To the Great Lakes Indians, the most celebrated lacrosse game was the victory in 1763 of the Ojibway and Sac tribes at the British garrison of Fort Michilimackinac in what is now northern Michigan. The contest wasn't so memorable, but the postgame festivities were.
The game was a ruse to breach the defenses of the garrison during Chief Pontiac's uprising, a period of frequent fighting between the British and the Indians. The two tribes, which had been loyal to the crown, offered to stage the lacrosse game outside the fort in honor of George III's birthday.
"Hundreds of lithe and agile figures were leaping and bounding upon the plain," wrote a trader at the scene. "Rushing and striking, tripping their adversaries or hurling them to the ground, they pursued the contest amid the laughter and applause of the spectators."
The British soldiers streamed out to see the game and left the garrison unguarded. Suddenly, the ball soared into the crowd. The Indians surged after it and on into the fort.
"The shrill cries of the ball players were changed to the ferocious war whoop," the trader wrote. The British were slaughtered but eventually got their revenge. It's hard to find an Ojibway or a Sac these days along the shores of Lake Michigan. But for the next couple of centuries the colonialists were likely to be suspicious whenever Indians proposed any sort of game.
Within the Indian communities, lacrosse was used more for peaceful recreation than wartime strategy. Some Indians began to play a wild-spirited version of the game called box lacrosse, which emphasizes offense and is played in enclosed rinks. Field lacrosse was never abandoned, however, and the Indian team that competed for a spot in the 1932 Olympics featured a midfielder named Harry Smith. He later became known as Jay Silverheels, the actor who played the part of the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto. Lately, the best Indian players have turned up at Syracuse or one of half a dozen other colleges in upstate New York.
Last month, the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy assembled a team to play field lacrosse against Syracuse and Hobart, the NCAA Division I and III champions, at the first Lacrosse International festival, which was held in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins. The occasion was celebrated with chants and ceremonial dances, and there was a 40-foot Canadian red cedar totem pole carved with images of a crab for Maryland, an eagle for the U.S., a turtle for the Indians and a lacrosse player for the festival.
The Iroquois were coached by Sid Jamieson of Bucknell, a Mohawk, and included two sets of brothers from the Tuscarora tribe: the Henrys (attackmen Rob and Ron and Goalie Dale) and the Chryslers (defensemen Randy and Rodger). Ken Fougnier, a 37-year-old Oneida who coaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, started at attack, using an old-fashioned wooden stick; most modern sticks are aluminum and plastic. Unfortunately, the allegiance of the best Indian goalie, Travis Solomon, an Onondaga, was to his alma mater, Syracuse.
For the Iroquois, lacrosse has religious overtones even today. The Indians still play at least one "medicine game" a year—a game rarely discussed because of its sacred meaning. "The Creator gave us this game to settle our differences," said Midfielder Freeman (Boss) Bucktooth, an Onondaga.
In the Syracuse game, the Creator seemed to have taken the day off. The Orange scored six times before the Iroquois ever took a shot. Then Mohawk Attackman Greg Tarbell, a former Syracuse All-America, fired in a 30-footer. "He's my cousin, so I let him score," said Solomon later with a smile.
It was the Iroquois' last shot in the first quarter. They were behind 10-1 at the end of the period and 16-2 at the half in what was shaping up as the Indians' worst defeat since the Battle of Wounded Knee.
The Chrysler brothers were the only guys on their box lacrosse-oriented team who had ever played defense. Syracuse charitably put in its fourth midfield and second attack in the second half, and the final score was 28-5. The Indians, who had practiced together only a few times, lost the faceoffs 29-8 and ground balls 93-44 and took 40 fewer shots on goal. (Three days later they lost to Hobart 22-14.)
Syracuse Coach Roy Simmons Jr., who was an All-America at Syracuse and then played some box lacrosse, had compassion for his opponents. "I'm sure the score would have been a lot different if we were playing their game," he said. But Turtle Clan Chief Oren Lyons, an Onondaga whose nephew played goalie for the Indians, had no excuses and a different concept of strategy. He figured the Iroquois could have used some old-fashioned trading to get a win over Syracuse. "We should have offered them Manhattan," he said.