How Haudenosaunee women are overcoming stigma to earn a place in lacrosse

Terri Swamp and Amy Lazore are two Haudenosaunee women who love lacrosse. But they struggled with the fact that girls weren't allowed to play. Now they teach the game to the next generation.
(Amy Lazore)

Amy Lazore grew up in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, surrounded by lacrosse, wishing she could play.

"It was the social magnet that brought everyone together. It was something you never questioned."

But "it was always something reserved for the boys, or the men," says Lazore. "The girls were never included and they were never supposed to be."

Amy Lazore with her daughters Jacelyn and Mirabella. (Amy Lazore)

Sometimes Lazore passed a ball around with her brothers in the family's backyard. But she says neighbours would scold her, saying things like, "You shouldn't be doing that" or "You should know better."

Terri Swamp grew up west of Akwesasne, in Seneca Nation territory. Like Lazore, she loved lacrosse. She started playing in 1985 and ended up making the women's Iroquois Nationals team, which represents the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in international competition.

"I remember making the team ... and I was so proud. And my mother kept reminding me, 'Don't let it get to your head!'"

Swamp says she did not grow up in a traditional home. So she had trouble understanding why clan mothers, who oversee their clan's wellbeing, showed up to a Nationals game one day, urging the women not to play, because the  game is a medicine game, meant only for men.

"I had no clue who they were and after finding out they were clan mothers that didn't want the girls to be playing, I started to do a little bit of searching for information on what was going on. A couple of the girls knew why we weren't and so they shared, 'Well girls aren't supposed to be playing lacrosse, it's a medicine game, it's only for men to be playing, and that's why they don't want us to be playing.' So after that incident happening, our Iroquois Nationals team stopped playing for a long time."

(Amy Lazore)

The women's team has since been reorganized but Swamp and Lazore began learning more about the opposition to women playing lacrosse, which holds a significant place in the Haudenosaunee Creation Story.

"I think that's what makes it sacred," Lazore says, "it was passed down from the stories, from generations and generations ago, it originated from the Creator, it was a gift given to heal people's minds and to heal disputes."

Swamp says she still doesn't know why the clan mothers showed up to that particular game. But she points to the use of wooden sticks by some teammates as a possible reason.

"From what I have learned, women are not to touch wooden sticks at all," Swamp says.  

As a kid, Lazore heard similar things. When she asked why, she says people told her, 'If you touch the stick, you're gonna take the power, and that stick will be useless.'

Now, Lazore knows the significance behind wooden sticks in lacrosse as a medicine game.

"The hickory sticks they used to make the wooden lacrosse sticks were something you picked out. It was made for you, and it stays with you your whole life. So that had a lot of meaning. It was not just a possession that you get and then, 'Oh I want a different one', or 'I want a better one.' So you always knew they were special."    

Lazore says plastic sticks became available in the 1980s but opposition to girls lacrosse lingered.

Lazore and Swamp helped initiate change by organizing a girls lacrosse program and by coaching teams. Both say they always respect a family's choice to decide whether or not they want their daughters or granddaughters to play.

"The women here are playing a modern version of the game. It's not even what you see on T.V., with the men in the helmets and the pads. There are no pads, there's just goggles. They don't hit each other. Their bodies do not touch and if they do, the referee calls a fall and they have to either take two minutes or be ejected from the game. You cannot hit somebody in the women's game."

As coach of Salmon River High School's girls varsity lacrosse, Swamp has seen this happen first hand.  

(Amy Lazore)

"I had one player, where her grandmother did not want her to be playing lacrosse, she didn't feel she should be playing. They are a traditional family, but her mother allowed her to play because she was a very good lacrosse player, and she knew when she was playing it, she was very happy doing it. And so they worked with her grandmother to help her to realize it wasn't something where they were disrespecting what the game is meant as a medicine game, but more as a recreational activity for her to stay active. It wasn't until her last few games … that [the player's grandmother] finally came to watch her."

While girls in Akwesasne are making lacrosse their own, Lazore still sees it as something they've inherited.

"I do believe that it came from the Creator," says Lazore. "I like to think it gives you wings. I mean I know that's kind of cliche. But I don't know any other way to describe it because it gives girls a chance to be lifted up, and given a chance to do something that is unique because it originated in North America and it originated with their own people. And it becomes part of the weave of the fabric here. It becomes so, 'Of course girls play. We have great players in our community. We raised them.'"