A new documentary brings lacrosse back to its original owners: the Iroquois
Two summers ago, for the first time ever, an international sporting event took place on indigenous lands. The World Indoor Lacrosse Championship was held on the Onondaga Reservation in upstate New York and was hosted by the Iroquois Nation, or, as they call themselves, the Haudenosaunee.
Today, lacrosse is thought of as white kids' sport played in prep schools in the Northeast, but the sport was invented by the Iroquois Nation some nine centuries ago. For that week in 2015, the sport was back on its home turf. (Spoiler alert: White people usurped that too.)
A new documentary, Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation, dives deep into the Iroquois’ “medicine game,” as it’s known to them, and into how politics and culture collide at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, far removed from the Exeters and Deerfield Academies of the westernized world. The story centers on Iroqouis coach Chief Oren Lyons and his efforts to promote the team and the sports’ indigenous history. It features appearances by Al Gore, Bill Belichick, Jim Brown, and others.
GOOD talked to the film’s codirectors—Oscar- and Emmy-nominated Peter Spirer and Slamdance founder and filmmaker Peter Baxter— about their film and how in Trump's America it’s more important than ever to promote stories that focus on our true history, on belonging in this country, and on how sport can teach us lessons about both.
What was the genesis of this story as a documentary?
Spirer: When I was working on a bigger project surrounding the Iroquois Nation, one of our writers stumbled across the story of Chief Oren Lyons, the man who has worked tirelessly his whole life to promote awareness of his nation’s sovereignty. He is the coach of the Iroquois, this team that travels throughout the world attending lacrosse games and using their indigenous passport, as opposed to an American one. When they go, others have to grapple with, ‘Who are these guys?’ So it has helped their nation tremendously in spreading their message of Native American identity.
There are a lot of themes that run throughout this film: identity, belonging, sport, history. Was there one aspect that held strongest?
Baxter: For Spirit Game, we wove our story around the battle for a world lacrosse championship. Within that, we showed how the game identifies a sovereign indigenous nation. As we were making the film we found out about the Doctrine of Discovery. This is a five-hundred year-old ‘papal bull’ created by Pope Alexander VI that essentially allowed colonists to take apart indigenous civilization. I need to put it more strongly; it's a murderous document that led to the genocide of millions of indigenous people, enabling one civilization to nearly wipe out another. Incredibly, the doctrine is alive today. Though the Iroquois population and land has been taken away during the last 300 years, their spirit remains. It's this spirit involving, as you say, identity, belonging, sport, and history that has given the Haudenosaunee resilience that defies belief. As Chief Lyons said, ‘We've lost many battles, but we've never been defeated.’ This aspect remains strongest to me. It represents the rise of the Iroquois people and, most importantly, what their civilization wants to share with the world.
Why is a documentary like this important in the current American political climate?
Spirer: Our film tells a counternarrative to what's been taught in school. The Discovery Doctrine was probably the most destructive document ever created, and it was all under the auspices of the Catholic Church. So it's a big part of our history that we don't even know about. I think every school kid should know about it, and I think our film is a great way to introduce it. We have an exciting, action-filled movie, but we also have this teaching moment where we can inform people.
What did you take away from spending time with the Haudenosaunee?
Spirer: I learned many things, but I think the most important lesson was that sport isn’t just about winning, but it's the way you play the game, the way you conduct yourself on the field and the effort that you give. The Iroquois’ primary goal is not to win; their primary goal is to please their creator and to play the game in an honorable and beautiful way.
Baxter: I agree with that. My other takeaway was learning about the value of another civilization. Western civilization, the one I grew up in, taught me about principles based on fact. During the making of Spirit Game, I began to see how those so-called facts are false, and from this how history becomes misrepresented. America is still hopeless at recognizing its imperfections and false history. It loves to tell you and then record how well its done, but, as with the Doctrine of Discovery, can't deal with how often its ‘success’ is based on the misery and destruction of those around them. The Iroquois remind us, as incredible survivors, the extent that one civilization needs to truly recognize another in acknowledging historical truth and healing in order to progress. If we can't do that we are lost. The hope Peter and I share in getting the film out there is that it will help with this discussion, to help educate, as well to entertain.