Professional lacrosse star and Onondaga native Lyle Thompson is the most prolific scorer in the history of the game. In 2015, he shattered the NCAA Division I career scoring record at the University of Albany, and has continued to score goals in bunches while drawing big crowds as a professional player.
While lacrosse has for decades been dominated by players from New England prep schools and tony suburbs between Long Island and Baltimore, Thompson has always tied his success in the sport to his identity as Onondaga, a nation within the Iroquois Confederacy that is widely credited with having played an early version of lacrosse prior to the arrival of white settlers. In college, Thompson sometimes attended award ceremonies in traditional Native garb, including when he became the first player in history to win back-to-back Tewaaraton Awards (given to the country's best player, the award's name is drawn from a Native word for the game and the trophy depicts a Native American). In 2014, he led the Iroquois National lacrosse team, which competes as an independent country, to third place out of 30 countries at the Lacrosse World Championships in Denver.
Since leaving Albany, Thompson has spoken out on Native issues on social media. During the World Series, he posed for a picture on Instagram, where he has 55,000 followers, wearing a sweatshirt that mocked the Cleveland Indian's Chief Wahoo mascot. The post got mostly positive responses and support from other lacrosse stars.
In late November, Thompson traveled to the Oceti Sakowin protest camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where thousands of Native Americans have gathered since last summer to protest a planned leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline. He was accompanied by his family, business partner Bill O'Brien, who is also Onondaga, and his coach at Albany, Scott Marr, who is white.
Thompson says his trip had two goals, aimed at two different audiences: within the mostly white lacrosse world, he wanted to bring attention to one of the most unifying events within Native culture in decades; to his fellow Native people in Standing Rock, he wanted to ensure that the traditional roots and unifying power of the sport—its role, he says, as a "medicine game"—would be present at the protests.
We spoke to Thompson shortly after the Department of the Army announced that it was looking into alternate routes for the pipeline—a victory for the protestors and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Now that there has been a breakthrough on the permitting side and construction appears to be at a halt, at least in the short term, what are you hearing from people who are there and facing a deadline to leave?
From what they were saying to us, people there plan to be there for the winter or even longer. People were chopping wood and building heavier tents for the winter and whatnot. I think some people might leave, but I think there will be a handful of people who will stay.
When did you decide you wanted to go and why?
I decided that I really wanted to go (after seeing coverage of a) night where a lot was happening on the front lines. A lot of people getting sprayed, getting hit with rubber bullets. That's when I wanted to be out there and be a part of it. Me and my wife decided we were gonna go, and Coach Marr he let me know he wanted to come.
As it worked out, you arrived the morning after one of the worst nights of clashes, when authorities sprayed protesters with a water cannon in frigid temperatures and, according to protestors, badly injured at least one civilian with a concussion grenade [authorities at Standing Rock denied any explosives were used]. How did people describe that night to you the next day?
When we were almost to Chicago, I got a bunch of messages from everybody letting me know what was going on. People were telling me it was not a good idea to be going out there, but I didn't think it mattered. I wanted to be out there.
I was talking to a photographer who was a student at Syracuse. They were in the back, filming everything. They said it felt like they were in a war zone. That's what everybody was saying. There was this one guy who had been really active on the front line. He'd been living off the campground. He was telling me that that every time he got closer [to authorities], they'd fired kind of a warning shot at him.
From upstate New York, you drove 30 hours each way to reach Standing Rock [Marr, Thompson said, did most of the driving]. What did it look like when you arrived?
When we came in, we actually ran into the National Guard. We ran into a big hummer with two National Guard people there. They were telling us we couldn't take the route we were going. It was actually pretty funny. Bill was trying to explain what he was doing, and we got through there.
Every nation that showed up set up a flag along this driveway, like 100 flags set up there for different tribes. They had a motivational speaker and some other tribal elders talking to everyone about what was going on. Bill asked if I could get up and speak. I introduced myself and my native language and let everybody know why I was here and that I planned on getting the word out on what's been going on.
Lacrosse traces its roots directly to a Native game played before whites arrived on the continent, and a lot of the sport's traditions and symbols, like the Tewaaraton Award, reference that history. But the modern game is and always has been primarily played by white middle and upper classes. How do you think your Native activism, in a game that claims Native roots, plays to a mostly white fan base?
My father brought up the point that my followers are lacrosse players, that's where they all come from and for the most part they are most likely going be privileged white kids. My father looks at it in a bad way. I look at as, 'Alright, so these kids obviously don't know what's going on, I'm gonna let them know.'
As far as the mascot thing, I wasn't always educated on that. I read up on it in college and started learning more about that. And now it's just something I want to give my perspective on. From what I see on things like Columbus day, Thanksgiving, mascot issues—you hear all these Native Americans talking out about it and I agree with some, disagree with others.
I find myself reaching people but I definitely find myself up against a good amount of people who disagree. It doesn't bother me. I thought that people needed to hear it whether they agree or disagree. Maybe forty percent of those people might view it as positive and support us and the other sixty percent might not. But to me there's a percent that support us. That people disagree doesn't matter to me. I'm supporting what I believe in and that's what mattered.
You got a lot of attention, good and bad, after the World Series. What has been the reaction since going to Standing Rock?
Something I was surprised about was all the positive feedback and positive support. I've heard from a lot teammates and different people texting and letting me know they are supporting it and they are on the same side. I think more and more people are becoming aware of it.
The sticks you took to Standing Rock weren't the metal and plastic kind that most people think of in the modern game. Instead, you took hand-carved wooden sticks that your family had made over the years in the of traditional Native American lacrosse. You've said that was keeping with the goal of bringing the tradition of a 'medicine game' to the camp. Can you explain what that means?
I grabbed all my brother's sticks; my dad and my father-in-law had a decent amount of sticks. I grabbed his wooden sticks because I wanted to make it as close to a medicine game as possible. For anyone who didn't know the game, the way we play back home, we play our medicine game, where the stick holds the medicine. I wanted whoever played to understand the background history of the game.
I threw the sticks in the middle. We played a game to 5, then the losing team wanted a rematch so we played another game to 5. Then we let some others play who were standing around and wanting to get in on the action. So we played until it got dark, maybe hour and half 2 hours a little more including the drills
For us as Native Americans, it's the way we view the game growing up, which is kind of the way we view life. Every spring we have a traditional night and a traditional game when we do our planting ceremony, when all the plant life comes back. We have a ceremony to give thanks for the new plant life and the new season. And the same thing for lacrosse, we give thanks for the game when a new season is coming. There's anywhere from 50, 80 to 160 people playing all at once, from all ages. We burn tobacco before the game and a speaker talks about why we play the game. They say, in this game we're not going to play to win, we're going to play for the Creator who gave us this game and we're going play as medicine. We're going to go out there and play your hardest and have fun, and those are the two main points of the game that I was taught since I was a kid. It's never about scoring, about points, about wins or losses; it's about showing up, playing your hardest and having fun.
Once you find a way to make the game be medicine for yourself, then find a way to make it medicine for others. To me, it helps me play harder for people who are of an age that aren't able to run up and down the field. For them, it's a joy to watch. And when you think that, the harder you play the stronger the medicine is. And the same for young kids. I'm an example for those kids, of how to play the game. I'm setting an example for when they get older. It's the reason we play the way we play. When people look at how I play, I don't want them to see that I'm a top scorer. I want them to see that I play defense as hard as I can, I go after every ground ball as hard as I can. I want them to see me play as hard as I can and if I lose I want to lose with a smile on my face.
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