Spirit Game: Pride of a NationFilm Review
By Doug George-Kanentiio From the beginning, when the Iroquois emerged as a distinct people thousands of years ago, they played lacrosse. It was a sport influenced by the observation of the natural world, of those species of birds and animals which are engaged in contests for food, territory and for joy. The Iroquois taught the game to other Native nations until it became widely popular throughout North America long before the arrival of the immigrants from the east. It was the ideal means to channel the energy of the young into games in which they won individual honors and brought prestige to their communities. It was also a way for nations to resolve disputes and, in the ceremonial version, to bring pleasure to the spirit beings. Lacrosse enabled the nations to avoid actual war while it had healing properties, able to reduce stress and bring about excitement. When the Europeans saw the game they were impressed with its importance to the people. A game might involve hundreds of players over a field which stretched for hundreds of meters. The game then, as now, required the players to use their webbed, curved sticks to pass and carry a ball through an opposing team and use skill and trickery to hurl the ball pass a goal tender into a net. In former times games may have lasted for days and attracted thousands of spectators from great distances. The Iroquois were considered the best players and when the game was taken to a set field with specific rules this did not change. A team of primarily Mohawk players went across the ocean to demonstrate the game to the English who quickly adapted to its demands. The Canadians were so grateful they made lacrosse the national sport, later adding hockey for the winter months. In the latter part of the 1800’s the Native players were pushed out of formal leagues but in 1904 a Mohawk team went to the St. Louis Olympics and scored a bronze medal but lacrosse as a formal game was removed after the 1908 Games. Thereafter, it would be played only on an exhibition status. For decades in the 20th century the Iroquois were excluded from competing in lacrosse as a singular team. Individual players like John White, Angus George (my uncle), Angus Thomas, Gaylord Powless and Ernest Mitchell were acknowledged as masters of the game but there was no chance for them to play as a united all Native team on par with the other nations. In 1983 after intense lobbying the Federation of International Lacrosse granted full status to the natives resulting in the creation of the Iroquois Nationals. The team would compete against the US, Canada, England, Australia, Wales and other nations travelling to tournaments using their own passports and marching into stadiums carrying an eagle staff and later the purple and white Hiawatha flag. It would take many years for the Iroquois to challenge the established lacrosse powers. In North America there are over 850,000 players from youth to the college level and beyond involving men and women. From that ocean of players Canada and the US are able to select the best on contrast to the Iroquois Nationals who draw from a pool of 400. Despite this, in recent years the Iroquois have proven to be the equal of both Canadians and Americans. Iroquois teams have won many of the past few Canadian box lacrosse titles and they have keyed national college championships in the US. The Iroquois Nationals were prevented from competing in the 2010 World Tournament by their former allied the British but they secured the bronze four years later and along the way thoroughly spanked Team England. In the box lacrosse (indoor) version the Nationals have won four consecutive silver medals, losing at each turn to the Canadians. In 2015 the Onondaga Nation hosted the World Indoor Lacrosse Tournament with the Iroquois Nationals fielding its best team ever. It was the first time in history a Native nation had sponsored a world sports event of any kind and there was great expectations that the Nationals would end the games with a gold medal. They did not, losing to Team Canada during two games in which critical goals scored by the Iroquois were negated by highly controversial, and upon replay, unwarranted calls by the referees. Yet the skills shown by the Iroquois Nationals and the ability of the Onondaga Nation to hold such an event were there for the world to see. Now it remains for lacrosse to return to the Olympics and the Iroquois Nationals to march in the procession of nations. It is this narrative which the producers of Spirit Game have summarized with clarity and skill in their new documentary. The directors Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter had over 900 hours of film, some dating back to the 1930’s, to edit in a 90 minute documentary. They achieved this while showing the power of the game from the use of multiple cameras during the 2015 tournament to scenes from the home of the Thompson family at Onondaga, a remarkable set of very close relatives who have become the best players in the world because of their natural abilities and their respect for themselves, their heritage and the sanctity of the game itself. The directors show the emergence of lacrosse and its rise to popularity in the 19th century. They use archival photos blended with interviews with Iroquois leaders and former players. They were given unique access into the homes and lives of the Iroquois people with the expectation they would tell the Native story. They have done so. The action sequences and backgrounds are wonderfully matched by the music of Marcus Boeltz and Joanne Shenandoah. The producers Oren Lyons, Gayle Anne Kelley, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross and Peter Spirer did not back away from the game’s political aspects. They tell how the Natives were banned and of the decades long struggle to regain their former status. They weave the story of lacrosse with the fight for Native nations to secure self determination and the right to exercise full sovereignty over their lands. The camera crew follows the Iroquois to various events and highlights the effort to meet Pope Francis I to ask him to revoke the various Doctrines of Discovery, those edicts issued by the Catholic Church which grants European powers the “right” to take indigenous lands and suppress Native culture. The Iroquois were not given a chance to make their presentation to the pope but the games carried on. Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation is the best documentary ever done on a Native sport and stands alone in placing a game within the broader context of the fight for Native rights. The producers pull the strands of the story together, weaving family, community, spirituality, sports and politics in a manner never done before by anyone in any media. The film sets a high standard for addressing the most compelling issues and concerns of the Iroquois while capturing the spirit of the game. As much as the viewer winces when a player is pressed hard into the boards of an arena they also cringe when the Iroquois are refused an equal place on a human rights hearing before the Pope or when the Canadians inexplicably refuse to have their team passports stamped at Onondaga and thereby standing alone when the other teams (among them Israel, Turkey, Serbia, the USA and, yes, England) did so. Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation is a testament to the power of lacrosse but also to those Native nations who have endured. While lacrosse has given the Iroquois Nations the right to stand as a politically distinct people on one front full acknowledgment as a free, independent nation remains qualified on almost all the Iroquois territories beset by the active, and unwarranted, intrusion of the US and Canada. But for the Iroquois Nationals the gold medal is in sight and Spirit Game deserves its own awards for bringing the truth of the game to light. Every Native nation needs to see this film, every Native kid will be inspired by it. It is a must see for all lacrosse players and for those who may have not seen the game but an interest in Native people. As they say with regards to lacrosse, the game, the film is like nothing else on earth. Spirit Game can be ordered through One Bowl Productions (onebowlproductions.com) or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Doug George-Kanentiio,Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.