The Thompson Brothers Bring Lacrosse Home to the Iroquois

After centuries of white men appropriating the game, the Thompsons' effective streetball style gives them a shot to win gold for the Iroquois.

by Liam Daniel Pierce
Sep 27 2015, 4:20pm

Roman Knertser

Three days before the most important tournament of their lives, the Thompson brothers—arguably some of the best players in the history of lacrosse—and their Iroquois national teammates started playfully lacing lacrosse balls through the rafters of Onondaga's brand new lacrosse arena.

The arena's huge arching beams—that make you feel like you're inside the ribcage of a giant wooden whale—have a gap about the size of a small refrigerator 40 feet up, which the Thompsons used as a detour to score on the four-foot-by-four-foot goal at the other end.

Even though workers were outside putting finishing touches on the $6.5 million Nike-sponsored building, made to resemble a traditional longhouse, Iroquois national head coach Rich Kilgour didn't stop his players from messing around. "Growing up on the res is a totally different experience," said Kilgour, who was raised on a Tuscarora reservation. "Guys are more creative. It comes from trying crazy stuff—hey that worked—and next, you try it in the game."

Kilgour just watched from the side, chuckling with his staff. "We would've started playing that a half hour earlier than these young guys," he said.

The kind of creative backyard, streetball style of lacrosse that the four Thompson brothers have mastered is simultaneously revolutionizing the Iroquois-invented game and reconnecting it to its origins. Now, with the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships being held on the Thompsons' home reservation of Onondaga—with 13 national teams arriving for the first international sports tournament hosted on indigenous lands—the Iroquois and the Thompsons are literally bringing the sport home, and showing the world how it was always meant to be played.

"We had the tricks a long time ago, and we didn't get it from Gary Gait or Mikey Powell," said Alfie Jacques, referring to two white legends of the game. Known as the "Stickmaker of the Iroquois," Jacques, also from Onondaga, is an unofficial ambassador of lacrosse. "But it's already been here. We have our own heroes—always have."

The Thompsons have eviscerated NCAA lacrosse records the past two years at the University at Albany. Some have called Lyle Thompson, the youngest brother, the best college athlete in a generation. He and his brother Miles Thompson ironically became the first Native Americans to win the Mohawk-named Tewaaraton Award in 2014, given out to lacrosse's best college player. They also were the first people ever to tie for it. Lyle would go on to win again in 2015, after finishing with a record-breaking 400 college career points, breezing past the previous record of 354.

But the impact they're making on the game isn't so much about the numbers as how they got those numbers.

"It's so unscripted. It's very natural, spontaneous." says Quint Kessenich, an All-American goalkeeper from Johns Hopkins and the premier sportscaster for the game since 1991. "The roots are from the time they spent playing pickup against each other in the backyard. In a game that's become very much over-coached, they're a breath of fresh air."

Lyle Thompson makes a run for an outlet pass. Photos by Roman Knertser.

Up until now, lacrosse's best players have fit the profile of the yacht-setting, ivory tower elite. Cornell, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, Duke, Syracuse, and UVA are among the traditional lacrosse powerhouses. Contemporary lacrosse culture, known for its pervasive bro-ishness, betrays the kind of lacrosse the Thompson brothers promote.

"I know that the game has changed over the years—it's not the same as what it was a hundred years ago," Lyle Thompson said. "But every time I think of lacrosse, I think of it as a medicine game. I still carry that when I play for team Iroquois."

The five Thompson siblings—Jeremy, Jerome Jr. (Haina), Miles, Lyle, and their sister Crystal—grew up on Onondaga in a house their iron-worker father Jerome built, with no electricity or running water. (According to the 2010 Census, reservations suffer a 28.4 percent poverty rate—compared to 16 percent in the rest of the country.) They didn't play Halo or watch TV like other kids in the neighborhood. Instead, the brothers would go out into weather that often dipped into the negative 10's, and shoot on a piece of plywood in which Jerome (a former lacrosse player himself) drilled a hole just big enough to fit a 2.5" diameter lacrosse ball. It was there that they developed a penchant for underhanded passes, flip shots, and no-look goals.

"When [the Thompsons] do something crazy, creative, when you get that smile on your face, when you get those goosebumps," says Bill O'Brien, a childhood friend of the Thompsons and their unofficial manager, "that is the medicine we're referring to."

The Thompsons grew up in a spiritual household, devoid of drugs and alcohol, and spent part of their education within the all-Mohawk language Akwesasne Freedom School. The school was founded in 1979 as a part of the cultural and spiritual reclamation movement born as a countermeasure to the sterilizing residential schools on reservations, where physical and sexual abuse ran rampant and indigenous languages were banned. Growing up, the Thompson brothers and their Iroquois national teammates had a connection to the game that even their parent's generation didn't have.

Lacrosse was originally played by tribes living in the Northeast and the Great Plains with upwards of hundreds of players on fields of unlimited size. French fur trappers saw the game being played, and thought the sticks were similar to the bishop's crook, "le crosier," and subsequently named the game lacrosse. The French also started the misconception that the Native American word for lacrosse is "little brother of war," and that the game acted as a substitute for battle. But the Mohawk word "tewaaraton" (De-wah-alla-doon) is just a literal translation for the game. The Onondaga word for lacrosse, on the other hand, simply means "they bump hips."

While the game was used to settle land disputes, and at one point was used to distract British troops before a massacre at the hands of the Ojibwa tribe, lacrosse was mostly seen as a healing power for the men who played it. The connection between a man (Iroquois women were only recently allowed to play) and the once-living object of a wooden stick is a communion between players and the Creator, healing the body, and purging thoughts of violence. The game, played at its best, is a creative, spiritual act. The Thompson brothers, like most Iroquois men, were given a stick on the day of their birth.

Lacrosse was no exception to the centuries of white men raping, enslaving, sterilizing, and stealing from Native Americans. Europeans started playing the game in 1840 around Montreal and by the 1890's, Iroquois players were banned from competing in Canadian tournaments on the grounds that they were considered to be professionals. Essentially, Iroquois weren't allowed to play because they were too good.

Coach Kilgour watches over the Iroquois practice, with the Haudenosaunee flag looming in the background. Photos by Roman Knertser.

The Iroquois national team only started to build momentum in 1983, when the Iroquois—predominantly indoor players at the time—were invited to play Canada in an exhibition field game before the NCAA championship. Canada held the 1986 World Games and again didn't invite the Iroquois to play. But in 1987, there was a leadership change in the Canadian Lacrosse Association, and the Iroquois national team was finally accepted into the Federation of International Lacrosse.

Oren Lyons, a former player and an advocate of indigenous rights who was on that first Iroquois national team, told Inside Lacrosse Magazine in 2014, "I once asked US Lacrosse, 'How big is your player pool?' and they responded, 'We've got 380,000, 400,000.' Canada is about 16,000. England was about the same. Australia was a bit less. Ours was about 100."

It's not surprising, then, that Onondaga considers hosting the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships to be more than just something to be proud of—like say when a country bids for and then hosts the FIFA World Cup—but a global recognition of their nationhood.

"This is sovereignty stuff here," said Jacques.

The mere existence of reservations like Onondaga represents a hard-fought battle with U.S. and Canadian governments to ensure that they remain self-governing entities. In New York State alone, Haudenosaunee have spent over 45 years in courts to reclaim 400,000 acres illegally taken from them in the territory-dividing fallout of the Revolutionary War.

Iroquois players arrived this week from the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (haw-den-O-sho-nee)—a confederacy of Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora tribes in which Onondaga plays the central role—that spreads from Pennsylvania across the state of New York and up to Canada. Meanwhile, the other 13 teams from across the world showed up to compete against them. (The Thompsons only had to go two miles down the road.)

The Iroquois have an always-a-bridesmaid record of getting silver in the quadrennial tournament, which started in 2003. After taking a strong lead for three quarters of their game (Miles Thompson had a stunning behind-the-back goal) against perennial gold-winners Canada in group stages, the Iroquois lost 9-11. Tonight, they face Canada again for the gold.

The Turkish keeper warms up in Onondaga's new arena. Photos by Roman Knertser.

Two days before the tournament, the Iroquois hosted a joint-practice session for the Turkish team, who had arrived a few days before. About 300 people—Native and non-native—came out to watch under the lights of the pavilion. Solid rubber lacrosse balls pinged off of the artificial turf and hockey rink glass, only to sigh into the safety nets, while kids collected them as they dropped down.

The Turkish team, in their first year in the tournament, boasted brand new uniforms featuring the Turkish flag's lone star and crescent moon splashed across the front. Their captain Patrick Dougherty is an American expat who played for a club team in Tampa Bay, Florida before moving to Turkey with his Turkish wife, and starting the national team in 2009.

In Turkey, two-dollar Lacrosse balls go for as much as eleven dollars each and players are known to have jumped into the Mediterranean to save them. The majority of Dougherty's teammates have played for only a year and this will be their first time ever playing the indoor iteration of the game. Invented in the cold of Montreal during the 1920s and 30s, indoor, or "box," lacrosse is known for its speed and brutality— it's essentially a mix between hockey and field lacrosse played in a melted down hockey rink with different helmets and pads.

The Iroquois were teaching Turkish players—who are playing on a different tournament tier than the Iroquois—some basic line drills. As the Turkish players ran down the field, they frequently glanced at their sticks to make sure the ball was still there, before taking a shot. Every goal on an Iroquois keeper elicited a shout of glee from the Turkish team, and smiles on the faces of Iroquois players. The Iroquois, meanwhile, where outscoring their new Turkish friends with trick shots (one-handed, behind-the-back, underhanded) at a rate of about three-to-one.

The majority of spectators in the pavilion started to leave halfway through the practice, disappointed that the drills didn't turn into a scrimmage.

"I think everybody was expecting a little bit more," said Lyle Thompson, laughing. But he saw the practice as being a bigger part of Onondaga's role in this tournament.

"It's educating everybody—how important this game is to us, where this game comes from, how it's medicine," said Lyle. "Everyone's going to know just by the setting."