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A Conversation With Lyle Thompson

This article appears in the November edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

Lacrosse star Lyle Thompson did not ask to be put in this position. He never signed up to become the sport’s spiritual advisor. But as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and someone universally regarded as one of the best players in the world, Thompson has come to embrace his voice and the responsibility to speak up on matters of Indigenous rights and, more specifically, the sovereignty of his people.

A citizen of the Onondaga Nation, one of six nations comprising the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Thompson found he could no longer bite his tongue. Since April, the 28-year-old sensation who usually goes viral for his cheat-code dexterity and stick-bending shots instead has found himself in the middle of conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate effect on Native American communities, the Iroquois Nationals’ successful campaign for inclusion in The World Games 2022, the removal of offensive mascots from sports culture and the mischaracterization and misappropriation of his sport’s Haudenosaunee origins.

In August, Thompson was among those who criticized US Lacrosse for referencing Native American tribes within philanthropic giving levels on its website. US Lacrosse promptly removed the references and on Aug. 13 issued a statement apologizing for the offense. Three days later, Thompson posted an eight-minute Instagram video that today has more than 64,000 views, in which he delineated the ways in which it was wrong.

US Lacrosse, which has had a long and supportive relationship with the Iroquois Nationals program and leadership, organized a series of discussions to identify opportunities to work together to develop the sport in Native communities and promote greater awareness of Native peoples, their unique cultures and sovereign status.

In an interview with US Lacrosse Magazine, Thompson kept coming back to the spirituality of the sport and what he feels is lost in the modern lacrosse landscape. These are his words.

"That stick is life. It came from life and in our culture, that’s just energy." — Lyle Thompson

The Stick is Life. The Game is Medicine.

I used a wooden lacrosse stick from when I was 6 to 13 years old. It was a traditional wooden stick. My father would make the stick from scratch. We’d buy the wood itself, we’d buy the leather itself and we’d buy the catgut itself. He would net it.

Even though I didn’t kill the deer for its hide or cut down the tree for its wood, the process just taught us so much. That stick is life. It came from life and in our culture, that’s just energy.

I grew a connection with my stick from when I was a kid. A lot of people tell you not to get your stick dirty. I would get my stick dirty. I would play in a downpour. I would throw my stick into mud, into a ditch, to pick up a ball. My brothers always shook their heads at me. I was connecting on a spiritual level by digging the head of my stick into the Earth, but it would ruin my leather. I believe it was just a part of its character.

I know this stick so well that after a dry day, I know how it’s going to shoot. When it’s wet, I know how it’s going to shoot. When it’s perfect, how I like it, I know how it feels.

The game of lacrosse is medicine both internally and spiritually. I compare it to yoga and meditation. It’s a practice of internal growth. If you understand yoga in its truest sense, you’ll understand that you’re going to grow as a human from practicing it. Lacrosse does the same exact thing. When people say this is a medicine game, it’s not just in that moment. It sets me up on a growing pattern.

All the things this game has taught me, it wasn’t so much the playing that did it. It was that relationship to the game itself — the spirit of the game and how I treat that spirit, which allowed me to understand the values of it. It’s three things: respect, optimism and fun. I carry that with me, whether it’s in my backyard or in a championship game.

Playing lacrosse is fulfillment. I feel a sense of purpose. I don’t feel like I need anything else.

Spirit vs. Sport

Part of that feeling is lost today, in terms of respecting something within the game that deeply. Today, it’s like hunting for sport. Hunting is a spiritual thing. You can go hunting and just enjoy being in a tree and waiting for a deer to come, or you can go out and hunt for sport. You get mad when you don’t come back with something. You don’t enjoy the process. That’s unfortunate, because that’s where we are with the game of lacrosse.

We’re further from the spirit of the game than we once were. I think of what we’ve turned the game into — a way of making money and predicting future years, whether that’s at the youth level or beyond. There’s no more pure enjoyment where you’re just enjoying the game at its fullest in the moment. From the professional level to the youth level, it’s turned into an attention grab, a money grab. In the process, it’s plundering the spiritual dimension of the game.

Over the past four or five years, I’ve had a lot of pressure on me personally, from the people in the front office, people wanting me to take the game mainstream. Some of my partners, some of my owners, some of my coaches and really even people just around me made me feel obligated to take this game to the next level. I never felt that’s my duty. I never felt like that was a part of the process. I simply want to honor the game. I want to be a part of its history. People like Mikey Powell taught me that.

How do I honor the game? That means that I play, I truly honor it and it’ll leave the biggest impact on the next generation. If I allow the game to teach me how to respect and how to have optimism and positivity, I can play with a clear mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in the sport of it, that you care so much about winning or losing or about your public image, about scoring a certain amount of goals or about making money, that you don’t understand that meaning behind the game. 

Misappropriation, Identity and Sovereignty

Native imagery has been used throughout the U.S. and Canada. We live in an age right now where it’s cool to have Native patterns on your clothes. It’s cool to wear Native jewelry. It’s cool to have a Native mascot. It’s even cool to utilize native spirituality and culture, which is what the lacrosse community tries to do. We often try to use the spirituality of this game as a way of promotion.

That’s how the US Lacrosse situation happened. They used the names of multiple Native nations and did not give that money back to those tribes. Everybody understands the layout of how that could be offensive and how using those names, people could take offense to it.

I have so many people reach out to me and say, “I want to honor this.” That’s the right attitude for you personally. Unfortunately, it’s an issue within our communities. It makes us accept it as reality. We see the imagery enough that we start to believe it. For hundreds of years now, we haven’t seen anything different. When people think they’re honoring us, the older generation doesn’t seem to have that much of a problem with it because that’s how they’ve been treated their whole lives. Whereas the younger generation and the generation below me is really starting to take the lead on doing our own history, doing our own homework and understanding, this isn’t right.

It’s dehumanizing to be raised in a climate like this. Within my community, I know that it’s caused a lot of trauma. That’s why you see some of the problems we face inside of these communities, like drug abuse, alcoholism and obesity. It’s because we’ve been so far from the truth. Even us, every four years, trying to get to the world games or something as simple as my kids having to prove with a blood quantum how Indian they are. The only other time you do that is with horses and dogs.

We haven’t embraced what we have to give to the world. We’ve been just trying to heal for so many years. We continue to fight for our sovereignty and our freedom to be who we are as Native Americans.

The Iroquois Nationals have taken the lead on this. No other Native nation has its own passport. No other nation is competing in sports at the highest level. The Iroquois Nationals have found a way to fight for our sovereignty instead of just saying, “This is who we are and we want to be recognized.” The government continues to say we’re sovereign and say they’re acknowledging us for being sovereign, but not walking the walk. When we got to England in 2010, they’re not stamping our passports. Even coming back into the U.S. or Canada, you’re not stamping our passports.

We’re our own nations. I’d never play for Team Canada. I’d never play for Team USA. My territory and the surrounding territories are within the U.S. and Canada. I don’t want to be recognized as them. I want to be recognized for who I am and where I’m from. For a lot of years, there have been attempts to try to take that from me through residential schools, through blood quantum, through genocide. We’ve continued to fight for our sovereignty.


There’s a much bigger picture because there’s a whole lot of other Native nations out there that see the same way we see. They just haven’t taken the attempt to create their own passports yet, but they want to be Navajo or Lakota or Cree.

Every four years, we’ve got to fight to get back into America or Canada, fight to get to Israel, to get to Finland. The World Games are in Birmingham, Alabama, on an original Native American territory, and we didn’t get the invitation.

It’s not completely unexpected, but it still shocks you and it’s still crazy annoying. We know what’s going to happen and we’re just waiting for it to happen, hoping that it doesn’t, but it happens. We don’t get the invitation, or we can’t get to a certain country. We’re getting really good fighting this fight and jumping these hurdles. I hope that one day we get to be a part of this race with no hurdles, because we’re the only ones to have them this level. One of the beautiful things about this incident is a whole community came together and realized that there is no lacrosse without the Iroquois Nationals.

The goal is to be simply to be recognized for who we are. We fit the criteria, but our territories are tiny. If you combine those and allow us to be recognized as Native Americans, that would be a dream come true for me. — for my kids to be able to play at the Olympics and represent Native America, it would be incredible.

Right now, that next step is getting to Birmingham and eventually to the Olympics. It’s a scary thing for us because a lot of people don’t want to see that happen. If they recognize us for this, they have to recognize us for more things. That might be where the government might see it as a problem, because our territories are within the United States and Canada. We’re on the right path, where we’re supposed to be, heading to Birmingham. The Olympics are the next step and that comes with a whole new set of hurdles that they set a little bit higher and we’re going to have to jump them. We’ll figure out a way.

We’re going to play lacrosse no matter what. We’re going to compete at the highest level, no matter what, within our community, within the Iroquois Nationals. Whether that’s just Six Nations against Onondaga, we’re going to play and we’re going to have fun doing it, whether it’s at the Olympics or in our backyard. 

It’s Not Our Game

We just want to share our gift with the world, and that’s lacrosse. We don’t own the game of lacrosse, just like yoga was gifted to the Indians. I never say that this is our game because I don’t feel like I own it. My job is only to honor it and pass it on and hope that other people can continue to honor it.

It’s the cultural teachings and connection to the Earth that Native America has to give to this world. We don’t know yet how to connect that and money, but I do think there could be a balance with living in today’s society so that our communities can continue to profit off of ourselves and still operate from a passionate state and give to the world.

I’m still not totally comfortable with this platform, but I keep thinking of the next generation. My hope is that I can influence enough kids to understand what I’ve learned.

I want this game to be for people what it is for me and my community. Sports are at the center of our community. It’s what keeps us going because of a lot of the hardships we’ve faced. Sports really do keep us alive, similar to the inner city.

What I was taught when I was a kid is that the medicine of this game is in the stick and in the ball. The true teachings of this game are in the stick and the ball. You just have to look further.