For the Creator

An illustration in black lines on a yellow background. It shows four buffalo running.
Illustration by: Meky Ottawa

The announcer notices the team, dressed in black and green, emerge from the dressing room. He grabs the microphone. One by one, the players spill out of the tunnel and onto the playing floor. With their lacrosse sticks in hand, they run in a single file line, turning left behind their own net in the offensive zone.

Fans in the stands of the Fort Qu’Appelle Arena hoot and holler, while clapping and snapping photos. The team continues circling the court. A group of six spectators lean on the Plexiglas barrier separating the fans from the playing floor, and the rattle of cowbells echoes throughout the arena.

Overtop the cacophony of sound, the announcer bellows, “The time has come, ladies and gentlemen! It’s time to welcome your Standing BUFFALOOO!”

Amid the noise, the Standing Buffalo Fighting Sioux finish circling the floor and form a huddle outside their goal. The 17-year-old assistant captain, Sandis Laswisse, stands alongside teammates he’s played with since grade three. Head coach Don Larson has goosebumps.

It’s May 2019, and Standing Buffalo’s first game in their inaugural season in Saskatchewan’s Prairie Gold Lacrosse League (PGLL) Junior B division. For many, it’s their first home game ever.

Lacrosse was rarely played in Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation—a community of about 500 people roughly 70 kilometres northeast of Regina—before 2009. It wasn’t until Russ Matthews, a teacher at Standing Buffalo Dakota School, formed a novice program for students that interest in the sport took off.

Parents and residential school survivors in the nation recognized the sport’s importance to youth in Standing Buffalo, backing the program every step of the way.

Through parents organizing car rides for games or practices, Elders giving speeches in their native tongue and ritual ideas, or community members donating money to ensure the program has gear and support for tournament registration fees, Standing Buffalo stood behind its players.

Matthews’s efforts to form a lacrosse program in the First Nation were featured in a 2013 Regina Leader-Post article. In a year when Standing Buffalo was reeling from an increase in youth suicide rates, lacrosse helped to give youth a purpose.

In the Leader-Post article, Laswisse’s mom, Carmen, called the game “a blessing.” As someone who lived in the nation her whole life, Carmen said she noticed a switch in mindset from how many youth would declare they were “bored” to being engaged in the sport after Matthews started the program.

The program quickly found success among local boys and girls. Two years after forming a team, Standing Buffalo sent a novice group to Calgary, Alta. for a Canada Day tournament—a major lacrosse event attended by teams across Canada and the United States.

Standing Buffalo’s team won first place.

Twice more, in 2013 and 2015, Standing Buffalo won the Calgary Canada Day tournament in the peewee and bantam divisions—ages 12 and under and 14 and under, respectively.

Their success even meant players from Standing Buffalo could enter the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).

Before COVID-19 postponed the 2020 NAIG in March, seven women and five men—including Laswisse, who was a member of the 2017 NAIG under 16 silver medal-winning team for Saskatchewan—were selected from Standing Buffalo to join the 2020 under 19 Saskatchewan women’s and men’s NAIG teams.

Roberta Soo-Oyewaste, the current and first female chief of Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation, told The Pigeon the sport has served as a powerful outlet for youth in the nation.

“I can’t even express the excitement within our nation for these kids, the youths, the athletes, to exhibit themselves and use their energy in a positive matter,” she said in an interview.

Today, with a rise in youth interest, the program has teams in all divisions from novice to junior, and are the only First Nations member of a lacrosse league—the Saskatchewan Lacrosse Association—in Western Canada.

Being a member allows Standing Buffalo’s program to tap into the association’s financial resources and gives players the chance to try out for provincial and even national teams.

Despite being pleased to see her nation represented provincially, Soo-Oyewaste has noticed Standing Buffalo players being snubbed in selection for provincial teams.

Every year, the Saskatchewan Lacrosse Association picks players from across the province for their elite-level box and field lacrosse teams from ages 12 to 18. Standing Buffalo started out with box lacrosse, played inside an arena, but added a field—or outdoor—team last summer.

“In the last two years, Team Saskatchewan has chosen not to choose our players to play on their team,” Soo-Oyewaste said.

Last year Soo-Oyewaste said they sent about five players from Standing Buffalo to try out for Team Saskatchewan, and not one player made the team, despite the program’s recent success and contribution to an under-16 NAIG silver medal.

Soo-Oyewaste believed favouritism plays a role in the selection process.

“This is good at the federal level, truth and reconciliation. We talk, talk, talk, but who implements it at the provincial level?” asked Soo-Oyewaste, who added this isn’t solely a lacrosse problem, but a wider issue in sports when young Indigenous players attempt to make provincial teams.

“We understand the barriers we come up against as adults, but our kids don’t understand that […] How do we implement that [fairness at the provincial level]? We need a stronger voice.”

Since Standing Buffalo began their program in 2009, they’ve been forced to travel across the province for their home and away games because they don’t have an arena.

“Since day one, Standing Buffalo has always had to drive to Regina to play, or Moose Jaw, [or] Estevan. They’ve never had a home game,” coach Larson said. “It’s a complicated thing in itself. To drive to Regina is an hour, Moose Jaw is an hour and three quarters.”

“These kids, right from day one, I call them road warriors.”

Soo-Oyewaste often refers to herself as “the Uber driver,” criss-crossing the province and getting players to and from games—including her son, Layne, who was also a member of the 2017 under 16 NAIG-winning team.

However, travelling and selection bias aren’t the only obstacles Standing Buffalo’s navigated since their lacrosse program launched.

In 2015, without enough money for registration fees and transportation costs, it looked as if Standing Buffalo wouldn’t be able to send a team to Calgary for the Canada Day games at all.

Then, 80 residential school survivors in the nation each donated their individual $3,000 compensation packages from the federal government to the program. The contributions gained nation-wide attention, and the total donation of $240,000 allowed the team to travel to Calgary and purchase new equipment.

“That was all love,” Laswisse, who played in that 2015 Calgary tournament, said in an interview with The Pigeon. “Just for them to share, they’re caring for the youth […] For them to give their residential money for us to play and have a season was pretty awesome.”

At the same 2015 tournament, Standing Buffalo began a pregame tradition that lasts to this day.

Prior to the gold medal game at the Calgary event, one of the Elders who made the trip asked the players, coaches, and parents to gather for a prayer.

She then asked the team to run in a one-lap circle around the playing floor when they entered the arena, closing the circle in a huddle just before they left for their bench. She said their spirits would join together.

After winning the tournament, that ritual turned into a tradition the Standing Buffalo Fighting Sioux performs before each game.

“It’s so important to the program,” Larson said. “Elders also come and do a prayer in their own tongue before we play, and that’s very powerful as well.”

Photo courtesy of: Library and Archives Canada/C-001959

Lacrosse goes by many different names, such as baggataway for the Algonquin and tewaarathon in Mohawk nations.

Despite the differing names or styles, the sport has always been known as a healing and medicine game. At its core, lacrosse is a stick and ball game that holds spiritual connotations and is meant to be played for the entertainment of the Creator—it’s commonly referred to as “The Creator’s Game.”

“They were all medicine games, so there was a lot of spiritual content everywhere the game was played,” Jim Calder, co-author of Lacrosse: The Ancient Game, said in an interview with The Pigeon.

“They could have games of up to a thousand players on a side, [and games could span] over five kilometers and last three days.”

Through rituals and ceremonial gatherings, nearly all aspects of the sport were geared toward spiritual meaning for Indigenous communities. Whether it’s to serve as a place for healing or train individuals for battle, Neal Powless, in an interview with Inside Lacrosse this March, says there is medicine in playing the game and invoking spirits to join in.

The sport, however, was taken by Canadian settlers and renamed “lacrosse” by a group of French missionaries living in the Huron-Wendat Nation.

Rules were created to ban Indigenous people from playing their own sport, and the National Lacrosse Association of Canada (NLA)—which was established in 1867—forbade Indigenous players from playing. These bans lasted well into the 20th century.

Over the years, the game transitioned from its original spiritual intentions into a sport featuring definitive winners or losers. Today, the game’s been popularized by elite—predominately white—organizations and universities.

“We weren’t allowed to play our game. People don’t realize we were banned to play our game. It was the National Lacrosse Association […] who banned us from playing our game for hundreds of years,” Kevin Sandy, co-founder of the Indigenous Lacrosse Association (ILA), said in an interview with The Pigeon.

After seeing a lack of structure from a governing body to provide Indigenous youth opportunities to play in national or international events, Sandy co-founded the ILA to allow young Indigenous athletes to compete in tournaments, support pre-existing Indigenous-based programs, and promote inclusivity within the sport for all athletes.

Currently, Sandy says, a lot of the resources and opportunities are geared towards men, but the women deserve an equal chance to play.

“We hosted the North American Indigenous games in my community, the Six Nations, in 2017 and there were more fans at the girls’ championship game than there were at the boys’,” Sandy said.

Initially, women weren’t allowed to participate in lacrosse—not out of disrespect, but for fear the game could harm their reproductive organs.

In Standing Buffalo, though, Soo-Oyewaste says girls are encouraged to play the sport.

“They play just as hard as the boys!” Soo-Oyewaste says. “I’m just as proud of them. It’s like, ‘Wow! Where was this sport when I was growing up?’”

In recent years, steps have been taken by organizations and individuals in Canada both to recognize and reclaim lacrosse’s Indigenous origins and to make it inclusive for more men and women.

These measures come following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 93 Calls to Action in 2015; specifically, recommendations 87 through 91 call on all levels of government to provide educational information about Indigenous athletes and sport, and to promote long-term Indigenous athletic development.

Since then, there’s been a movement to recognize and financially support initiatives to reclaim the Indigenous roots of lacrosse.

In 2017, Calder, who wrote Lacrosse: The Ancient Game six years earlier, was the manager of the 150th anniversary of lacrosse celebration in Montréal—an event that spanned three days and included educational and cultural events to highlight the sport’s history.

Also, in a 2017 Maclean’s article, it was reported that predominantly provincial organizations across the country are taking it upon themselves to purchase equipment and teach the game to younger generations in Indigenous communities.

The article documented how the Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA) sought to recruit basketball coaches and referees in Indigenous communities with the hopes of teaching them lacrosse. The British Columbia Lacrosse Association has also trained over 21,000 Indigenous coaches and players over the previous five years.

Provincially, the Saskatchewan Lacrosse Association announced in August that they are launching a women’s field lacrosse program. They also announced plans to host coaching clinics, development camps, and a weekend clinic from Canada’s national women’s lacrosse team to grow the sport for women in the province.

Meanwhile, the federal government announced a $1.7 million contribution in 2019 to the Canada Summer Games Host Society to reintroduce lacrosse in the quadrennial youth competition. In 2022, the Canada Summer Games in Ontario will feature box lacrosse for the first time since 1985.

Sandy, who hosts educational and cultural workshops on lacrosse’s history, admits he’s divided seeing movements in recent years to reclaim lacrosse. Though its popularity is rising, he wants people to understand the Indigenous history of the sport.

He always educates his players about how colonizers changed lacrosse.

A 2019 article in the McGill Daily outlined how lacrosse was historically played in Indigenous communities to unite or settle disputes between nations, during festivals, and to ready men for war. Eventually, however, rules were put in place by settlers that restricted the number of players on the field, the length of each game, and Indigenous players were banned from playing their own game.

The Montréal Lacrosse Club is credited with creating lacrosse’s first written rules in 1865.

“The game changed when newcomers came in here,” Sandy explained. “They put rules and regulations in place […] and they started adding things to our game because we weren’t allowed to play.”

Recently, there has been a push to include lacrosse in the Olympic Games, but Sandy isn’t sure if the sport was ever designed to be played at that level.

“Will [lacrosse] be in the Olympics? I’m sure it will, but was it intended to go there? […]  It wasn’t ever intended to go there from my viewpoint.”

Sandy’s skepticism comes from the history of colonization and from seeing a pervasive settler attitude within the sport, particularly after founding the ILA. He said he’s seen negative attitudes surrounding Indigenous-led lacrosse initiatives.

“We set up a new Indigenous Lacrosse Association that’s trying to empower, [and] build community, values of respect, self-esteem, and confidence to help build our young people’s minds up,” Sandy said. “When we started it, the first thing the CLA said was, ‘What are you doing?’”

With the program’s success from novice to bantam, Larson and Matthews decided last year to enter a team in the province’s six-team Major Junior B division—a category made of players aged up to 21. Despite Standing Buffalo encompassing a team of mostly 17-year-olds, Larson was confident they would perform well against older competition.

“I knew we had a pretty special group,” Larson said. “They were often considered the longshot or outsiders if you will, because Standing Buffalo is only a community of about 450 [to] 500 people.”

Upon entering in the Junior B division, the team played their home games out of Fort Qu’Appelle, a town roughly 10 kilometres away from Standing Buffalo.

Led by Jaxen Dufour and Laswisse, who scored 30 and 27 points respectively, the Fighting Sioux clinched a playoff spot in the regular season, and defeated the Prince Albert Raiders to claim the PGLL title in their first year in the league.

“The first thing I did [after we beat Prince Albert] was go to Russ Matthews, who brought me into the program,” Larson said. “Him and I had been through the wars of a lot of games. I remember him and I shaking [our] heads and throwing arms over each other saying, ‘We did it.’”

Since winning the PGLL Junior B title, Standing Buffalo has launched a field lacrosse team and partnered with the Star Blanket Cree Nation in LeBret, Sask. to play on their local fields and arenas. They’ve also brought Jeff Shattler, a two-time National Lacrosse League champion who is Ojibwe and Inuit, into the program as a coach.

“Basically [I’ll teach the players] what we play the game for—it’s a medicine game,” Shattler said in an interview with The Pigeon, echoing Calder.

“[We] play for something else other than our enjoyment. We play for the Creator’s enjoyment,” he said.

“Being a part of a team is huge. Once you’re a part of a team, you feel like you’re a part of something, and that’s what I’m trying to bring to these communities.”

Moving forward, Larson, as a coach, wants to see a coordinated effort to build on NAIG’s success and develop the sport for younger players in other Indigenous communities. This even means possibly starting an independent, province-based, Indigenous lacrosse league.

“This is what Jeff [Shattler] is really good at doing right now, reaching out to places, getting the game introduced, and having little tournaments of local Saskatchewan teams,” Larson said. “Things like NAIG are very well established, but they’re taking the best 20 Indigenous players from the whole province […] We’d like to keep developing at the grassroots level.”

In the years since Standing Buffalo has started their lacrosse program, it has served as a beacon of hope for kids and the community. New organizers like Shattler will not only serve as valuable coaching assets to the team, but as mentors to youth.

Without lacrosse or the mentorship Larson and Shattler have provided, Soo-Oyewaste thinks Standing Buffalo’s youth wouldn’t be thriving like they are now.

“We try our best to reach out to all of the youth as a preventative measure,” Soo-Oyewaste says.

“A lot of our youth athletes come from single-mom or single-dad families, so lacrosse has definitely been an asset to those families because this is something the kids like and love doing.”

For Laswisse, aside from playing for the genuine love of the sport, excelling in lacrosse isn’t just an individual pursuit.

“I play for The Creator. I’ve always played just to entertain him,” Laswisse says. “But [I also play] to show my teammates what it takes to play at a high level, and to show them that I can be a leader.”

Never good with numbers, Josh Kozelj knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue writing. He is in his fifth and final year as a Creative Writing student at the University of Victoria, and spent three years as a Staff Writer for The Martlet. He’s also written for the Globe and Mail, CBC, and The Tyee. Oftentimes you’ll see Josh running the trails of Victoria in ridiculously short shorts.

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