Natural Gravity: Reviving the Creator's Game Among Indigenous Youth

Upon relocating to Maine in 2017, Corey Hinton began to host clinics for youth, targeted to the Wabanaki Confederacy. Hinton’s Passamaquoddy nation is part of that confederacy.


This story appears in the April edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the mag? Join or renew today. Thanks for your support!

While many lacrosse enthusiasts are familiar with the roots of the game and its connection to Native American culture — specifically in the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — many also falsely assume that all Indigenous peoples play the game.

In truth, there are many Native American communities that, over the years, have lost their connections to lacrosse.

Corey Hinton, 33, a resident of Portland, Maine, and a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, is among those trying to change the pattern. Upon relocating to Maine in 2017, Hinton began to host clinics for youth, targeted to the Wabanaki Confederacy. Hinton’s Passamaquoddy nation is part of that confederacy.

“I grew up as a child knowing the game and my father always told me that it was our game, a Wabanaki game, so it was really important for me that I could share what I’ve learned with my community,” Hinton said. “It’s important that the roots of the game are taught to the next generation.”

Fueled more recently by support from US Lacrosse — including a community impact grant in 2019 and a First Stick Program grant in 2020 — Hinton began organizing a multicultural lacrosse festival to be held in conjunction with a local observance of Native American Veterans Day. The festival brought together tribal youngsters and nontribal youth lacrosse players from southern Maine for a day of sport and cultural immersion.

“The special events are a lot of work to organize, but they are also a lot of fun,” he said.

Originally from Niskayuna, N.Y., Hinton was a collegiate player at Colgate and also played on the 2003 Iroquois Nationals U19 team and the 2006 Iroquois Nationals senior squad. Both of those teams competed in World Lacrosse (formerly known as International Lacrosse Federation) championships.

Hinton views his efforts to reconnect youth from the Wabanaki Confederacy to lacrosse as a way of giving back to the sport.

“I have had a lifelong love affair with lacrosse. It has given me so much,” he said. “After I stopped playing, I wanted to stay involved in the game. People began inviting me to camps to help teach kids, and that became a transformative experience. I realized that even a few minutes spent with kids can make an impact.”

Meanwhile, 1,300 miles from Maine, in the small community of Tama, Iowa, situated midway between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Britt Mitchell had a similar realization. Mitchell and his wife, Tashina Azure, are reintroducing lacrosse in the Meskwaki Nation, a Sac and Fox tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.

Shortly after relocating to Iowa in 2016, where Azure serves as Meskwaki Youth Services program director, Mitchell began hosting clinics for Native youth on the settlement.

“I think we had about 10 kids the first time out,” he said. “I just brought all my old sticks and gave them to the kids to use.”

While his wife is part Meskwaki, Mitchell is not, but he still feels drawn to growing the sport and trying to connect it back to Native culture. His passion for lacrosse was ignited as a youth growing up in Maryland.

“It’s always been a go-to for me and an escape,” Mitchell said. “Now, I’m just trying to get these kids to appreciate the game. If they can also honor its heritage, that’s a huge bonus.”







Two years ago, Mitchell had enough kids to field three boys’ teams (10U, 12U, 14U) in the Iowa Lacrosse Association, with the 12U team capturing second place. Last spring, there were 55 boys spread over three teams, nicknamed the Knuckleheads, before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the season.

This spring, there are only two Knucklehead teams, but Mitchell has also started a 12U girls’ team, the Swans. Supported with minimal volunteer help, he coaches all the teams himself.

“I’m still learning the girls’ game, but I’m good with all the basics,” Mitchell said.

In addition to teaching game skills, both Mitchell and Hinton try to impart lacrosse’s core values — respect, discipline, endurance and friendship — onto the younger generation.

“The game is viewed as medicine,” Hinton said. “When we play the game, we are playing for the enjoyment of the Creator. And the values that are important in the game are also important values in life.”

Both men acknowledge that there are challenges, including a lack of resources and societal distractions that lure kids away from lacrosse, but their individual commitments to move forward remain steadfast.

“There is no end to this,” Hinton said. “There’s a natural gravity to the game in Indigenous communities. The key is to sustain the enthusiasm. Hopefully, some kids will fall in love with the game just like I did.”

Stickball Variations

Historically, Native communities throughout North America played different variations of lacrosse. Three primary styles came from the Northeast, Southeast and Great Lakes regions. Although rules and equipment differed, legend tell of teams composed of 100 to 1,000 players, goals set between 500 yards to a mile apart and contests that might last for days. 

NORTHEAST

Peoples include the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois or People of the Longhouse, including Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora), Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and other Native nations. The Haudenosaunee version of the game is the closest to field lacrosse played today. Originally, Iroquois sticks had a triangular pocket two-thirds the length of the stick.

SOUTHEAST

Peoples include the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and other Native nations. Players used two small lacrosse sticks — one in each hand — typically carved from hickory and uniquely designed by Native communities. Cherokee stick engravings included jagged lines representing lightning, intended to impart swiftness.

GREAT LAKES

Peoples include the Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Winnebago, Santee Dakota and other Native nations. The peoples of the Great Lakes played with a single three-foot stick featuring a round head about four inches in diameter. Stories are told that each player made his own stick from white ash, decorated with symbols of personal meaning.
 

13 WAYS TO SAY LACROSSE

1. dehuntshigwa'es – Onondaga
2. tewaa:raton – Mohawk
3. kalahse – Oneida
4. gajihgw’ae – Cayuga
5. dewaë’:ö’ – Seneca
6. yunę’ruhaʔr– Tuscarora
7. epaskome - Passamaquoddy
8. netapeskwama  – Penobscot
9. baaga'adowewin – Ojibwe
10. peki’twewin – Pottawatomi
11. achi – Fox
12. da-nah-wah'uwsdi - Eastern Cherokee
13. kabucha – Choctaw

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