They don’t wear protective gear; they have beautiful wooden sticks; their goal is simply a pole; and their rule book consists of only one idea: respect.
It is a far different game than the one John Hunter, founder of Twin Cities Native Lacrosse, learned in his youth. He has played modern lacrosse since he was 14, but when he realized that modern lacrosse was only accessible to a small minority of people and Native lacrosse was basically nonexistent in the Twin Cities, he decided that needed to change.
Hunter didn’t play the traditional Native version of lacrosse until he was in his 30s. Growing up as part of the White Earth Nation of Minnesota and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, he had only heard stories of the game.
“I was raised in my culture, so although I knew that we had played the game, I just understood that there wasn’t anybody really that was playing it right now,” Hunter said.
Lacrosse started in Native communities in the Americas long before European colonizers came to the continent and took lacrosse for their own. Hunter started Twin Cities Native Lacrosse to revive the cultural game and to make lacrosse more accessible to Native youth.
Prior Lake High School athlete Nina Polk learned about Twin Cities Native Lacrosse from a neighbor who was involved in the program and had spoken to her mother about it.
For Polk, one of the most unique parts of the program is that everyone on the team is Native. Polk has played volleyball and basketball and currently runs cross country. Most of the teams she has been a part of consisted of almost all white people.
“That was a big challenge for me, because I wasn’t able to connect to a lot of people as well as on the Twin Cities team,” Polk said.
Polk had been introduced to modern lacrosse first, but she was underwhelmed.
“That didn’t catch my eye. I wasn’t really interested,” Polk said of the modern game. “But when they showed me the [woodlands] stick, then that’s when I really started playing.”
Obvious differences between the two versions include modern lacrosse’s colorful sticks, protective gear, large goals in which to fling the ball and referees watching each player’s every move. In Native lacrosse, there are no set rules; instead, they teach players to be respectful. Players are accountable to themselves rather than a referee.
“When you say there’s no rules, it actually forces … that mindfulness and that connectedness. It forces the two teams before the game to have a real discussion about, ‘OK, this is a competitive game. We are going to have some understanding about what’s too far,’” Hunter said.
The two games differ not just in equipment and rules, but also on a deeper level. Native lacrosse is full of tradition, meaning and ceremony. At Twin Cities Native Lacrosse, they play both Native and modern versions of lacrosse.
They have community games, which are a chance for the community to come together. Everyone who attends gets the opportunity to play. They also have competitive games, a chance to acknowledge others’ talent, and even rare healing games, done to remind the players about the deeper meaning of the game.
“In even our most social games, there’s always that kind of component of restoring balance or creating this sense of healing,” Hunter said.
Often the team gathers before the game and athletes can share why they are playing the game, whether it is for someone who couldn’t play, for someone who is sick or another reason.
“That game represents a chance to help others,” Hunter said.
This idea of healing is also relevant in the program’s focus on health for its athletes. In addition to exercise, the program always provides healthy food, often traditional Native foods, and water at games.
This focus on exercise and diet is especially relevant in the Native community. According to the Indian Health Service, Native people have experienced lower life expectancies and disproportionate disease burdens compared to other Americans. This difference is largely due to discrimination, lack of access to education, and disproportionate poverty.
Hunter hopes this program will continue to grow in its commitment to community and wellness and enlighten athletes, while he continues to learn about this cultural tradition.
“I’m still learning about [the meaning behind Native lacrosse],” Hunter said. “I just got back from a trip talking with an elder. I asked, ‘What is it that the players…need to understand?’ He just said, without offering much explanation, ‘It’s more than a game.’”