Girls tackling taboos by playing box lacrosse at North American Indigenous Games
First time that women’s teams allowed to participate in the sport at NAIG
As Mackenzie and Taylor Deleary lug their gear into the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., they exude enthusiasm for their favourite sport.
"Everyone calls lacrosse the fastest game on two feet," says 17-year-old Mackenzie. "I like the roughness and the teamwork."
Her 18-year-old sister, Taylor, takes pride in lacrosse having been invented by Indigenous peoples.
"We created it. It's the first game really, before Canada was even a thing," she says.
The two sisters join their teammates in the dressing room, yanking on shoulder pads and helmets, then hit the floor as Team Ontario.
They're getting ready to play at the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) July 16-23 in Toronto, where more than 5,000 Indigenous athletes from across Canada and the U.S. will compete in 14 sports.
And these girls will be breaking barriers — the first time in the 25-year history of NAIG that women's box lacrosse teams will be allowed to participate.
"I'm going to get to talk to future generations like, 'I was on the first woman NAIG lacrosse team,'" Taylor says. "That's amazing to say."
Traditionally, in Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) communities, women have been enthusiastic supporters of lacrosse, but playing it was taboo.
"Lacrosse is known as a medicine game and it was made for the men in that respect," says Mekwan Tulpin, a Cree from Fort Albany First Nation who plays for Canada's national field lacrosse team and is helping coach Team Ontario.
In Haudenosaunee culture, women are viewed as spiritually powerful, especially during their menstrual cycle. Among traditionalists, this conflicted with another teaching: that lacrosse is a sacred medicine game and that the stick itself is a form of medicine and power.
"A lot of our Nations don't allow women to play lacrosse," says Team Ontario head coach Pat Pembleton. "To me, that's a big honour to be here coaching these girls."
The participation of Indigenous women in lacrosse has been gaining momentum since the 1980s, but Tulpin believes this year's NAIG may act as an important turning point. He says they've had better attendance for the women's tryouts and practices than the men's.
"And that just goes to show the excitement and the dedication that they have to wanting this opportunity for themselves," Tulpin says.
A sporting family
Mackenzie Deleary is keen to use the NAIG opportunity to advance her dream of playing lacrosse at a U.S. college, where she hopes to study kinesiology.
"My end dream with lacrosse is just to take what I know from the sport and eventually like help other athletes who might get hurt," Mackenzie says. "That's my dream to do. Help other athletes. Achieve their dreams."
The Deleary sisters hail from the Chippewas of Thames First Nation, near London, Ont., where their whole family is active in sports. All four Deleary children play lacrosse and hockey, in addition to high school sports, and they're all competing at NAIG: 16-year-old Calin is kayaking for Team Ontario, while 13-year-old Sydney will play on the Team Ontario basketball squad.
Parents Mark Deleary and Sheri Haselbah admit it gets hectic, getting their kids to all their practices, games and tournaments. But they're both firm believers in the power of sport to encourage Indigenous youth.
"I was just so happy they all made a team," Haselbah says with a laugh. "I like the fact that [NAIG] is promoting Indigenous children and their sports and activities, and gives them a chance to compete on that high level right they might not normally get through the regular sports system."
Mackenzie Deleary says NAIG represents something for kids to look forward to.
"Instead of like feeling sad about stuff or just get into bad habits, they say, 'Wow, if I go to my practices and I train really hard, I get a reward in a big way at NAIG.'"
This year's North American Indigenous Games are being held in Toronto, Ont., July 16-23.