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Wood Stick Festival Celebrates History of Lacrosse in CNY

The history of lacrosse was in display over the weekend as only the founders of the game could present it.  Philip Arnold is chair of the religion department at Syracuse University, and helped create the Haudenosaunee Wood Stick Festival.  

“Most people don’t know that lacrosse is a Haudenosaunee game. It came from Onondaga Lake over a thousand years ago, it united five warring nations around this principle of peace. And so for me, this is an educational event, but what we’ve done this year is tie it to the elite-level lacrosse players like the Thompson brothers, for example.”

Miles Thompson is native to the Onondaga Nation and is an elite player for the Iroquois Nationals. He was raised with the sport and expects to pass it down to his sons.

 “It’s in our ways…when a male child is born, there’s three things that we say to the child that’s said to us when we’re given our name: to carry on our language, to carry on our sacred songs, and to carry on the game of lacrosse. When we’re born, we’re given our traditional wooden stick.”

Lacrosse stick maker Alf Jaques shows children how a traditional lacrosse stick is made (2016)

The festival had demonstrations on how to craft traditional lacrosse sticks. The wooden sticks play a key role in the lives of males in the Onondaga Nation and are kept with them their whole life.

 “When I was born, I was given a traditional wooden stick. As males, we pass the game down and when we pass away, we’re buried with a traditional wooden stick in our coffin, so to have this event here and what’s going on here, it’s good to see because it’s not only about the game of lacrosse, it’s about Native Americans and their crafts.

Lacrosse is often called a ‘Medicine Game’ in the Onondaga Nation. The game was given to the Nation by their god, the Creator. Arnold said its two purposes were to entertain The Creator and bring peace and healing to its players.

“This idea of ‘ska nonh’ that we are trying to promote at Onondaga Lake means ‘peace’ so you’ll hear some people say nya wenha ska nonh.’ That means ‘thank you for being well’, but it’s peace that comes when human beings are in proper harmonious relationship to the natural world. From my point of view, this is where that idea of medicine comes from, that if you play the game hard without anger to the fullest extent of your ability, then you can really make an impact, a kind of connection to the world.”

The game of lacrosse is now played across the world and according to Betty Lyons of the Onondaga Nation, is one of the fastest growing sports. She’s happy to see people adopting the game.

“It’s only gaining momentum. There’s so much growth with this sport all over. If you’re talking just within the United States, that in and of itself is huge. They never used to have teams in Florida and California and there are a lot of places that never had any teams and now they’re learning the game, they’re learning where it comes from. This is the birthplace of lacrosse, so why wouldn’t they come here?”

The Wood Stick Festival hosted booths for native crafts, promoted education on the history of Onondaga Nation, and held lacrosse matches Sunday in the Syracuse University Carrier Dome.