Breaking barriers: playing lacrosse as an Indigenous woman

The first time she picked up a lacrosse stick, it was clear Fawn Porter was gifted.

Growing up on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, located near Brantford, Ont., lacrosse surrounded Porter. The game is inextricably tied to her nation’s identity and heritage.

To her, it seemed a no-brainer that she would eventually have a stick in her hand.

She first played the game at age five, when her father, Kevin Porter, took her to a practice with the Six Nations tyke boys’ box lacrosse team.

Box lacrosse is one of three forms of modern lacrosse, played on hard floors in arenas, rather than on a field. It bears more of a resemblance to hockey, with five runners and a goalie on the floor during play.

Box lacrosse is Canada’s national summer sport and is the most popular version of the game in Canada, compared to field lacrosse and intercrosse, a modified, contactless version.

With the beginner’s box lacrosse team roster already established, Porter hopped onto the floor for her first taste of the game, with no thoughts of taking a permanent spot on the team. She was just supposed to go for one practice, get some energy out, and see how she liked it.

That changed when she hit the floor in a flurry, impressing parents and coaches alike. With no girls’ team to join and an undeniable propensity for the game, Porter was asked if she’d consider joining the boys for the rest of the season.

“Parents were asking me how many years I had been playing, or [if I had played] before,” Porter said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“I went on the floor for two minutes straight and the only reason I came off was to tell my dad how excited I was.”

Lacrosse quickly became the sport of choice for Porter, who decided to quit figure skating to pursue the game.

She dedicated countless hours to her craft over the following years, and quickly emerged as a talented player, earning a spot on the top team for her age and logging big minutes over her male teammates.

Despite her success, it didn’t take long for the reality of being the only girl on her team to set in. Within a year of joining the boys’ team, Porter began noticing how her teammates treated her differently.

At first, she said it was just backhanded comments. Her teammates didn’t expect her to be able to play or take the game seriously because of her gender; she felt like she was constantly dodging them.

Her second year, she noticed more pushback: rude remarks on the bench, a shove in practice, maybe a hit that was a bit harder than it needed to be.

Not only did she have to put up with increasing backlash from her teammates, but opposing teams started targeting her as well.

By her third year on the team, things reached a boiling point.

“The next year there were a couple guys who were gunning for my head rather than just being a teammate,” said Porter.

“I always had something to prove, because I constantly needed to earn my spot on that team. I was never allowed to lose.”

It’s not uncommon for women in sport to face harassment since they are occupying a spot in a male dominated space.

For Porter, it ran deeper than that.

There’s a traditional belief held in her community that women aren’t supposed to play lacrosse. This is tied to creation myth and oral tradition which states that women are disrespecting the Creator by playing, according to Porter.

“It was pretty tough to overcome, because for my religion, girls aren’t allowed to play, and a lot of the younger guys who played were really traditional,” Porter said.

 “They were really mad that I was even on the field with them. I used to always get pushed to the back of the line behind everyone. I’d hear things about how girls shouldn’t be on the team, and it really affected me.”

It’s a balance that many female lacrosse players, wanting to participate in a key aspect of Indigenous culture, must find: drawing a line between the tradition of the game and following their love for the sport.

A group of Iroquois men holding traditional lacrosse sticks
Photo courtesy of: Library and Archives Canada/C-001959

History of lacrosse

Lacrosse has been played on contested terrain for decades now, ever since the game was appropriated by settler Canadians in the mid-1900s.

While for many it’s just another game—a sport with clear winners and losers—the history of lacrosse is rooted in spirituality.

The game is traditionally referred to as baggataway, or “the Creator’s Game.” Indigenous people hold the belief that the game was gifted to them by the Creator, to be played for his amusement and to honour him.

It was also used to train young men for battle and was also known as “The Medicine Game” for its abilities to heal people’s minds and to resolve disputes, Porter told The Pigeon.

These were reserved for men; women were not allowed to participate.

Women held a different role in society, and their exclusion from lacrosse was not meant to be a disrespectful one. They still held positions of power, and were central to the survival of the nation.

According to Porter, there was a fear that playing contact sports would damage a woman’s reproductive organs. With women as the bearers of life, preserving their health protected the nation’s future.

As lacrosse became more popular in settler Canada and the US, girls began to find their way into the sport, playing at the high school level in upstate New York before the sport caught on in southern Ontario. Indigenous girls quickly joined in, and while at first it was deemed respectable to play on a smaller scale, the line was drawn at women representing their nation.

In 1987, the Haudenosaunee Nationals women’s team, which represents the Iroquois Confederacy internationally, disbanded, after Clan Mothers—the traditional role held by elder matriarchs in Haudenosaunee societies—lay on the field to stop the team from practicing over concerns that they were disrespecting their Creator.

The team didn’t resume play until 18 years later, in 2005. An entire generation of female players missed an opportunity to represent the Haudenosaunee.

While the team was able to play in a handful of friendly games, they weren’t allowed to compete on the international stage until 2006, after the team appeared in front of the Six Nations Confederacy Council in Ontario to plead their case.

While the team had a mixed reception, they were granted permission to play, and have been active on the international stage in the nearly two decades since.

The women's lacrosse team at Western University hold their lacrosse sticks in the air
Photo courtesy of: Western Mustangs

Since its arrival to Canada’s mainstream in the 1980s, lacrosse has evolved, widening the gap between the modern sport and the traditional game.

While it’s still the Creator’s game, it looks less like the traditional version of the sport, with plastic sticks replacing the hickory sticks that were strung with leather. It’s become codified by a set of rules, modernized in industrial Canada, in contrast to the free flow play of the Creator’s game centuries ago.

It’s how Kevin Porter justified putting his daughter into lacrosse, despite maintaining his traditional views. 

“Going against a kind of religious thing of our people, it was a factor when I put her in lacrosse, but I justified it because the sticks are plastic, and it’s not wood and leather anymore,” Kevin Porter told The Pigeon.

In the traditional game, sticks were created custom for each player, used as tools of healing, rather than simply as sporting equipment. Sticks would stay with a player throughout their lives, explained Porter, and weren’t lightly replaced.

Only the players they were made for could touch their sticks, and as they were not being made for women, it kept them out of the game.

Now, sticks don’t have that same connotation, with their worth measured in goals and assists, and replacements easy to come by. Picking up a plastic stick simply doesn’t carry the same weight in the modern game—which is why Kevin Porter says it’s alright that his daughter plays.

“If she was playing with a wood and leather stick, that would be different.”

Fawn Porter playing lacrosse, about to throw a ball at the goal
Photo courtesy of: Western Mustangs

Reconciling tradition with modernity

Over the years, Porter continued to play on the boys’ team, but as she grew older, it became increasingly obvious that her spot on the roster wasn’t accepted by her teammates.

According to her father, the hurtful comments and harassment often extended past her teammates, and were echoed by opponents and ignored by officials.

“They would hit her pretty good, because she was a girl and they didn’t want her to play, that kind of thing, and we just had to take it,” he said.

“It was hard to watch, with people gunning for her and trying to hurt her, and then the [referees] just not even doing nothing about it all. That was the hard part.”

Playing with the boys began to wear on Porter, who quit the sport when she was 13. Even with her passion for the game, she couldn’t continue playing in a space where she knew she wasn’t welcome.

“I was bawling coming off the floor; they were being so rude,” Porter said.

“I don’t know how many times I got my head taken off, and that’s when I finally quit boys [lacrosse]. I was just done with it.”

Porter struggled without lacrosse and the structure the game provided her life. She lost her way, and lost interest in other aspects of her life outside of lacrosse.

“I was just a bad kid after that, I wasn’t really paying attention to life,” Porter said.

“It really killed my dad, really made my mom mad. It sucked that I had to give up lacrosse and I was really upset about it.”

Fed up with seeing his daughter inaction and lack of purpose, Porter’s father resolved to get her involved once again.

Knowing the healing effect that lacrosse could have, he quickly sought a way for her to safely return to the floor, and decided to launch a women’s team in their community, hoping that bringing Porter back to the sport would inspire her once again.

“I thought my dad was just joking. He asked if he made this team would I play on it, and I said, ‘Yeah sure why not? Good luck making the team though’,” Porter said.

“But he made the team. He made a whole team.”

“He’s seen it in me from when I was five, he’s encouraged me and always pushed me to be the best. He’s so positive and he always made sure that I had everything I needed for the sport. He did literally everything just so I could play.”

Porter’s father’s actions have had a ripple effect, opening the floor to other Indigenous girls who wanted to play as well.

Over the years, Porter has remained adamant that women belong in the modern game despite her experiences, and said that even before the game was modernized, women could play.

“I’m here, I’m safe, I’m following our way,” she said.

“I highly doubt the Creator would give me this much skill if I’m not supposed to be playing.”

The Western Mustangs women's lacrosse team standing together, wearing their OUA medals
Photo courtesy of: Western Mustangs

For the love of the game

While Porter had to fight for her spot in the game, the next generation of players won’t have to.

There are still plenty who hold the traditional belief that women shouldn’t be playing lacrosse, but the game has become more accessible to those interested in trying.

 Six Nations Minor Lacrosse now has a flourishing girls lacrosse program, for both box and field lacrosse, ranging from competitive field teams for those 11 and younger, all the way up to adult women’s teams.

Players are competing at the collegiate level, in both Canada and in the NCAA, sticking with the sport well into adulthood.

The Haudenosaunee senior national team is currently gearing up for their fourth straight appearance at the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup, which is set to take place in July 2021 in Towson, Maryland. The team will be looking to improve on their 12th place finish from four years prior. 

Fawn Porter standing with her coach.
Photo courtesy of: Western Mustangs

As for Porter, she plays to this day.

After playing on the then newly formed Six Nations girls’ box team for years, Porter made the jump to field lacrosse and joined the Western Mustangs in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) league while attending Western University in London, Ont. She played for four years there, winning two OUA gold medals in 2016 and 2017 and a bronze in 2019. She also earned two First Team All Star nods before graduating this past summer.

“To see her so successful, I kind of always knew it would happen, but it was surprising,” Kevin Porter said.

“We started from pretty humble beginnings, and to take it that far, I was so happy, because she worked so hard and we made so many sacrifices for it.”

With COVID-19 putting sports on hold this summer, Porter hasn’t played competitively since the end of the 2019 OUA season, but she still picks up her stick to practice, and looks forward to hitting the floor or field again in the future.

While women’s lacrosse is going strong, Porter says she still sees posts from former male teammates who continue to have strong beliefs that girls shouldn’t be playing.

“It’s literally my life, people don’t understand,” she said.

“I know that they love lacrosse, but when I go to play, it’s for so much more than just to win.”

Her love of the game keeps pushing her forward, because nobody loves lacrosse like Fawn Porter.

Claire comes to us from Western University, where she studied Media Information and Technoculture and earned her masters in media, journalism, and communications. At school she worked for the Western Gazette. She now works in a one person newsroom for the Golden Star in BC.

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