The Creator's game: Raptors' coach helps bring lacrosse back to its roots
The Creator's game is back in the hands of its creators.
With the help of the Minnesota Swarm and East Ridge head coach Aime Caines, youth in the Prairie Island Indian Community have taken up lacrosse, a game invented by their ancestors.
Lacrosse has been one of the fastest growing sports in the country for several years, but it has yet to penetrate where it originated, in Native American communities.
Through the game young men are connecting with their culture, reclaiming a cultural artifact and learning more than lacrosse.
"A lot of these kids really hadn't known what the sport was about until we showed them some videos and they read some books," said Caines, a Native American, who played professionally for five seasons and now serves as head coach of the East Ridge boys lacrosse team and as an assistant coach with the Swarm, which is Minnesota's professional lacrosse team. "Obviously they researched it and realized that when they're born it's their birthright. They're given a stick and the stick is theirs. I think they've really embraced the culture of the game and how the game is theirs."
The youth lacrosse program at Prairie Island, where Caines helps coach in the offseason, is the only Native American lacrosse program in the state and the first in at least 100 years to participate ompetitively. No records indicate Native American teams participated competitively in the sport even 100 years ago.
The game of lacrosse was created more than 5,000 years ago and is known as "The Creator's Game." Native Americans participate in the game to honor the creator. Games lasted days or even weeks and involved thousands of people.
Lacrosse got reintroduced to Prairie Island after the Swarm and Treasure Island Resort and Casino signed a three-year sponsorship agreement that included the development of a youth lacrosse program and naming rights to the Swarm's field at Xcel Energy Center.
Swarm co-owner and vice president Andy Arlotta started reaching out to the Native American community three years ago and the camp at Prairie Island began last year. Arlotta approached each Native American community in the state asking for as much time as he could get before tribal council
to propose his plan.
Prairie Island was the only tribal council to respond.
"I got a phone call saying I got one hour," Arlotta said. "I was in
my office doing flips just for the opportunity."
Arlotta brought six bags of tobacco wrapped in Swarm handkerchiefs and a traditional lacrosse stick to the tribal council meeting as a traditional sign of respect and laid out his plan. Even then Arlotta didn't
know what bringing lacrosse back to the community could mean.
Since the Minnesota Swarm's camp began in Prairie Island a year ago a band of players, from ages 6 to 16, have practiced twice a week and have competed in various leagues in the metro area.
"I think it's pretty cool and it wouldn't be here if we didn't have our coaches and our tribe to bring it up," said Elijah Buck, a 16-year-old player. "As soon as that camp came we went to it and everyone started
liking it. It means a lot to our tribe."
Ed Buck, a tribal council member, grew up in Prairie Island and had little familiarity with lacrosse until the camp and team started.
"I think, for me, personally, I never knew about it," Buck said. "It was never part of our community. When he (Arlotta) came it kind of opened our eyes."
The team plays on a field that used to house buffalo and it needed repairs prior to beginning play. Community members filled holes with black dirt and brought bleachers in to watch the games. Those bleachers filled up quickly with not only parents and grandparents, but also community members
with no ties to the players, Buck said.
Buck's two sons, Dante and Dayton, latched on the sport immediately.
"One of my boys will string a stick and then take it apart," Buck said. "Even in the winter time they play wall ball. They carry the sticks everywhere."
It's not just a team the players represent, but also a tribe.
When the Prairie Island team takes the field the game takes on a different meaning not only for them but also the opponent. The Prairie Island team incorporates the Dakota language with its play. Omakiya means help in Dakota and players use it so opponents don't know their intentions.
"The people we play against don't really know what we're saying so they don't know if it's a play or a pass or anything like that," said Dayton Buck, a 12-year-old player for Prairie Island. "Sometimes I say it
in basketball because I'm so used to saying it here."
Arlotta has received calls and emails from parents of players who have played the Prairie Island team. The calls and emails often praise the Prairie Island team and the parents tell Arlotta that their children had the best lacrosse experience of their lives playing against Prairie Island.
The experience led to an Apple Valley team inviting the team to a scrimmage and a potluck. The Apple Valley team gave the Prairie Island players a sportsmanship trophy, which now sits prominently displayed in the Prairie Island Community Center.
"Every team that plays Prairie Island is getting an experience they've never had before," Arlotta said. "They're seeing how they honor the game."
For Arlotta, Caines and Brian Kimmell, the Native American Lacrosse Coordinator for the Swarm and head coach with Prairie Island, the program has provided the players with an opportunity to also learn about making good choices in life and responsibility.
"When I started this initiative it was about growing the sport in the native community," Arlotta said. "It quickly became not about growing the sport but saving lives."
When the lacrosse camp started in Prairie Island a young man, who was attending summer school at the time, came to the camp and returned every day for the duration of the camp after the first day, Arlotta said. Arlotta recalls talking with an elder in the community and the elder told him that he saw hundreds of dragonflies around the field - a sign of good being done in the community - a sight he'd never seen in his life despite having lived in the area his whole life.
"Something's happening," Arlotta said. "I think I know what's happening but I can't say."
Arlotta, Caines and Kimmell have all sought to instill into the players the value of pursuing college.
Twenty-three percent of the players in the National Lacrosse League are Native Americans, Arlotta said, and those players serve as role models for the Prairie Island players. Prairie Island team members often attend games and Swarm players come to help at practice.
"The biggest thing for us is not only the lacrosse aspect, it's also having positive role models," Caines said. "We want to get these kids active and give them choices."