Flathead Teens Take Up Traditional Game
Centuries before the sport was called lacrosse, it had people who played it, and what a game it was.
Up to 1,000 men at a time would grab sticks, and chase a ball over fields that could run for miles.
A single game could last 72 hours.
“I don’t know if this part is true,” Alex Alviar says, “but I’ve heard stories about it. They’d play for two to three days, and there were no boundaries, just goals that were three to five miles apart. They’d hide in trees with the ball, and I suppose they could run out at night and score a goal.”
Native Americans invented lacrosse – “The Creator’s game,” some of them called it – although it took a French Jesuit priest, Jean de Brebeuf, to give it its present-day moniker.
Brebeuf first saw Iroquois Indians play the game in 1637 and dubbed it la crosse, which in French, means “the stick.”
The field and number of players to a side (10) have shrunk in the centuries since, but lacrosse’s forerunner is very much a traditional Native game.
For Alviar, a teacher at Salish Kootenai College who grew up playing the sport in Detroit and continues to do so in Missoula, it didn’t seem right that as lacrosse began gaining popularity in Montana (see related story, Page A1), the state’s Indian reservations weren’t a part of it.
So he brought lacrosse to the Flathead Indian Reservation last year.
“What I’m seeing more and more of in my classrooms is a lot less male students,” Alviar says. “I wanted to create a program to give additional support to high school kids. I think it helps them with academics, with making healthy choices and emotionally, and that can help with them having higher educational goals.”
“Plus,” he adds, “it’s just fun. It’s a Native game, and they should be there.”
The 10Sticks lacrosse club Alviar founded struggled to lure 10 kids to practice in its first year.
“It was a challenge last year, just getting kids and equipment,” Alviar says.
But some of those who turned out for the new sport did more than show up for practices and games. Without prompting from him, Alviar says, Meriam Branson, Tim Johnson, Dan LaFranier and Albert Plant sought sponsors, donations for jerseys and, most importantly, recruited more members for the team.
10Sticks now has 16 players from high schools in Polson, Ronan, Arlee and St. Ignatius, about half of them of Native American descent.
Serendipitously, Alviar also stumbled upon an experienced lacrosse coach living in Pablo, where the reservation-wide team practices and plays its home games on a field at SKC.
“That was huge,” Alviar says. “I kept hearing there was a lacrosse coach in the area whose wife was going to school at SKC. I kept giving people my name and number and telling them to have him call me, but we kept missing each other.”
About a third of the way into 10Sticks’ first season, JR Daniels showed up at a lacrosse practice.
Turns out he and Alviar, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, are not only both Detroit natives, they grew up within minutes of each other.
Daniels spent eight years coaching high school-level lacrosse in Indianapolis.
At Pablo, “I started helping out,” says Daniels, whose son Zac is a goalie for 10Sticks, “and three days later I was running practice. Alex’s philosophy and mine really mix as far as how kids should be treated and a program should be run. A lot of coaches butt heads, but we talk and everything meshes.”
Daniels’ arrival allowed Alviar to turn the head coaching duties over to him.
“Now I’m program director,” Alviar says. “He focuses on coaching and I focus on the boring paperwork. My role changed, but it needed to.”
That’s because lacrosse is not sanctioned by the Montana High School Association, and kids who want to play it at the club level usually have to pay to do so.
It takes work to make it affordable for most anyone.
“The typical fee to play is $400, plus they have to buy their own equipment,” Alviar says. “That keeps up the perception of lacrosse as an Ivy League, rich man’s sport, and it cuts out a massive amount of the population.”
Alviar, an All-America goaltender for Detroit Catholic Central High School, started playing lacrosse again in Missoula in 2010 for 406Lax, which he says is essentially the alumni version of the University of Montana lacrosse club.
Last year, stick in hand, Alviar headed into SKC’s Joe McDonald Health and Athletics Center to fling a ball against a wall by himself.
“Two guys in the recreation fitness center saw the stick, and hollered at me to come look at something,” Alviar says.
In a storage room they showed him shelves loaded with lacrosse gloves, helmets and sticks sometimes used during family nights at the gym.
Alviar seized the opportunity, and contacted several high schools on the reservation. Would they let him bring SKC’s equipment in for a day, and introduce physical education classes to a game of cultural significance to Indian people?
St. Ignatius, Two Eagle River and Arlee said yes. Within five weeks, 177 children on the reservation had held lacrosse sticks, most for the first time.
“Ironically, we get our largest number of players from the schools where no one called me back,” Alviar says. “No one from Ronan ever called me back, and no one from Polson ever called me back – but the bulk of our players come from Ronan and Polson.”
After borrowing SKC’s equipment for 10Sticks’ first year of competition, Alviar also obtained grants from the U.S. Lacrosse Association and the Center for American Indian Community Health for the club to purchase its own helmets, gloves and sticks and aid in establishing the team.
And, 10Sticks is able to charge just a $20 fee to teens who want to take up the sport.
“Give a little boy a ball and stick and tell them they can go hit another boy, and they’re attracted,” Daniels says with a grin. “Then, when you tell them they can use the stick to fling the ball at a higher rate of speed than they could ever throw it, their eyes light up.”
“I heard about it from Dan LaFranier,” says 10Sticks’ Beau Mills, a running back and linebacker for the Polson Pirates football team, “and I thought it sounded awesome. I like the speed of the game – and because I’m a defender, I get to carry a big stick.”
Mills is typical of the person attracted to lacrosse, his coach says.
“Beau likes contact sports, and he likes to run,” Daniels says.
“When they get out of winter, all they’ve got is track or tennis,” he goes on. “It’s how I preach it to football, basketball and wrestling coaches who want their kids to stay in shape. We’ll run three to five miles a day as a team – some of it just running, and some of it I hide into our drills. And a lot who pick it up notice the similarity to basketball. We’re essentially running basketball plays where we set picks and run set plays.”
Daniels started out playing hockey as a youth in Detroit, and that was the game that led him to lacrosse.
“We played in Canada a lot, and that’s where we came across box lacrosse,” Daniels says, “which is pretty much a hockey rink with grass that’s indoors.”
His hockey coach bought lacrosse sticks and used the new-to-them game to keep his players in shape in the spring and summer. Eventually, Daniels laid down his hockey stick for a lacrosse one.
On a brisk afternoon recently, Commander Dan Jackson and Vice Commander Gary Adolph of the Veteran Warriors Society carried the American flag and an eagle staff to the center of the field at SKC, and Antoine Paul drummed and sang the tribal flag song before 10Sticks took on Missoula’s Hellgate High School.
Alviar wants to keep the sport’s Native American heritage front and center as he builds the Flathead Reservation club.
The Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people had their own ancient games resembling lacrosse – shinny ball and double ball.
“Shinny ball looks like field hockey, and the ball is on the ground,” Alviar says. Double ball is a bit closer to lacrosse, where the ball is caught in, carried and thrown from mesh at the tip of the stick. In double ball, however, the sticks have no mesh – they’re just sticks which are used to hurl two balls connected by a strap that wraps around the sticks when the balls are caught, and unfurls when they’re flung.
Alviar wants to incorporate the traditional games of local tribes into a summer lacrosse camp.
10Sticks has already teamed with a NASA program at SKC geared to promote math and science to Native youth to help teach the physics of lacrosse to 48 Native and non-Native children on the reservation.
The club has traveled to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to introduce lacrosse to Browning High School students, who are fielding a team this spring.
Closer to home, Alviar wants to add a girls’ team – he’s lacking coaches, not interest from girls, he says – and also start teaching the game to middle- and older elementary school children.
He’s even developed a program to introduce the game to children as young as 3.
Alviar calls it “Lacrosse for Tots,” and says it’s a noncompetitive program that focuses on body movement and early childhood development.
“I did a lot of growing up on the lacrosse field,” he says. “I was a really shy, quiet kid, and lacrosse drew me out of my shell. It taught me what it meant to have an intense drive, and it taught me how to win, and lose, with grace. Those are the kinds of things I hope to pass on to these kids.”
Hellgate won that recent game against 10Sticks 17-8. Daniels and Alviar used the result to emphasize to the players the importance of practice and conditioning if they want to be competitive.
10Sticks had won its opener against an under-manned Sentinel team 11-9.
“They only had nine players show up, so we went with nine, too,” Daniels says, “but we had 16 kids at that game and were able to sub, so we weren’t as tired as they were.”
Both he and Alviar believe lacrosse will take off on the reservation as more and more kids are exposed to it.
“When it comes down to it, there’s no other sport like it,” Alviar says. “I love that the game, in its origins, was recognized as a gift from the Creator. There’s a deeply spiritual origin to it.”
And these days, the game involves 20 players, not 1,000; lasts for four 15-minute periods, not three 24-hour days; and is played on a 110-yard field, not one that goes for five miles.
But it’s still intense, as the players will tell you.
And fun, too.
The article can be found at: Missoulian