Kason Tarbell '18 From the Akwesasne Reservation to the East Hill

For Kason Tarbell ’18, lacrosse is more than just a sport. As a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe located in the Akwesasne reservation, lacrosse is a way of life. It is part of his rich heritage that considers lacrosse to be a medicine game, played to help cure the ill, as well as the Creator’s game, played for His entertainment.

Like many young Native Americans, Tarbell was introduced to the game by his father, who had both Kason and his older brother, Ky, dodge through the trees in their backyard while cradling a lacrosse stick as one of the many makeshift drills he created for the boys to learn the sport.

Akwesasne is located in northern New York with boundaries on both banks of the St. Lawrence River and crosses into portions of both Ontario and Quebec. As a result of its location, Tarbell grew up playing box lacrosse, an indoor version of the field game that originated in Canada. In box lacrosse, the playing area is much smaller than in the field version and teams play six to a side.

Tarbell – whose Mohawk name, Karonhioron, means ‘he covers the sky’ – excelled at box lacrosse. He began his junior career by playing for the Akwesasne Indians and led them to the program’s first-ever Founders Cup, the championship trophy of Canada's Junior B Lacrosse League, in 2015. This past summer, he helped the Six Nations Arrows win the Minto Cup as the champions of the Junior A Lacrosse League.

Tarbell's Mohawk name, Karonhioron, means ‘he covers the sky’.

“Coming from the reservation, everybody plays lacrosse,” says Tarbell. “Even if they don't play for a team, everywhere you go you see people with a lacrosse stick in their hands. It brings the community together. So it meant a lot to win those championships, because it makes our people proud.”

When it came to field lacrosse, Tarbell was an all-around star at Salmon River High School. On the pitch, he was a USILA High School All-American and led the Shamrocks to four consecutive Section 10 championships. In the classroom, he carried a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the 2014 Tewaaraton Outstanding Native American Scholarship, the first-ever Akwesasne to take home the honor.

Top: Kason accepting the 2014 Tewaaraton Outstanding Native American Scholarship; Lower left: Kason holding the 2017 Minto Cup; Lower right: Kason with his brother, Ky, following the 2017 Cornell/Albany game.

With his lacrosse ability and grades, Tarbell could have easily attended the University of Albany with his brother Ky, or Syracuse University. Both schools traditionally have a plethora of Native American student-athletes on their lacrosse rosters, including a combined 11 this upcoming season, but he decided early in the process to commit to Cornell.

“I wanted to be different,” says Tarbell. “Everyone else was trying to go to Syracuse and Albany. I wanted to get a better education, but still have a great lacrosse experience at the same time.”

Tarbell has been a regular in the Big Red lineup, playing in all but two games since his arrival on campus. He started his career as an offensive midfielder, but switched to the defensive side of the ball as a sophomore and has flourished.

“Kason is a reliable, dependable defensive clearing midfielder,” says interim head coach Pete Milliman. “He's a transition midfielder, so he provides some offensive punch. But honestly, I could play him at offensive midfield if I wanted to. I could play him at attack. He could be on man-up, man-down. He just has that ability to play the whole game, and we'll lean on him heavily this spring because of his experience and his ability to make plays.”

Tarbell attributes his lacrosse ability to his roots in the box game, where the smaller space means increased pressure and the need to make quicker decisions. For his teammates, Clarke Petterson and Jeff Teat, they see it as a product of his love of the game and his experience on the reservation.

“Kason is a really quiet guy, but he always likes to lighten the mood,” says Petterson. “So if you don't know him for that long, you'll think he just likes to hang out, but he really enjoys putting in the extra work. He has fun doing it. There are a lot of guys who go out and shoot by themselves and they're focused on getting their shots done and they have the goal of doing it to get better. But Kason takes a different approach. He’s out there because he loves it. He’s doing the extra work because it’s fun for him, and the result is that he gets better.”

“He's been playing lacrosse for a long time, probably a lot longer than most other players,” adds Teat. “And he's also been able to play with some special players because of the culture he was brought up in. He plays with Lyle Thompson (a member of the Onondaga Nation), who is one of the best players in the world right now, and Kason’s won the Minto Cup and a Founders Cup. He's been a part of some special teams with some special players, so he's been able to learn and grow.”

Tarbell is currently in the process of trying out for another potentially special team as he goes through the selection process for the Iroquois Nationals as they prepare to compete in the 2018 Federation of International Lacrosse Men's World Championship. Tarbell advanced through the first round of cuts and participated with the Nationals in a pair of games on Oct. 1 against Team Israel and the University of Albany.

Former Cornell lacrosse player Scott Burnam '91 is the General Manager of the Nationals and has been watching Tarbell intently during the process.

“I feel Kason has had a good showing thus far,” he says. “He played well in both of the scrimmages … made a few ‘hustle plays’ that the coaches took note of. I think he is a very talented player, and he knows the game well. We have a lot of guys that have only played box lacrosse, so having guys like Kason that know the field game is important and beneficial to the team.”

After graduating this May with a degree in Development Sociology and a minor in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, Tarbell plans to return to Akwesasne and hopefully further his playing career not just with the Nationals but in the National Lacrosse League, the professional box league that currently features nine teams in the United States and Canada.

“Being at Cornell has been great,” says Tarbell. “It’s given me the chance to make new friends and have a lot of new experiences. I’ve been able to see what life is like off the reservation, but I plan to move back. I just can’t see myself living anywhere else.”

While Tarbell is still unsure of what his day job will be, it seems inevitable that the will find a way to continue to be a quiet leader and inspire others. When he was a senior in high school, Salmon River hosted a gathering to honor positive role models. Most students brought family members, teachers, or coaches – Tarbell was the only student honored by a fellow student. At Cornell, his teammates and coaches see him as a role model and leader as well.

“He is a quiet leader,” says Milliman. “He's not a rah-rah guy. But all the guys on the team have a respect for him because of the way he carries himself. He's got a connection with everybody. From my perspective, they all love playing with him. I love coaching him.”

Ansley Jemison, who works at Cornell in the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, agrees that Tarbell has a bright future ahead of him. Jemison knows Tarbell through both his former position as the Residence Hall Director at Akwe:kon, the nation's first university residence hall established to celebrate American Indian culture and heritage, and through his work as the Executive Director of the Iroquois Nationals.

“Kason is going to return to the community and try and assist and be a leader there,” says Jemison. “Lacrosse can be a path for a lot of young people to pursue their education and Kason is one of those talents. With those educational opportunities, you're developing leaders and Kason is one of those kids – Cornell educated; doing well in school; doesn't party; doesn't drink. He's a natural, humble leader. He can make a real difference there.”

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Photos courtesy: Patrick Shanahan, Tim McKinney

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