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Inside Lacrosse Magazine Article Mirrors Fire's Experience on Onondaga Reserve

01/29/2012, 4:25pm EST
By Staff

Fire establishes an annual pilgrimage to Onondaga

In a case of reality following reality, Inside Lacrosse Magazine last month featured Max Seibald's visit to the Onondaga Reservation.  With fellow lacrosse player, Jeremy Thompson at his side, Max visited, in October 2011, all of the Onondaga Reservation sites that our Fire Gold team had the honor and privelege of experiencing in June 2011!

The article, as it appeard in IL, is re-printed here.

My Hometown: Jeremy Thompson Shows Max Seibald around the Onondaga Reservation

John Jiloty | December 29th, 2011

Max Seibald's experienced some pretty cool things in his decorated lacrosse career: two Final Fours, the 2009 Tewaaraton Trophy, the 2010 World Championship in England, both pro leagues. But he also appreciates the game's ancestry, and used the words “completely enlightening” to describe the Onondaga Reservation tour Jeremy Thompson gave him in October.

Inside Lacrosse's team of myself, Joe Sweeney, Zach Babo and Casey Vock tagged along as Jeremy took Seibald around to the spots on the Rez that mean the most to him. It was the day after the Iroquois beat Team USA 14-13 at nearby Turning Stone Casino in the Bowhunter Cup, but clearly the rivalry from the night before was gone as the two spent a gorgeous fall day talking lacrosse, throwing the ball around and learning about the game's history.

Alfie Jacques' Workshop
Alf is the best-known stickmaker out there, one of the last few doing it the old-school traditional way: all by hand, no plastic, no chemicals, all natural. Back in the day he and his father were churning out 12,000 sticks a year, working 11-12 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with demand. “When you weren't playing or coaching, you were making sticks,” he says. “Your life was the stick.”

Then the plastic stick was introduced, changing the game of lacrosse forever. His dad has since passed away, so it's Alf working solo, producing about 200 sticks annually. He takes us through the process (which can take nearly a year per stick), from splitting the logs to bending the wood, trimming, cutting, sanding, steaming, balancing and shellacking.

“As a male Onondaga you're born with a wooden lacrosse stick,” Thompson says, “and you leave with it. If you feel it, that reminds me of the woods. It comes from Mother Nature and all that Mother Nature has to offer. That's why the game of lacrosse has that significance and why Mother Nature is intertwined into lacrosse. When I play lacrosse, I always clear my mind and go out there to play hard and fair with a good state of mind.

“Eventually I had to transition to the plastic stick for field lacrosse. I feel different when I use a wooden stick than a plastic one. There's more meaning to me, because of all the things we give thanks for.”

Longhouse + Field
The second stop is the Onondaga Longhouse, which is where seven major ceremonies and a host of important meetings involving the Grand Council of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora) take place every year. For each Onondaga ceremony, the Longhouse is divided first by men and women, and then by the nine clans (wolf, turtle, beaver, snipe, heron, deer, eel, bear and hawk).

Thompson explains how everything in Onondaga culture goes through your mother; so you're born into your mother's clan and your Indian Name comes from your mother as well. He's in the Hawk clan, and his Indian name translates into “The Sun is Leaning.” Jeremy spent much of his childhood learning Mohawk on the Awkwesasne Reservation in Northern New York and Ontario, but returned to Onondaga during high school and is still adjusting to the slightly different dialect.

No photos or video are allowed in the Longhouse, so we hopped across the street to what looks like a big strip of grass on the side of the road. It's actually the roughly 150-yard-long field where they play medicine games — lacrosse played for a sick person in the community. Each game starts with a tobacco burning, so the smoke “rises like a connection or tunnelway speaking to the Creator,” Thompson says. The energy from the game is supposed to help the ill person.

Rather than goals, they use two wooden poles six feet apart. There's no pads or equipment and it's all wooden sticks; last spring Thompson says they had about 80 players, including 81-year-old Oren Lyons.

“You do come out with welts,” Thompson says. “That goes to show you the mindframe and the strength when you get hit. You can't get mad; that's not the point of the game. The point is to play hard, but it's more out there thinking for the person who's sick, who needs medicine to get back out of whatever they're in.”

Onondaga Dam
The last stop is a grueling set of about 100 stairs in a nearby dam. Jeremy says he regularly still runs these stairs to work on his speed and endurance — something he got from his father, who ran the same stairs as a young lacrosse player.

Thompson says he varies the runs, but likes to work on his balance by running up the narrow part on the sides of the stairs. He'll run those forward, backward and laterally — not an easy task by any means.

Despite both Max and Jeremy being sore from the Bowhunter Cup, they both run some for the camera. Seibald runs one side as Thompson runs the other, despite playing the night before with tape and braces on both ankles. He says it reminds him of two things at Cornell: running the Shoellkopf Field stairs, and running a big grass slope on campus. “I know that burn,” he says.

Onondaga Box Field
Jeremy isn't sure how long they've been playing lacrosse on this spot, but I've heard before from Gewas Schindler that it's about 150 years. Two large patches of dirt stretch out from each 4x4 goal, and the walls have definitely seen better days (there's a head-sized hole in one corner). A pile of old bags, equipment and leaves sits in one penalty box. One of the goals has about 50/50 net-to-hole ratio.

But despite the sparkling new Onondaga Nation Arena down the street, this is still the place where local players come to throw the ball around, play games and shoot on cage. (True to form, as we're wrapping up our photo shoot, two local kids come through with their sticks.)

Jeremy and Max have a catch, talk about box lacrosse — and do more shooting than they maybe intended, thanks to a Gatorade bottle that had been affixed to the top left corner of one goal. Max nails it with one of his first tries, but it takes Jeremy a little longer. He blames the video camera, so Sweeney refuses to stop recording until Thompson hits it. It's funny to watch grown men who've played at the game's highest levels still act like kids when there's two sticks, a ball and a goal.

“Seeing this and hearing it from you has been completely enlightening,” Seibald tells Thompson. “Lacrosse is a huge part of my life, but to you it's been a completely different part of your life. Where we started from is two completely different perspectives.”

Says Thompson, “Anybody that crosses my path I consider my family. Whoever I run into I feel more than free to let out my knowledge and wisdom, what I know from my people and what it means to me.”

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