The Creator’s Game
Published on May 5, 2017
Story, photos and videos by Jon Cerio
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Central New York has been known as a hotbed for collegiate lacrosse for decades. Three local colleges – Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, and Onondaga Community College – have dominated the lacrosse landscape in the area and often in the nation.
Syracuse University has won 11 Division I national championships in men’s lacrosse – five since 2000. In Division II, Le Moyne College has won five national titles since 2004. Perhaps most impressive of all, Onondaga Community College has won nine national championships in the past eleven years.
Creating a Legacy
It can’t be coincidence that three schools in the Syracuse area have all had this level success.
In fact, it’s not.
These colleges are located in the heart of what was once Haudenosaunee Confederacy land. In fact, the confederacy – made up of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca, and later the Tuscarora nations – was formed at what is now known as Onondaga Lake.
The game of lacrosse was created by the indigenous people. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you it came from someone else.
“To the Haudenosaunee, they call lacrosse the Creator’s game, given to replace warfare,”Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath says.
“War doesn’t please the Creator,” Onondaga Historical Association Director Gregg Tripoli says. “If they really wanted to please the Creator, they would play this game called ‘Deyhontsigwa’ehs,’ and that translated means ‘they bump hips.’ But we know that game today as lacrosse.”
John Buck is an Onondaga Nation elder, and played lacrosse in his youth for several organizations. He’s still an avid fan of the game, and is sure to attend every Onondaga Redhawks lacrosse game on the Nation’s land in Nedrow. The Redhawks play what is known as box, or indoor lacrosse.
“The game was to settle differences basically,” Buck says from his seat in the stands. “Of course, the game wasn’t this small that time. It was miles apart between goals. Because the nations, instead of battling among themselves, they played the game.”
The game is a tradition that has remained a key part of Native American culture.
“It’s part of our legacy,” Buck explains.
Sticking with Success
Local colleges have taken notice. Syracuse, Le Moyne, and OCC all have native players on their squads each year.
“We’ve had so many players over the years,” Syracuse men’s lacrosse head coach John Desko says.
“It’s been part of the culture here.”
“Every year we have eight-to-ten Native American kids on our team,” OCC men’s lacrosse head coach Chuck Wilbur says. “With so many on our team, the traditions they played with, their styles, get passed onto our team. I think our guys love it, learning the culture and where the game comes from.”
“I grew up playing lacrosse all my life, ever since the age of two,” Sakohawi Kirby says. Kirby is a sophomore on OCC’s team, from the native land Kahnawake, near Montreal.
“It’s been a large part of my culture. It’s originally named the medicine game. Play it in front of all our people, and it gives back a medicine to our people, everybody watching.”
“Everyone plays from five years old to older men,” OCC men’s lacrosse player Russ Oakes says. The freshman came to Onondaga Community College from the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, which straddles the border between New York and Ontario and Quebec on the St. Lawrence River.,
“Ever since I was little I’ve always had a lacrosse stick in my hand,” Syracuse sophomore defenseman Tyson Bomberry says. “Whenever we were going to go visit family that’s what you brought with you.”
Players such as Bomberry often come from Canada to Central New York to play lacrosse because of the region’s native history and quality athletic programs. Others have ties to the area.
“For me, always growing up here, my aunts on the Onondaga reservation, I’ve always felt like here has been like home,” says Syracuse junior midfielder Brendan Bomberry, who is Tyson’s cousin and transferred to SU after starting his college career at Denver.
“Being a part of the tradition of the Onondagas, the center nation of the Iroquois, playing here with the Onondaga on your chest, being a part of that rich history, that all of us grew up with as Native Americans.”
“It’s just something in their blood. It just comes natural for some reason,” Buck says. “As soon as a boy is born, automatically you give him a lacrosse stick.”
Plenty of Practice
Erica Shenandoah is an Onondaga Nation resident, and was also at the Redhawks game, just down the bench from Buck. She too is well aware of the importance of the sport in her culture.
“I know other lacrosse players probably have the same amount of experience, and are just as good,” Shenandoah says. “But these guys were raised here since they were little toddlers, kind of running around and playing, so…it’s a constant practice.”
“I think they’re born with a stick in their crib literally,” Wilbur adds. “And when they play, their stick is almost like a third arm to them. You just see the fluidity and just how easy the game comes to them. Their skill level is just incredible.”
That skill and constant practice have helped mold many championship teams at the collegiate level in the Syracuse area.
“The game of lacrosse is one of the biggest gifts that our people gave to this country,” Buck says.
“I’m trying to be a role model for our younger Native American kids,” Tyson Bomberry says. “They can come to school and get an education through using their lacrosse abilities.”
“We have all benefited from it, certainly Central New York,” Heath says. “Le Moyne, OCC, SU, always are in the top five.”
It’s a sentiment that OCC’s head coach wholeheartedly endorses.
“One hundred percent yeah, we are in the hotbed of lacrosse. And the Onondaga Nation and the Native Americans started it,” Wilbur says. “Our success as a program is a huge part because of them. Not just on the field, but the tradition that’s been passed on to us from centuries.”