The Medicine Game
A Q&A with Jacelyn Lazore
Evan McNally: You are from Akwesasne, on the border of Canada and New York. Tell me about your hometown.
Jacelyn Lazore: Iroquois and Haudenosaunee are the same, and it means people of the longhouse. I’m from a Reservation that’s called Akwesasne. It’s the territory I’m from. We are five nations made up of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. So I’m from the Akwesasne Mohawk nation, but it's also part of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. I’m at the top right in Akwesasne.
Top: Map of the Haudenosaunee Territory. Bottom: The Iroquois Flag
So if you were to put our flag on a map, it reads from right to left. The doors on the flag represent the eastern doors on the right, so we are keepers of the eastern door, which in our Mohawk language is Kanienʼkehá꞉ka. It also means keepers of the flint.
"It's very much a community who has always been there for me, and it's a community that will always be there."
EM: I’ve never met someone who grew up in a Native American nation, how would you describe it to me?
JL: It’s funny to explain it because I think of it as something so normal that when someone asks me that, I don’t really know how to explain it. I really started to learn how to explain that when I started traveling outside of Akwesasne for lacrosse tournaments. I started to realize how different it was and how people that weren’t from Akwesasne saw us, and the way that they see native people. I got a question before where this girl asked me if I lived in a teepee. That’s actually not it. I got a question where someone asked me, “How do you have a phone?” It’s not something that bothered me, but it was just funny to think that.
My life isn’t so different, but I think the way we see the world is very different. The way that we are so together as people. It’s very much a community who has always been there for me, and it’s a community that will always be there. A lot of my family, a lot of my ancestors are from Akwesasne. A lot of our teachings come from our elders, and they passed down all these rituals and values that shape who we are today.
EM: What are some of those values?
JL: The biggest one I can think of is respect your elders. Like I said, they are the roots of our culture, they are the closest things we have to our ancestors, and I want to represent my ancestors in the best way possible. I understand that in many situations I’ve been the only Native. I’ve been probably the first Native that anyone’s ever met. So there’s that type of pressure where you have to show them who you are as a person because if they have this bad perception of you, that’s the way they are going to generalize your people.
With lacrosse, lacrosse is the medicine game. Lacrosse is the traditional game that is a relationship between the man and the creator. Thousands of years ago, the men would play for his entertainment, so he would watch over the men. In return, he would heal all the sick people in those communities. At the time, the women would take care of the families, take care of the elders, you know, just take care of everyone else. While the men were playing, the women weren’t really allowed to play.
"Lacrosse, metaphorically, is a medicine to me."
I started to realize that growing up, my perception of the medicine game was different from the women’s game. They are the same sport, but they have two different values. So it was hard when I was a kid. I got a lot of backlash. It was cute when I was young and I was playing. It was innocent, it was something to do after school, but the way I felt about lacrosse was just different. It's funny because they are the same game, men’s lacrosse and women's lacrosse, but their value and spiritual-ness are two different things. I think lacrosse, metaphorically, is a medicine to me. In some ways, it helped bring my family together, and it gave me this opportunity to go to college. It’s given me the ability to rebuild the loss that my ancestors went through, and the generational trauma that our ancestors carry.
EM: When was the first time you picked up a lacrosse stick?
JL: I was 10 or 11 years old. A woman named Terri Swamp came from the Cattaraugus nation and brought it to Akwesasne. She had the opportunity to play it, and she wanted to spread the game to Akwesasne. It was always such a big place for men’s lacrosse. Terri was the one who introduced it to me, and I mean, I was awful, but I just wanted to play. We played local teams and we would get blown out, but I don’t even think at the time it was about the competition, it was just about having the opportunity to play.
EM: We talked a bit earlier about the culture shock when you left Akwesasne for the first time, what were some things that surprised you?
JL: When I actually had the opportunity to live away from home, I think that was a big culture shock because NMH was such an ambitious academic school. My classmates’ parents went to Ivy League schools. They were destined to be a doctor or a surgeon or a lawyer, and I was just there like: I just want to play lacrosse. I don’t know what I want to do. I noticed that it was so structured for them. They had such tunnel vision that I realized that people don’t really pay attention to little things outside in nature.
Our culture does a lot of hunting, we do a lot of fishing, we pick a lot of sweet grass and we make baskets, and it’s very much an outside being. It’s not something you can read in a textbook. So when you’re looking for sweet grass, you’re going to go into the woods and learn how to do it. A lot of times I would just go exploring. I’ve always been like that since I was a kid because I always lived on the water. Being able to tell you what kind of day it is based on how the water looks; just paying attention to those types of things. These are the things I learned as a kid and I don’t know how to explain it, because you’re in that environment for so long that when you leave it, you don’t necessarily know how to relay that. When I left I realized that I did a lot of teaching. Like this, just talking to you. I think that’s the way that the people at home talk. Once you get a native person talking they can talk for hours and hours.
"When I left, more girls started to pick up lacrosse sticks."
EM: What did you learn about your identity through coming to Virginia Tech?
JL: I was 15 when I left for the first time, and those six years flew by. When I left, I really started to understand our history. I really started to understand why I had backlash playing lacrosse. Like I said, in our traditional ways, it’s the medicine game. I think the good thing that came out of it is when I left, more girls started to pick up lacrosse sticks. They were like, "Jacelyn and [her sister] Mimi are playing and they’re going off to college."
Jacelyn Lazore, Isaiah Cree, and Mirabella Lazore in Washington, D.C.
When I was a kid, no one really talked about the trauma that came from residential schools and how it affects our Totas, our elders. I learned that when western Europeans came to America they wanted us to convert to catholicism. They wanted us to be a part of the catholic church. This happened to my Tota boy and Tota girl on my mom’s side, my grandmother and my grandfather. They were sent to residential schools. They were beaten for speaking the language. They were abused, and forced to look a different way. They were forced not to wear their long hair. They would chop off their hair and make them look more like them. They wanted them to look foreign, not native. It was such a hard time for them. It makes me really sad because I would never want that for the people that I love.
The outcome of that is it makes me understand why I need to keep moving forward with what I’m doing. People may say I was going against my people by playing lacrosse, but I think I’ve been honoring who I am as a native woman, as an indigenous woman, by playing the sport that’s indigenous to the Iroquois Confederacy, to my culture.
There were just these awful, awful scenarios. I read this story, and this didn’t happen to my grandmother directly, but the kids were raped and beaten by nuns. There was this situation where one of the girls had to go do her chores, so she left her baby with one of them, and they threw the baby in the fire, in the oven. It’s those instances, like how do you live through that? Seeing that, how do you carry yourself through the rest of your life? You carry yourself in fear. So when my Tota returned home they were just like, "We can’t go back to our old ways," because they didn’t want that to happen to their future kids. And they were still fairly young. My grandmother and my grandfather converted to catholicism. My grandmother on my mom’s side, always lived in fear that her kids would be taken away. They purposely converted to what they wanted to, because they wanted to avoid that happening. There’s this trauma that has carried from generation to generation. And it affects my mom because suddenly, she’s no longer traditional. My grandmother didn’t teach my mom the mohawk language, then it’s passed down to me.
"I remember getting into the car and just bawling my eyes out."
So now, it's up to me and what I need to do. It’s up to me if I’m going to learn my language because if I don’t, my kids are not going to know where they came from and there’s going to become that thin bloodline of who we are as people. That was the fear when I left, and that was what someone told me right before I left for NMH. I was campaigning with this woman, Brandi, who was campaigning to be sub-chief in the tribe for the community. She actually graduated from the same boarding school that my sister and I were about to go. We stopped at this fragile Tota's house to campaign. We go inside, and Brandi is talking about these ideas that she has for the community. She introduced me and my sister and she said, “These are girls who are going to be playing lacrosse at NMH.” The Tota directs her attention towards me and my sister and she says, “You girls are doing whatever you can to leave your roots, aren’t you? You’re never going to come back.” It really stung me. I remember getting into the car and just bawling my eyes out. I know that our elders are a little bit stubborn, because they don’t want us to convert to something that isn’t our traditional ways.
Ever since then I learned, through that comment, and I’ve carried that with me all this time, what I need to do. It’s temporary, I’m going to get my education, but I have to remember that I have to represent my people, and I have to help guide that younger generation by coming back and contributing to my community. Growing up and being a part of a catholic church, I realized that’s why I did have that backlash. You were not only going against our whole people, but you’re basically turning your back on the creator. You’re being disrespectful. I realized that the divide between traditional and catholic in the communities wasn’t taught, but you’re not going to ask a Tota that because you don’t want them to remember what happened. You don’t want to leave their house and suddenly they’re left in their thoughts and thinking about what happened.
When I left, I learned how that affects me. I think that’s why it’s made me so ambitious to keep moving forward, because I want to change the way that Native people see a woman playing lacrosse. I want to overstep those barriers. I didn’t know this but I realized how through life experience, this all ties together. That’s why lacrosse is such a big aspect of who I am as a person. It’s basically like my religion because I practice it every day, I devote a lot of my time to it, even outside of practices. As an indigenous woman playing the sport, I start to connect the way other people view it, and I do a lot of teaching. I give them this different perspective that may not have been brought upon them when they were a kid. A lot of people I met would say that it was forced upon them, like it’s a job now. That’s not the right way to see it, because that’s not what it is. It’s an opportunity. All sports, yes, they can be seen as a job. But I’ve learned that you will play with passion and you will play with love once you remember who you are doing it for.
Photos Provided by: Carter Brown and Jacelyn Lazore