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History, Tradition and the Modern Game of Lacrosse on the White House Lawn

Right after Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, eloquently described the cultural significance of the traditional lacrosse stick- the wood that connects us to the forests, the leather string that connects us to the four-legged creatures, and the medicine existing in the ball- a lone Hawk started circling above the White House. It was a moment I will never forget, admiring the contrast of the beautiful bird against the bright blue sky while listening to Iroquois Confederacy Tadodaho Sid Hill’s traditional Onondaga blessing presented in his Native language. I was lucky enough to see the reaction in Alf Jacques, Traditional Stick Maker, and Native lacrosse stars Brett Bucktooth and Jeremy Thompson from the Iroquois National team. It was 92 degrees and I had goosebumps, an early indication that this South Lawn Series (SLS) was going to be special.

The SLS supports the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, providing youth access to fun, physical activity on the White House lawn. Monday the game of lacrosse was highlighted for the first-time. Over 100 youth, including Native American youth from the Menominee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Native Lifelines of Baltimore, as well as local youth from Annapolis and DC, participated in traditional and modern lacrosse stations to highlight one of the First Lady’s newest initiatives, Let’s Move! in Indian Country.

New lacrosse stars are sighted at one of the five stations. Photo courtesy of DOI/Gary Garrison.

During the America’s Great Outdoors Listening Session tour last summer I heard Native young people ask for more opportunities to connect to their cultural heritage through sport, education and outdoor activities. This week, I saw the look in their eyes as they learned about the origins of lacrosse from Sid Hill, in traditional dress, and caught passes from today’s modern lacrosse heroes, Danny Glading and Jenny Collins.

“There truly is a higher calling to the sport of lacrosse. Watching the men from Onondaga: Oren, Sid, Alf, Brett and Jeremy, impulsively start throwing the ball around with their wooden sticks, I could see the inherent love and purity of the game” said Department of the Interior Fellow Kevin Discepolo, who formerly played lacrosse at Yale. “I attribute that passion to lacrosse’s increasing popularity in the country, and hope some of the kids were inspired to continue playing after today’s event.”

Chefs from the National Museum of the American Indian taught the event’s attendees about healthy, traditional foods while Jacques explained how he makes his beautiful, traditional wooden sticks. At another station, representatives from the Muscogee Nation Museum and Cultural Center and the Menominee Reservation spoke of the history and traditions of their region’s style of the sport.After learning about the game’s origins from lacrosse legends and learning how to cradle the ball using a traditional wooden stick from a 10-year-old, I couldn’t help but understand why the game is so addicting and has recently become one of the nation’s fastest growing sports.

Youth look on as Sid Hill, Iroquois Confederacy Tadodaho, gives a traditional blessing. Photo courtesy of DOI/Gary Garrison.

In addition to the kids and stars, many entities came together to make Monday’s event such a success. “There are so many great companies and organizations doing such important work in the lacrosse community – MetroLacrosse, New Balance, Warrior, Major League Lacrosse (MLL), the National Lacrosse League, Inside Lacrosse, to name a few – and it was a highlight of my lacrosse career to see everyone come together and celebrate the game,” explained former UVA player, MLL star and current MetroLacrosse representative Michael Culver. “To me, this event shows the impact of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign and its potential to unite a movement.”

At the end of the day the young participants walked away with more than sweaty LMIC t-shirts and brand new lacrosse sticks donated by New Balance and Warrior. As the kids filtered out of the White House gate, I heard one young boy say, “I can’t believe I just played lacrosse on the White House lawn- my summer is complete.” Another pointed out “That was the Stick Maker from the National Lacrosse Magazine!” I know I walked away with a newfound love of the “Medicine Game” and a good lesson from Oren Lyons that is relevant to much more than just lacrosse, “Play hard and play honest.”