Though the term “cultural appropriation” has only recently become a widespread trigger word in public discourse, the practice has been a part of society for centuries. A perfect example is lacrosse, which usually brings to mind elitist images of private school-educated WASPs. To make matters worse, this relatively niche sport received perhaps its most prominent headlines for a college rape scandal. But this unfortunate reputation perfectly exemplifies how the sport has been misappropriated throughout its long history. In “Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation,” directors Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter turn the spotlight on the Native American founders of the game, giving lacrosse a much needed face lift through this vital documentary.
Lacrosse was invented by the Iroquois people, a confederacy of the six main tribes of Native Americans in North America. With its roots reaching as far back as 1100 AD, it became a fixture of their culture. But when the colonial powers invaded, they also adopted the sport. Decades later, lacrosse evolved into an international sport, with the USA and Canada emerging as two of the best teams.
The Iroquois held on tight to their beloved “medicine game” however, eventually forming their own team called the Iroquois Nationals in the late 1980s. As expected, they quickly rose to the top of the world ranks, despite the various sociopolitical hurdles thrown their way. Their biggest challenge would come in 2015 however, when the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships are to be hosted by the Iroquois on their home soil. Through this monumental undertaking, the Iroquois are tested to prove their ability to execute the logistics and perform on the world stage, while simultaneously being forced to revisit the ugly politics and painful history associated with the sport.
Indeed, the story of lacrosse is inseparable from the history of the Native American people. This fact is made clear throughout, as the film goes into enlightening detail about the sport’s meaning. From its mythic origins as a gift from the Creator, to its communal use among the people, the reverence for lacrosse is truly affecting. In this regard, Spirer and Baxter give the film a nice personal touch, centering much of film around the Thompson family, which includes a trio of brothers who are all stars on the Iroquois team. As we get insight into their domestic lives balancing family, work and their sporting ambitions, they become easily relatable. In particular, a parallel is instantly drawn to the American tradition of baseball, as we see the family casually playing a lacrosse version of catch in their backyard.
If the family-oriented aspects capture the spiritual nature of lacrosse, then the game footage celebrates the exceptionalism of the Iroquois. With the use of impressive stats and riveting shots of the Iroquois Nationals in action, there’s a keen sense of a unique “David and Goliath” situation. Though the Iroquois team draws from a much smaller pool of players, the lacrosse world respects this “David” for their unparalleled skills and effective teamwork.
Despite the fierce athleticism displayed on the field however, the film never loses sight of the peaceful essence of the game. But while the camaraderie expressed in the staging of the World Championships offers an importantly positive image of Native Americans as well as upholding the concept of sportsmanship, the filmmaking itself is almost too polite. Specifically, there’s an underlying friction that Spirer and Baxter don’t sufficiently interrogate. One particular instance of disrespect from the Canadian team would have provided added perspective on the relationship between Canada and the Iroquois, especially in the context of indoor lacrosse (which the Canadians emphatically claim as their own). Unfortunately, this tension is mostly swept under the rug to focus on the more inspiring success story of the team.
Those expecting an incendiary testimony of the shameful social and political history tied to lacrosse and Native Americans may therefore be disappointed. While mention is made of the troubling “Doctrine of Discovery” that legalized the capture of Native American land, the narrative structure places greater emphasis on sports action that would be more intriguing to existing lacrosse fans. The ending for example, is essentially a mere replay of the World Championship final. But while the filmmaking may not be as sharp as the elite athletes on display, “Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation” still delivers an invaluable history lesson on lacrosse and North American colonialism as a whole.
“Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation” opens in select theaters May 26. It will also be available on VOD and iTunes on June 20th