Being the change, not the changed: The battle for lacrosse Kyler Konjoyan


Lacrosse was the first sport in America. It was a game played by the Native Americans to honor the creator. However, lacrosse was usurped by Europeans as were most Native American traditions. The game became a money making sport driven by white businessman, and ultimately transformed into a sport for rich, white boys. The film Crooked Arrows showcases the change and a call by the original creators of the game to get back to its roots. In this paper, I hope to explain how it happened, more about the whitening of the sport, and how I have experienced this in real life.

Research Question: How has whiteness affected the sport lacrosse and taken it away from the Native Americans?
The first photo shows the battle and competition between the white and Native American lacrosse players. The second photo shows the white player pulling the Native American back illegally and shows the struggle to fight through it. The third photo shows the white prep school and the reservation team coming together after the game to enjoy each others company.


To see how whiteness has affected lacrosse and took it away from the Native Americans, I studied the movie Crooked Arrows which was partly financed by the Onandaga people. The film covers a Native American high school lacrosse team on a reservation and how it navigates the modern world. The film starts off in the past, showing a traditional game of lacrosse in traditional Native American attire. Are they playing well in this game? It soon transitions to showing a modern game with the modern team. The Native American team is playing very poorly and is losing badly to a white prep school. The team then gets a new coach, a mixed Native American man who worked at a casino. He finds the team disinterested by the game and thinks they have no chemistry. They played the game as a sport instead of a sacred game that honors their people and the creator. He tries to fix the problem by buying the newest gear. This changes nothing and they continue to lose to the white prep schools. The team then starts to come together when they tap into their traditions including finding their spirit animals in addition to replacing their factory-made lacrosse sticks with traditional wooden crafted lacrosse sticks. They also play their own unique style of lacrosse that was more creative and freer. Additionally, the players revive an old custom receiving feathers after the game to honor great plays. They continue to win and make it to the championship where they play the best white prep school. The championship attracts college recruiters and many fans for both teams. The Crooked Arrows team ends up winning despite foul play and taunting by the prep school. Ironically, during the course of the game there is a clip of a white woman asking when Indians start playing lacrosse. After the game, the white prep players finally showed respect for the team by telling them they deserved the win and had lots of skill. I believe that through this film, Richard Dyer, and my personal experience, I will be able to show how whiteness has changed the game and taken it away from the Native Americans.

Photo 1 shows Joe Logan at the beginning of the season not invested at all. Photo 2 shows Joe Logan coaching his players and giving advice.

The game has been affected by whiteness in the same ways many other traditions have. The sticks and gear are no longer made out of wood by a man. Sticks are now mass produced by machines in a factory. Instead of wood, they are now made of metal and plastic. Padded gear also has been added to the game This is done by companies run by white men that make a profit off of the sale of such things. As a result, the price of gear rises and makes lacrosse an expensive sport to start playing. The higher price excludes low class families and poor Native Americans on the reservations. This influence is shown when the team in the movie gets the newest gear from the company Reebok. The team eventually switches to wooden sticks carved by an elder, but the initial attempt to get the newest, supposedly best gear shows how much the game has been changed. The game is also changed in who plays it. The game has become a sport all over prep schools, with many wealthy white students playing it. The film also shows how only white boys are playing lacrosse because the Native American team is the only non-prep school team, and the only non-white players. The final example of the effects of whiteness on the game is shown by the monumental line the white woman asked: "When did the Indians start playing lacrosse?" This one line shows how much of the history of lacrosse has been lost and how the game has become the white man’s game. It also shows how the history of it being the ancient Native American game has been lost. It follows the typical theme of the white men taking something that isn't theirs, claiming ownership and taking credit for it.

Photo 1 shows the traditional way the Native Americans played Lacrosse. Photo 2 shows the wooden traditional shafts the team were given. Photo 3 shows Joe Logan giving feathers to the team after there games for making great plays.

Richard Dyer talks about whiteness in his book "White: Essays on Race and Culture". He talks about how whiteness has been created in the United States and how it takes things and creates its own white image of them when he says "white people create the dominant images of the world and don't quite see that they thus construct the world in their own image"(intro). Whiteness has this power as it equates being white to being human; thus, giving them the power. This construction of their own image can change the original intention or way of thought about certain things and in this case lacrosse. Whiteness has constructed the image of lacrosse being a wealthy white game when the original game was played by the Native Americans to honor their creator, not to win a trophy. Also whiteness can be seen in lacrosse by equating being a lacrosse player to being white instead of being Native American or any other race, once again giving white people the power to shape the game in the public's eye.

I have played lacrosse for 10 years in multiple states at every level, including here at Berkeley. In such, I have seen this whiteness in full effect. Throughout my career, I have never used – or seen someone – use a traditional lacrosse stick and I have always wore expensive protective gear. I also have played on many different teams, including countless club teams, in many tournaments over multiple seasons. In all my time, I have never played with or against a single Native American player to my knowledge. This shows how much whiteness has affected the game, as I have never played against a Native American even though it is their traditional game. This is crazy. On these teams, my teammates have mostly been white, and there was not nearly as much diversity as other sports I have played. My current team at Cal – considered a very diverse team – is 90% white and only has a small group of Asian players. Also, throughout my life when people learn that lacrosse was a Native American game, everyone is shocked. Their lack of knowledge on the subject shows the lost history. When I reference Native American terms like "the medicine game", people think I’m talking about the field of medical studies or a game that doctors play. They don’t realize that it is lacrosse, the sacred Native American sport.


In the end, the film shows how whiteness has changed the game into a product and specifically, a white man’s product. The sport has changed drastically and been commercialized, making it a sport for the rich white boy. This shows the performance of America of the white man taking from the Native American and changing it and making it theirs. Also it is another performance of America as the white men works to hide the change and history of the game to act like it wasn't stolen. The film calls out the white community’s lack of knowledge of lacrosse’s history. It also shows how the Native American people need to revitalize their own traditions and keep playing the creator’s game. It has become a sport similar to many other white sports and not the medicine game played for the creator, which is undercutting its importance and history. This is also backed up by my experiences within the sport and shows how widespread it is. The good news is films like Crooked Arrows and other people are fighting to bring awareness and the game back to its Native American owners. With lacrosse being the fastest growing sport in the U.S, there is hope that future generations of players will come to learn its rich history.

Work Cited:

Rash, Steve, director. Crooked Arrows. 2012

DYER, RICHARD. WHITE: Essays on Race and Culture. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.

Photo 1 shows Joe Rogan coaching his team next to his sister and grandma. Photo 2 shows the joy he gets when the team scores and the dismay of the prep school fans behind.

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