however, the sport didn't experience the same revival.
"What Bear [Bryan "Bear" Bosto, Brookston Community Center manager] is doing here is the first of its kind, for sure in the state of Minnesota," Arlotta said. "I'm thinking there are 55,000 registered Native Americans in the state and 11 tribes and not one that has an organized lacrosse team. Now there's talk about bringing a team from [Fond du Lac] to play in the Indigenous Games next summer."
Last week's camp at Fond du Lac was the result of a partnership between three entities: the Swarm, who provided coaching and technical assistance; Fond du Lac, which provided financial backing as well as the field, food and accommodations; and the I-CARE (Indian Crime Awareness, Research and Evaluation) justice department program, which helped coordinate the camp and bring kids from other reservations.
More than sport
Clint Letch, a Minneapolis police officer working as a consultant for the I-CARE program, recalled the camp's genesis.
"I have been in a lot of closed-door meetings with tribal leaders around the state," Letch said. "They're all concerned about issues like gangs, drugs, violence and diabetes in their communities, and losing their kids to those. Someone asked me, 'What do you think?'
"Then it hit me - lacrosse. Being the Creator's Game, it's a great thing to bring back to the communities. There's no better way to get the kids healthy, respecting themselves, working together."
He talked to the Swarm, who agreed to partner on the camp. From there, it was a matter of finding a good location.
"I love the community here," Letch said. "Fond du Lac is a very progressive tribal community with progressive leadership. I pitched the idea to Chairwoman [Karen] Diver and it went from there.
Last week's four-day camp was much more than a sports camp. Between drills and scrimmages, there were classroom sessions on everything from nutrition to diabetes to tobacco prevention.
Along with knowledge and skills, the campers gained confidence and friendships.
Algin Goodsky, 13, came to camp from East Lake and ended up celebrating his birthday there, away from family. In the end, that was OK with Goodsky.
"This is the best birthday I ever had," he told camp organizers.
Some, like Red Lake's Russell Kingbird II, age 13, planned to start up teams on their home reservations. He'll have some help from Chris Jourdain, who originally planned to bring 10 boys from Red Lake, but the other nine dropped out due to conflicting schedules.
Jourdain said Kingbird was determined to come, however.
"He even called me up at 8 a.m. the morning we were supposed to leave, just to make sure we were still going," Jourdain said. "He knew he was the only kid coming from Red Lake and that didn't deter him. I think that's pretty cool."
Jourdain praised the Fond du Lac leadership for stepping up financially to make the camp happen, noting they purchased all of the equipment needed for the camp.
Does Fond du Lac have a lacrosse team?
"No," answered Bear.
"Not yet," answered Arlotta.
Both men are hoping the answer will be a different one by next summer.
Maybe Arlotta will be drafting a Fond du Lac player in a few years, maybe not. While that would be nice, it wasn't the ultimate goal of last week's camp.
"It's more than just a sport, it's their heritage, their history," Arlotta said. "This is something that can keep them away from drugs and alcohol and gangs. We're empowering them."
And it's fun, say the boys.