Recapturing the Indigenous Roots of Lacrosse
On a mission to reach the 2028 Olympics, Lyle Thompson makes the case that Indigenous players bring a spirit to a game that originated with them
That forced assimilation was embodied in an 1892 speech by Civil War veteran and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, who said, “Kill the Indian in him, but save the man.”
Native Americans invented the game of lacrosse centuries ago, with some historians dating the game back to the 1600s, while others say the sport stretches back to 1100 A.D.
Duke professor Larissa Soares Carneiro, who introduced Thompson, said lacrosse originated as a “medicine game.”
“For indigenous peoples, lacrosse is more than a game,” Carneiro said. “It’s sacred. It’s a ceremony. It’s a game that can heal. It’s medicine. Lacrosse celebrates and entertains the Creator.”
Thompson is a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a group of six indigenous nations — Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Tuscarora and Onondaga who live on reservations in upstate New York, Quebec and Ontario.
Haudenosaunee (pronounced hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee) means, “people of the longhouse.” Thompson is a member of the Onondaga Nation’s Hawk Clan. His native name, ‘Deyhahsanoondey,’ translates into ‘He’s flying over us.’
Thompson also addressed themes of “medicine” and “the Creator” throughout remarks he described as a “message.”
“In our culture, medicine sometimes makes you feel good,” he said. “Sometimes it makes you happy. It’s something that helps make you well…The phrase, ‘I love you,’ in our language…literally translates to ‘You are my medicine.’”
Thompson said Haudenosaunee members still “practice the medicine game as a ceremony, as a ritual, as a tradition,” adding that as a ritual, the Six Nations “practice it every spring,” when the game is played for oneself and for the people.
“And it’s just play,” he said breaking into a grin, “it’s fun. Nothing too serious. But everybody plays hard, and we all understand why we’re there and why we are playing the game.”
Thompson admitted that sometimes as a professional player he struggles with his joy of just playing the game and a competitive nature that has made him a generational talent.
“But no matter if I’m playing for fun, or playing in front of thousands, it’s still the Creator’s game,” he said. “In our Indigenous worldview, the Creator is the spirit that lives in all of us. It’s in the sun. It’s in the moon. It’s in the stars and the water. It’s in the earth. So, when the Creator is in all of those things and I play for the Creator, it helps me to understand that when I play the game I have to honor that, whether it’s at the medicine game or on the world stage.”
Thompson worries that sports have been corrupted by commercialism and a win-at-all costs mentality, even at the youth level. He said he’s careful with how he presents the sport, or any sport to his children, who all play lacrosse.
“Parents tend to try and push [their children] in a certain direction, overtrain them, push them to the next level or make sure they’re the best on the team,” Thompson said. “And forget to ask them if they just had fun.”
This year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), announced the addition of lacrosse to the 2028 summer games in Los Angeles. Despite being recognized as a sovereign nation, with its own flag and passports, the Haudenosaunee Nationals may not be able to participate in the Olympics because it is not a member of the IOC or the United Nations.
Last month, The New York Times reported that while lacrosse officials are hoping to get the Haudenosaunee team to the Olympics, the IOC, which will have the final say, voiced “discouraging words” about the team’s prospects.
“Only national Olympic committees recognized by the IOC can enter teams for the Olympic Games,” the governing body said in an emailed statement to the Times.
Carneiro noted that IOC officials’ decision to add lacrosse to the 2028 games marks the first time since 1908 that the sport has been in the Olympic Games.
“It would be another injustice perpetrated against indigenous people if the Haudenosaunee Nationals could not represent their nation with their flag in the Olympics,” she said.
The Champions Club was filled to capacity with student athletes, including this year’s Tewaaraton Award winner, Duke’s Brennan O’Neill, Duke lacrosse head coaches Danowski and Kerstin Kimel, along with coaches of other sports and lacrosse fans.
Lacrosse is a family affair for Lyle Thompson. He shared the Tewaaraton Award with his brother Myles Thompson in 2014. His brothers Jeremy and Jerome Thompson and cousin Ty Thompson also all play professionally.
Thompson said he thinks the Haudenosaunee Nationals’ presence at the 2028 Olympics could be a unifying and healing balm — a much-needed medicine — in America and internationally.
“It’s important for the Haudenosaunee Nationals to be at the [Olympic] games,” he said. Then [the world] has no choice but to look at the Haudenosaunee Nationals as an example … so that other nations can see what it’s all about.”