For centuries, Native Americans played an early version of lacrosse, often called the Creator’s game, in service of a higher power and a higher purpose. Invented by North American tribes in the 1400s, games were played over several days by as many as hundreds of people. The competitions had multiple social roles: spiritual cleansing, conflict resolution, and preparation for war. But after being adopted, and adapted, by European settlers in the mid-1800s, it was effectively gentrified. Today lacrosse is better known as a prep school pastime for white suburbanites, which makes it all the more thrilling to see 23-year-old Lyle Thompson zigging past defenders and swinging his stick behind his back, a long black braid whipping through the air in his wake, as he fully embodies his tribal name, Deyhasanoondey: He’s flying over us.
Lyle belongs to the Onondaga, one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. He grew up on a reservation just south of Syracuse, New York, alongside three older brothers — Jeremy, Hiana, and Miles — all of whom play lacrosse professionally today. He got good by practicing on a backyard goal that his father, an iron worker, had covered with a piece of plywood containing a hole just big enough to fit a lacrosse ball’s 2.5 inches. Since then, Lyle has grown to become the NCAA’s all-time points leader; when he and Miles shared the Tewaaraton Trophy in 2014, they were the first Native Americans to win it. The next year, Lyle became the first person to win the award twice. Now he’s grinding out his rookie year in the pros, splitting his time between two teams in two leagues: outdoors for the Florida Launch and indoors for the Georgia Swarm.
Over the phone on the eve of a playoff game, Lyle spoke about the significance of lacrosse to his community and why he plays for more than medals.
Native Americans call lacrosse the medicine game. Why?
LYLE THOMPSON: There’s two different ways of looking at the game of lacrosse. Say someone has cancer or something going on with their body, we set up a game for that person. That’s an individual medicine game. You go out and play this game for that person. It’s meant to be a physical game, you’re meant to get hurt. Some people are meant to get bumps and bruises, and the energy goes to the person who’s sick.
The other way it’s medicine is that it’s medicine for myself. I’m playing the game and it’s bettering me, it’s bettering my body, my attitude, and my mind. I play with a clear mind, I play to have fun, to have a positive attitude. That is the medicine for my life. At the same time, when people watch, it’s medicine for them, too, even if they might not be looking for medicine.
You’ve spoken about the amount of talent on reservations that goes unrealized. What do you think contributes to the lack of Native Americans playing college lacrosse?
Before me — well, I’ll say before my brothers — there was a lack of positive examples. My brothers were some of the top recruits in the country, and they didn’t have anyone really who did it before them. My parents had no idea how to even get them to college. They didn’t know the whole process of the NCAA Clearinghouse and the ACTs and SATs, all that stuff. But once my older brothers did it, it taught my parents how to do it with me. Once we got there, we were a huge step in the stairwell of getting more and more kids to college. A lot of Native Americans have to go through similar things, like drug and alcohol abuse, lack of education, lack of parents who experienced education, you know? In our culture, school isn’t the most important thing. Our culture is more important.
Why is lacrosse more than a game to you?
Lacrosse is not like other sports, where people play to win. Yeah, I like winning, but that’s not why I play the game. I play for my people, for my community, for my family, and for my heritage.
I was born into lacrosse, and a lot of people in my community were too. There’s pictures of me crawling around with my stick in my hand, before I could even walk. And that’s the case for a lot of Native Americans. Every kid on the reservation tries the game — not because they want to but because it’s a part of us. Now, anyone who sees me play, they see my hair. They see the way I play a free game, a freestyle way of playing lacrosse. That’s the way we play where I come from.
When your brothers wore traditional regalia to their high school graduation, students and parents protested against them.
My brothers had it a lot worse, as far as being on the field and hearing things from other players and other parents. But me and Miles, being big names in college, there was a big change. Come his senior year and my junior year, everyone knew our story. It helped. You get to know someone a little bit better, you understand them a little bit better. We still hear a little bit of racism here and there but we’re respected a lot more.
And you recently founded Thompson Brothers Lacrosse, which runs lacrosse youth camps across the country.
People ask, “Can lacrosse be a mainstream sport?” I think it can. It’s just a process. It might not be for me, but the kids behind me might have an opportunity to play lacrosse and for it to be big-time. I want to be a part of that. With Thompson Brothers Lacrosse, we want to help grow the game of lacrosse in the right way. When I was a kid there was one team for my age within our community. Now there’s three or four teams. For me, growing up, there was one person to look up to. For these kids now, there's 50.