Film Review: Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Documentary about lacrosse is less about lacrosse that it is about the sport as a spiritual and cultural touchstone for the Iroquois people who invented it. And it still has some kick-ass game highlights!
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Though it’s about the sport lacrosse, Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation is not a sports documentary. It's actually about a culture, a nation, a millennia-old worldview, forced colonization, genocide, outdated medieval doctrine and identity. It's about how Canadians aren't always as nice as they seem. And finally, it's also about some really great game footage.

Lacrosse, that staple of prep-school sports, is a more rough-and-tumble game than that reputation suggests. Many people might already know it was invented by Native Americans, specifically the Haudenosaunee, whom the French call the Iroquois and the English call Six Nations. Yet it's more than a game: As described by Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, it's part of the Haudenosaunee's spiritual process. It's the great grace of Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter's pristinely shot documentary that the filmmakers turn such an amorphous statement into something clear, comprehensible and concrete.

And Lyons—a Hall of Fame lacrosse player who set records at Syracuse University alongside his teammate Jim Brown, the future NFL star—forms the spiritual spine of the story, centered on the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, for which he is honorary chair. Poetic, lyrical and inspiring, but also with a sense of humor, he is essentially the Dalai Lama of the Haudenosaunee.

In fascinating fashion, he and others—including lacrosse players and coaches of all nationalities, Native American historians and officials, and former Vice President Al Gore—amiably introduce us to an entire world symbolized by the game, which, as Iroquois Nationals star Lyle Thompson says, honors "the Creator." That may seem highfalutin', but the deeply ingrained sense of what one spiritual leader calls "a good hard game with a peaceful mind and good intentions" sounds like honor to me.

The Haudenosaunee's chill attitude meets its opposite with, of all people, the Canadians who arrive for the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, which for the first time was held on Native American soil. The Haudenosaunee are part of their own sovereign nation living in reservations within U.S. borders—roughly like Vatican City within Rome, though that may not be an exact analogy—and since the 1970s have had their own passport. When athletes from 12 countries arrived in the Onondaga Nation (the Onondaga being one of the original five constituents of the Iroquois Confederacy) near Syracuse, NY, all but the Canadians had their passports stamped out of respect for their hosts. An Israeli player said his own nation could identify with the Onondaga; a German player said of the stamp, "It's really quite an honor to have that." A British player called it “probably the best passport stamp in my passport." But when the documentarists ask Team Canada player Kyle Rubisch about Canada's decision not to have their athletes’ passports stamped, the off-camera Canadian representatives shamefully shut down the interview.

That ties into the documentary's larger sense of the disrespect Native American sovereignty has encountered for hundreds of years. It stretches back to Pope Alexander VI and his 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, which declared that if the natives in the New World weren't Christian, then the land could be taken from them with God's blessing. Incredibly, that doctrine remains in effect today—and not just in theoretical, legalistic ways. We see Betty Lyons, president of the American Indian Law Alliance, go to New York City, where Pope Francis had invited Native Americans to attend an interfaith panel with him. Yet shortly before that was to occur, the group was notified that only UN-recognized religions would be allowed. Lyons seethes as she recalls Cardinal Dolan talking about early Europeans coming here for religious freedom—glossing over genocide, treating the Native Americans, now merely in the audience, as if they didn't exist.

Adding insult to insult, the Secret Service would not allow Haudenosaunee spiritual leader Tadodaho Sid Hill to wear his headdress, because of its pointed horns—which is like telling the Pope he cannot wear his miter, or a Jew his yarmulke. Oren Lyons marvels jocularly whether the Secret Service were expecting Tadodaho to lower his head and charge. And then, after the Secret Service promised they would take care of the headdress and treat it with due respect, Betty Lyons found it later just sitting on a table with no one around.

The movie culminates with the 2015 WILC games, expertly shot, each selected game a story in its own right. Watching the Iroquois Nationals' Brett Bucktooth's behind-the-back shots on goal is like watching Michael Jordan handle a basketball.

All sports documentaries draw the metaphor: Sports is life. Here, sport is something more. Some things are eternal, however—and even in the spiritual sport of lacrosse, coaches, as ever, tell their teams, "Take a knee."

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