When the 10th annual Women’s Lacrosse World Cup starts Thursday in Ontario, Canada, one flag will stick out.
It has four interconnected white squares, two on each side, flanking a white tree on a solid purple background. It’s the international symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Native American people.
Winthrop women’s lacrosse coach John Sung will lead the Haudenosaunee into their second World Cup. They finished 11th at the 2009 tournament in the Czech Republic.
“It’s probably the most rewarding experience you can possibly have,” Sung said about the gig. Lacrosse is “something that’s instilled in them, in their culture, in their blood.”
The Haudenosaunee invented lacrosse, a game they view as a gift from the Creator. It is medicine for their men – women were never intended to play – and is a way to remain physically fit, heal the sick and settle disputes. The handmade wooden lacrosse sticks of Haudenosaunee men are sacred possessions that carry far more spiritual meaning than regular sporting goods. They’re said to take their sticks with them into the afterlife, and women don’t touch them.
The Haudenosaunee (pronounced Ho-den-o-show-nee) may have invented the game, but the 2009 World Cup was their women’s first; the team only formed a few years earlier after gaining tribal approval. The Haudenosaunee, the only competing nation not found on a political map, won their opening pool games that year, dominating Austria and Denmark, but lost to Ireland 12-6 in a playoff game that would have placed them in the top eight.
More important than the finish was the fact Sung’s team competed at all. For a people that had much of their culture and way of life stamped out by European colonists, lacrosse is a link to an increasingly distant past, a way to show the world, and themselves, they’re still kicking.
“It really strengthens their identity and gives them a sens e of empowerment for sure,” said Kathy Smith, executive director of the Haudenosaunee women’s lacrosse program. “It’s so much more than just being the best lacrosse team and being the best lacrosse player they can be.”
The Haudenosaunee women’s team began in 2005 after a successful appeal to a council of elders at the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario that culminated in their participation at the 2008 Under-19 World Championship. The Haudenosaunee’s first international tournament was a proud moment for everyone involved with the women’s program.
“There is no other sport that our women can play and represent our people at the world level,” Smith explained. “So this is as big as it gets for our women.”
Traditional healing games of lacrosse are still held in the Haudenosaunee communities; women may never participate in those. But all other iterations of the sport have been opened.
“I know there are still so me people out there that have strong beliefs about it, and that what we’re doing is culturally inappropriate,” said Smith. “I’m very respectful of my culture … and I think that if there were reasons that we shouldn’t be playing that the Creator would be frowning down upon our game. In this day and age when women are playing all kinds of sports, it doesn’t convince me that our women were never intended to play.”
Sung says the advancement of lacrosse stick technology played a part in Haudenosaunee women taking the field competitively. The men’s traditional wooden sticks are seen as an Earthly connection to the Creator, but as the wooden sticks were eventually phased out in the 1980s, they were replaced by synthetic sticks.
Traditional Haudenosaunee derisively call the modern creations “Tupperware sticks,” but the aluminum and titanium shafts are free of the spiritual weight the wooden sticks carried. Women can pick them up and play without dis honoring the Creator.
“We’ve had to change attitudes for sure,” Smith said. “We’ve had to break through those old beliefs and try to show our people that women can play, too.”
Haudenosaunee chiefs have long been tasked to make decisions with seven subsequent generations in mind. Back in 2008, the women’s lacrosse board of directors believed they found a visionary capable of the same thing in Sung.
“He wasn’t just coming to coach,” Smith explained. “He wanted to actually come and help us build a program.”
Sung’s recent track record confirmed that sentiment. He had just launched a team at Adrien College in Michigan in 2008, guiding the Bulldogs to a Division III national ranking. Three years later he took over at Winthrop, building that program from scratch and leading the Eagles to a winning first season this past spring.
While coaching Adrien, Sung recruited a player who had suited up for the Hau denosaunee Under-19 team in 2008. Through the player, the Haudenosaunee contacted Sung, and after several interviews in Canada, he was hired.
Getting the Haudenosaunee organization off the ground was a little bit different from starting an NCAA program.
“They really wanted to know that I knew how everything operated, not just from a lacrosse standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint,” said Sung, adding that there was less bureaucracy involved than the college jobs.
High-level Haudenosaunee women’s lacrosse players already existed in 2008; they just needed to be gathered and organized. The Haudenosaunee were impressed with Sung’s energy as he assembled a team in time for the World Cup in 2009. He said he speaks often to his team even now about the seven generations, knowing their decisions and performance will reverberate throughout a proud Haudenosaunee lacrosse history … and future.
The right time
The Haudenosaunee men’s team, laun ched officially in the early 1980s and known as the Iroquois Nationals, are a source of immense pride in the various Six Nations communities. Sung called them “rock stars” in world lacrosse. Their traditional pony tails and wooden lacrosse sticks are viewed with the same admiration as their skill and success on the field.
“People expect our women to be up there with the top teams in the world,” said Smith. “We’re just building, but I think we’re moving in that direction.”
Momentum has accrued in the five short years since the fledgling program sprouted. Clinics have helped spread acceptance of female involvement and more Haudenosaunee communities across New York and Canada are starting girls’ lacrosse programs at the youth level.
“Even 10 years ago there was pressure for women not to play,” said Smith. “These teams – first the (Under-19) World Championship and then the World Cup – kind of laid some of that to rest.”
Accor ding to Sung, previous attempts had been made at starting a Haudenosaunee women’s lacrosse program, but the embers had been tamped out before they could really catch.
But the timing for the latest attempt feels right. Smith argues that allowing women to play is culturally critical for her people.
“A lot of our traditional ways and teachings have been lost,” she said. “Some of these things that were originally taught to the young people aren’t taught anymore. So sometimes we have to remind these women that in our culture the women are the ones who raise the kids and have the most influence on how they learn and grow up.”
Simply competing in the first World Cup was a success. But Sung’s second Haudenosaunee team already has higher expectations.
The coaching staff, which includes two other NCAA Division I head coaches, is knowledgeable and experienced. With community awareness increasing, the pool of players Sung can call on is better, too. Eleven of the 18 squad members return from 2009, including goalie Amber Hill, who earned Most Outstanding Player while leading Syracuse to the Big East championship in 2008. Awehiyo Thomas, who led the team with 25 goals in the 2009 World Cup, is back, and a number of the players are now college and high school coaches themselves, making Sung and his staff’s job that much easier.
“We’re better,” said Sung. “I’m so much happier with the quality of the athletes, with the players we have. I know we can make a run.”
Sung likened the situation to his Winthrop program. The Eagles had a successful 7-5 first season, one of the few first-year NCAA teams to finish with a winning record. But the coach feels it will all be for naught if they don’t follow it up with an even better second season.
It’s equally critical for the Haudenosaunee to send out the first ripples that will reach their women seven generations distant. They were placed in Pool C with Japan, Austria, Hong Kong and Sweden for the upcoming World Cup, with the top teams from each group advancing to the knockout rounds. Sung’s realistic goal is to progress from their pool and finish anywhere between sixth and eighth.
“We all feel the team has more depth, is better prepared, has a higher skill level,” said Smith. “I think we’re all excited.”
The Haudenosaunee will feel at home for the 2013 World Cup, which is being held just north of Toronto and about two hours from their heartland in Southern Ontario and Upstate New York.
With a slew of friends and fans able to attend, the Haudenosaunee have one final critical preparation to make: developing a pregame ritual similar to the Iroquois Nationals’ call and response stomp-step, one that in equal parts honors the Creator of the game and strikes fear in the hearts of wide-eyed opponents.
“What we talked about at the camp before was en ergy,” Smith explained, “and to get pumped up for the game. There’s something about pregame rituals that get you feeling your energy and proud of who you are and that you go out there to play not just for yourself and your teammates, but for your people.”
It’s the kind of unique detail that Sung encounters with the Haudenosaunee, for whom the game is as engrained as the hickory wood that makes up their traditional handmade lacrosse sticks. The ritual decision will likely be felt for seven generations at least, especially as cultural attitudes continue to shift and women’s lacrosse grows among the people who invented the sport.
Hiring Sung helped Smith achieve a dream of seeing all Haudenosaunee enjoy the healing properties of their game, not just the men. He’s built college programs at Adrien and now Winthrop, but this experience has been different … deeper.
“One of the great blessings is being a part of building their organization and get ting them to the next level,” Sung said.
“Kahtehriyo” is Smith’s native first name. It means “Beautiful roots,” exactly what the Haudenosaunee hope they are putting down in the women’s version of their game.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T