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When Rex Lyons was a teenager, he excelled at lacrosse. At age 17, he made the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team. Word of Rex’s superior skill and performance as an attackman spread throughout the Onondaga Nation, and he began to feel special.
The nation’s Clan Mother sat Rex down. “You played a great game the other night,” she told him. “But you know, I’ve been hearing things.”
The Clan Mother’s tone changed. “You’re a lacrosse player, and a good one. This community loves the gift the Creator gave you,” she explained. “But it’s a gift. It’s not for you. You have to respect it and take care of it.”
Rex could feel his ego subsiding. “You,” the Clan Mother made clear, “are not special. The game is special.”
The Onondaga Nation is one of six in upper New York state comprising the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (who the French called Iroquois and the English called Six Nations). The other nations are the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Lacrosse was gifted to the Haudenosaunee by the Creator over a thousand years ago as a Medicine Game promoting health, wellness, and spiritual activity.
Looking back through history, there weren’t many (if any) team sports. Onlookers were struck by this extraordinary game and culture. For Rex, lacrosse is about the common good. It’s fundamental to the Haudenosaunee and it’s part of their instruction process for their children.
When Haudenosaunee players shake hands with opponents after a game, they’re giving thanks. They’re thanking opponents who challenged them, made them dig deep, find their courage, and test their limits. In this way, opponents are also teammates. “We have wins and losses,” Rex says. “We’re human, not perfect. We play with a good mind and an open heart, and we try to do better the next time.”
Lacrosse is a great way to teach youth that life is not all good, good all the time, or instantly good. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline to succeed. Just as the Haudenosaunee use lacrosse for instruction, they also use stories and their oral traditions.
Rex remembers a story an elder wiseman once told him. “Imagine that everything good is in your right leg,” the wiseman said. “In your left leg is disappointment, death, illness—everything bad. When you try to hop around on your right leg, you can’t get far.” We have two legs and need both for life’s journey. We experience both good and bad.
This philosophy of interconnectedness is what makes the Iroquois Nationals so good at lacrosse. The Haudenosaunee are governed by the key values of peace, friendship, and healing, and it’s evident they don’t compartmentalize.
As a sovereign nation, the Haudenosaunee have been fighting for their independence since the first European landfall. The struggle has presented challenges on all fronts, even in international sport competition. Given the political landscape and no National Olympic Committee of their own, the Iroquois Nationals were excluded from the World Games for lacrosse’s inaugural inclusion to the 2022 World Games.
The Iroquois Nationals challenged this decision and, with global support, won their rightful place in the World Games. “We’re a sovereign nation ranked third in the world,” Rex says. “With lacrosse being our game, we belong in the World Games. We belong anywhere our gift to the world is being played."
As we recognize and pay tribute to the ancestry and traditions of Native Americans this month, we can see how the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s mandate are integral to the sport of lacrosse and all who play and watch. Lacrosse is not just a sport. It’s a history lesson, a timeless story, and a vehicle for self-determination.
“Stay true to who you are,” Rex says, “and play on.”
Rex Lyons, a member of the Eel Clan of the Onondaga Nation, is a former player and current Board Member of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team. Rex is also President and Spokesperson for the Iroquois Nationals Development Group, a nonprofit whose mission is: To prepare our Haudenosaunee and Indigenous youth for international competition, raise awareness of the traditional and cultural aspects of the game of lacrosse, and expose our players to educational opportunities.