The Iroquois’ quest to compete in Olympic lacrosse: ‘It’s more than a game to us.’

The Iroquois are fighting to play lacrosse, a sport they invented, at the 2028 Olympics. It could be a significant step forward in their long struggle for recognition.

Photograph by Kevin Liles, Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
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Lyle Thompson, 28, is the star of the Iroquois Nationals and one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time. But as lacrosse looks to become an Olympic sport, will he and his people be left behind?

Photograph by Kevin Liles, Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Lyle Thompson, the 28-year-old lacrosse star some consider one of the greatest to play the game, has a request. Look beyond his blistering goals, behind-the-head passes, NCAA records, and Nike sponsorship. Forget about his three lacrosse-loving brothers who, like him, all play professionally. Instead, dig a little deeper. Think about the meaning of the two-foot braid that drapes down his back, a show of pride in his heritage. Then, Thompson insists, you might begin to understand the origins of his blood-boiling frustration.

“The story that’s always told is about winning,” Thompson says. “But I don’t want to be the most marketable player in lacrosse or in the Hall of Fame. I want to honor the game. I want people to understand there is value in the medicine game. This is our gift to the world. And a vehicle to help people understand who we are.”

The “we” Thompson refers to is the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee, the six nations that cross the U.S.-Canadian border in the northeast corner of North America. It is here, as far back as 1,000 years ago, where many believe Native Americans first invented lacrosse. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men gathered on boundary-less fields in pursuit of goals stretched miles apart.

For the Iroquois, the game carries a cultural and spiritual importance unlike any other. They believe lacrosse, originally played between land and winged animals long before there was human life on Earth, was gifted to them from the Creator.

Thompson, the son of an iron worker who played box (indoor) lacrosse and the youngest of four brothers, is a member of the Onondaga Nation, a 7,300-acre territory just south of Syracuse, New York. Like other Haudenosaunee nations, the Onondaga operate outside the jurisdiction of New York state as a sovereign, independent nation with its own laws, language, customs, and culture. Lacrosse is at the heart of that culture, a game the Iroquois play not only to entertain the Creator but to assert their sovereignty and independence to the world.

“It’s more than a game to us,” says Rex Lyons, a former lacrosse player and the son of 90-year-old Onondaga faith keeper Oren Lyons. “It’s an identity.”

Today, the relationship between the Iroquois and the sport that means so much to them is as complicated as ever. Lacrosse is still riding the wave of a massive popularity boom in the early 2000s, with more than 830,000 Americans now participating in the game, a 227-percent increase, according to the 2018 U.S. Lacrosse participation report. There are five professional leagues in the U.S., including Major League Lacrosse, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The game also continues to grow internationally, with more than 66 national teams recognized by World Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body.

The sport’s leaders want to capitalize on its growth and return lacrosse to the Olympics when the Summer Games come to Los Angeles in 2028. But a troubling question looms for the game’s originators: Will Olympic sport status mean leaving the Iroquois behind?

The medicine game

Among the Iroquois, when a young child receives his given native name, the community’s chief, or faith keeper, holds the child to the sky and blesses the child with the hope they will grow up to be one of three things: a singer and dancer of the native songs, a speaker of the native language, or a lacrosse player.

Elders place miniature wooden lacrosse sticks in newborns’ cribs. And when someone’s life comes to an end, sticks are placed in the coffin. The game anticipates life and awaits players in the spirit world.

“That stick represents everything from the earth that grows,” Lyons said. “The netting is representative of the deer, the leader of animals from all five continents. The weave in the netting, the connecting of all those hoops, that’s the clans, the families all connected together. And the ball, of course, is the medicine.”

The four Thompson brothers and their sister grew up in a modest home built by their father Jerome. For much of their childhood they had no electricity or running water. The four boys, Jerome Jr., Jeremy, Miles, and Lyle, all slept in the same bedroom, often with their sticks by their side. Upon returning home from school the first thing they would do is grab their sticks and head into the yard. They’d shoot into a small box their dad had built, with a hole just big enough to fit a lacrosse ball.

“That stick was my best friend,” Lyle says. “It was my everything. I slept with it every single night.”

While Jeremy played at Syracuse and Jerome attended Onondaga Community College, Lyle and Miles starred together at the University of Albany. In 2014 they not only became the first Native Americans to win the Mohawk-named Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse’s version of the Heisman, but were the first to tie for the honor. Lyle went on to win the award again in 2015 after Miles graduated, finishing his career with an NCAA record 400 points.

But the Thompsons believe the game has a spiritual impact far greater than records or awards. The game contains medicine, the Iroquois say. Even today, medicine games are called whenever someone in the community is in need. Poles are jammed into the ground on opposite ends of a field and men and boys of all ages compete to score a predetermined number of goals. Afterwards, the deerskin ball is given to that individual in need.

“It’s about the feeling and the importance of why we are there—to perform for the Creator or someone who needs it and is ill,” says Jeremy.

In 1983, the Iroquois sought to share that energy and use the sport as a vehicle to continue their fight for sovereignty and independence from their Canadian and U.S. neighbors. They successfully petitioned what was then the Federation of International Lacrosse to recognize the Iroquois as a national lacrosse team.

Today, Thompson and the Iroquois are rock stars in any tournament in which they compete, drawing fans from around the globe as the only Native American team that competes internationally as a sovereign people. The FIL, which has since become World Lacrosse, is the lone international sports federation recognizing a group of independent people as its own federation.

Despite drawing from a population of just 125,000 people, the Iroquois are widely regarded among the most successful lacrosse national teams in the world, along with the United States (population 328 million) and Canada (population 33 million). The Iroquois men finished third in the last two field lacrosse world championships and second in all five world box lacrosse championships. The Iroquois women’s team finished seventh in 2007.

The Thompson Brothers have their own line of Nike apparel, including hoodies, caps, backpacks, and lacrosse cleats. And at the heart of the Onondaga social life is its 1,900-seat, 40,000-square foot state-of-the-art Onondaga Nation Arena, which doubles as an indoor facility for both hockey and lacrosse. In 2015, the arena helped host the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships.

“There is no other sport like this in the world, with an origin story of a game shared with the world by an indigenous group, and that group not only still competes today but does so as one of the very best teams out there,” said Steve Stenersen, the CEO of USA Lacrosse and a Vice President for World Lacrosse. “What they have done is beyond remarkable.”

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The Iroquois believe lacrosse contains medicine and organize games whenever someone in the community is in need. Afterwards the deerskin ball is given to that person. Here, lacrosse balls rest in the net during an Iroquois Nationals practice session in 2010.

The fight for inclusion

This summer, fresh off a match with his professional club, the Chesapeake Bayhawks, Lyle Thompson learned on Twitter that the World Games, a quadrennial sports festival held as a showcase for non-Olympic sports, had announced the eight-team field for its inaugural men’s lacrosse championships in 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama. The list did not include the Iroquois Nationals.

“It’s not like I was surprised,” Thompson said. “But that doesn’t mean it didn’t make my blood boil.”

The uniqueness of the Iroquois sovereignty has created issues over the years with the team’s ability to travel internationally. They insist on traveling solely on their Haudenosaunee passport, which many countries don’t recognize as a travel document because it doesn’t meet post-9/11 security requirements. With the 2022 World Games in the United States, there didn’t appear to be any road blocks to the Iroquois’ inclusion. Until there were. (Meet the survivors of an Indigenous ‘paper genocide.’)

“It’s so disheartening. You just wonder ‘how is this still happening?” Thompson said. “Why can’t people understand what’s going on and make the right decisions?’”

One of Thompson’s Iroquois Nationals teammates, Randy Staats, was in the Major League Lacrosse bubble in Annapolis, Maryland with Canadian stars Mark Matthews and Shayne Jackson when he got the news.

“They both just looked me and were like ‘are you kidding me?” Staats said. “That’s complete bulls---.’ We honestly thought it was some sort of mistake.”

It wasn’t a mistake. The World Games eligibility criteria mirrors that of the International Olympic Committee, and because the Iroquois are not one of the 206 IOC-recognized National Olympic Committees, the World Games omitted them.

Thompson, Staats, and others vented their frustration on social media, and the lacrosse community rallied in support. More than 50,000 people signed a petition on change.org to include the Iroquois in the World Games field. Staats wrote an article for an online lacrosse publication that read in part: “We deserve the legitimacy as a nation that our passports, culture, and history provide. We shouldn’t have to fight to be treated as equals, it simply should be.”

“Before this I’d never stuck my neck out like that or done uncomfortable things,” Staats said. “But this was about right vs. wrong. It’s about who we are as people.”

The controversy was reminiscent of 2010, when the Iroquois were unable to compete at the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England because neither the U.S. nor the UK would honor the Haudenosaunee passport. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secured single-use waivers that allowed the team to travel, but the UK refused to accept the waivers unless accompanied by a U.S. or Canadian passport.

“We don’t identify with being Canadian citizens. We don’t identify with being American citizens,” Lyle Thompson said. “We want to be recognized for who we are. You look at these other countries that are able to participate in these events, they get to honor their country and be recognized for who they are and where they are from. That’s what I want—without this continuous fight.”

The World Games battle carried even greater importance than the Manchester situation. Lacrosse hasn’t been in the Olympics as a medal sport since 1908, and in 2018 the International Olympic Committee took the first steps to allow lacrosse to potentially return by awarding it provisional recognition. The Iroquois knew that if they weren’t allowed to compete in the World Games, their Olympic dreams—and the increased respect and visibility they hoped would come along—were dead.

“The game has changed the way we view the world and how the world views us,” says Leo Nolan, the Nationals executive director. “It’s helped people recognize who we are. You want that to continue.”

Added Thompson: “You want to inspire someone from Team USA or Canada so that when they become the people in the big offices, they will understand our story and they will make decisions based on what they know about us as people, and what is right.”

The Iroquois clearly have had that sort of impact on Ireland, the ninth-ranked team in the world. The Irish knew they were only in the eight-team field because of the Iroquois’ exclusion. Ireland Lacrosse polled its coaches, players, alumni, and other stakeholders asking if they were aware of the Iroquois controversy and had strong feelings one way or another about what the Irish should do.

“And overwhelmingly the response was to right what we perceived as a wrong,” said Catherine Conway of Ireland Lacrosse. “And not just through some statement on social media that gives you clout, but to actually do something.”

In September, the Irish informed the World Games they were withdrawing from the competition with the expectation that the Iroquois would take their place. The World Games asked the Iroquois to obtain letters from the U.S. and Canadian lacrosse federations as well as the U.S. and Canadian Olympic Committees that there was no objection to the Iroquois’ inclusion. Five days later, the World Games announced a new field of eight teams, this time with the Iroquois Nationals.

Upon hearing the news, Rex Lyons printed out the World Games statement and handed it to his father, the 90-year-old Onondaga faith keeper. Oren Lyons had originally proposed starting a national lacrosse team almost forty years earlier. He’s lived the struggle for respect. Oren slowly read the page his son handed him and responded with one word: “Amazing.”

“It was simply the right thing to do,” Rex said. “But it floored me. Those principles are difficult to come by anymore. My dad was at a loss for words.”

“This is a sport unique to North America. The World Games are in North America. And this group holds a special place in the game,” World Lacrosse CEO Jim Scherr said. “I think the World Games realized it merited some additional consideration to try and find a solution. And we are glad that they did.”

But now comes the biggest fight of all. Lacrosse will do everything it can to return to the Olympic stage, and the Iroquois Nationals worry at what expense. The Iroquois insist they are working on creating a National Olympic Committee, but the IOC only recognizes a country’s National Olympic Committee if that country is recognized by more than half of the United Nations. The Haudenosaunee are not currently recognized. (Here's how mapmakers are helping indigenous people defend their lands.)

Thompson fears World Lacrosse might view the Iroquois as a detriment to its Olympic argument, something the IOC just won’t want to deal with. Allowing the Iroquois to compete could open the door for other marginalized groups to demand Olympic inclusion.

“You hope decisions would be made on what is morally right, not just what is good for World Lacrosse,” Thompson says. “My concern is that what they think is good for them is to do whatever it takes to get lacrosse in the Olympics, even if it means not including the Iroquois Nationals.”

Scherr insists that isn’t the case. Step one is just getting into the Olympics. From there, he admits the Iroquois case is complicated, saying, “It requires people to be educated. And it isn’t a ten-minute conversation.” But he and Stenersen both refute the suggestion that World Lacrosse doesn’t want the Iroquois in the Olympics, should lacrosse get there.

“From an emotional standpoint, it doesn’t seem all that complicated,” Stenersen said. “If there’s a tournament and they’ve qualified, they should be there. If they can’t, it feels like nobody should be there. That’s how important they are to this game.”

“But right or wrong, the world has evolved in a certain way,” he added. “It creates complex challenges. We want to do everything we can to get lacrosse into the Olympics and then make the best argument we can for the Nationals inclusion in the Games. We want them there.” (This is the Olympics' turbulent history in times of global crisis.)

The Iroquois know their story is unlike any other in sports. They know they are the biggest draw in any tournament they enter. They have the Thompson brothers, led by Lyle, the No. 1 player in the world. They have their own flag and national anthem. They represent a real-life connection to the game’s historical and spiritual roots. And they are optimistic that the social justice and equality movement sweeping the U.S. in 2020 will only help their case for inclusion.

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Lyle Thompson wears a long braid down his back as a show of pride in his heritage. He and his three older brothers grew up playing lacrosse, which they believe was gifted to them by the Creator.

Is it enough? For now, Thompson prepares for another fight. He has four daughters and a son. Seventeen nieces and nephews. He wants this for them.

“We have to get ready to make another stand,” Thompson says. “We have to get ready to fight for our sovereignty in front of the Olympic committee.”

It is a fight that means far more than the ability to compete on sport’s grandest stage. In the Iroquois’ eyes, it’s about equality, inclusion, respect, and the expansion of what it means to be a nation in the Olympic and sporting world. The outpouring of support this summer shows that at a grassroots level the lacrosse community has the Iroquois’ back. But now they want that respect from the world. They want to maintain the strongest of their roots to the past, while asserting their place in the future.

“We have our land. It’s treaty defined. It’s not a reservation,” Lyons said. “We have our own laws, chiefs, and leaders. So it’s important in the Olympics to carry our own flag. Not just for the Haudenosaunee, but for other indigenous people. We want to be recognized as who we are and who we have always been. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.”

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer at ESPN. ESPN and National Geographic are both owned by The Walt Disney Company.