As one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, it was only a matter of time before lacrosse was made into a feature film. That movie, “Crooked Arrows,” opens nationwide today.
“Arrows” relies on standard sports movie tropes -- the underdog team of talented misfits that finds its groove only when it learns to believe in itself -- only this time, applied to lacrosse. The movie stars Brandon Routh (“Superman Returns”) as Joe Logan, a half Native American casino executive unwittingly cast in the role of a coach who must reconnect with his heritage in order to help the lacrosse team from the reservation where he grew up.
Its audience “sweet spot,” according to one of the film’s producers, is ages 10-16, and indeed, apart from some suggestive language and legitimately riveting game action, it would not feel out of place on ABC Family.
But the movie also tackles a complicated dynamic that exists in the lacrosse world: the perception (and often the reality) of the sport as elitist -- owing in no small part to its expense -- weighed against its humble, egalitarian and distinctly Native American beginnings.
“The Creator gave the game to everyone to enjoy,” said Neal Powless, a member of the Onondaga Nation and co-producer on the film. “A sport given to the people has become a symbol of elitism. That’s sometimes tough for a Native person like me to swallow.”
While often considered the province of prep schools and upper-middle-class white communities, lacrosse can trace its origins back more than 1,000 years to indigenous people in Canada and the northeast United States. More than a sport, it’s a spiritual “medicine game” that honors a higher power.
And for many Native Americans, it’s still a powerful part of the culture. Powless, for instance, had a stick in his hand by the time he was 2, and he says this is the norm in the Onondaga Nation community where he grew up.
By many measures, lacrosse has been the fastest-growing sport in the United States over the past decade. More than 170,000 students played for their high schools in 2010-11, according to survey data from the National Federation of State High School Associations -- a 15 percent jump from just three years prior. And numbers released by the Sporting Good Manufacturers Association last year had 1.6 million people playing lacrosse in total, a jump of 218 percent in 10 years.
And though the sport is growing across all demographics, Native Americans still represent a large number of college and pro players.
In the high school ranks, there are predominantly Native American teams like the one depicted in “Crooked Arrows” that dominate the competition. Lafayette (N.Y.), where many of the actors in the film went to high school, is a regional power filled with Onondaga players, while Salmon River (Fort Covington, N.Y.), near the Canadian border, is comprised largely of Mohawk players. Lyle Thompson, one of the athletes on "Arrows" and a member of the Onondaga Nation, was a consensus top 2 recruit in the country in 2011 who played at both high schools before heading to SUNY Albany.
“Arrows” gives a lot of attention to both the history and ongoing importance of lacrosse to Native communities.
“I think knowing that this is a sport that was created on this continent is a really neat thing,” said Routh. “Many American sports owe a lot to lacrosse and to other stick games created by Native Americans.”
“Playing to honor and entertain the Creator I think is a wonderful message for us to change our mindset.”
But gratitude and enlightened mindsets are often hard to come by, both for the fictionalized team of Native Americans in “Arrows” and in real life.
Orris Edwards, a senior at Lafayette and a member of the Onondoga Nation, plays “Sammy,” a member of the Crooked Arrows team. An excellent box and field lacrosse player, Edwards is on the Iroquois Nation U19 team that will compete against countries from across Europe and the Americas at the All World championships in Finland this summer. He said that ignorance -- if not outright racism -- has been a common theme when matching up against mostly white teams.
“You can see it, even when people ask you about playing lacrosse,” said Edwards. “They can’t believe it. They think it’s weird. They say they thought we’re extinct, that we still live in teepees.”
“Arrows” tackles this dynamic head on. There are insults and slights, but there’s also the simple fact that most people don’t know lacrosse’s roots. It’s not something that’s taught.
Toward the end of the movie (without spoiling anything), a woman in the crowd asks, “When did the Indians start playing lacrosse?” It’s a funny line, given what we’ve learned to that point, and speaks to the priorities of the film’s producers, including Mitchell Peck, who played high school lacrosse with the man who wrote the original screenplay, Todd Baird.
Peck and fellow producer J. Todd Harris (“The Kids are All Right”) spent years trying to get the lacrosse community on board with the film, both to help finance it (it was produced independently) and to create the buzz around it when it was finally released.
“This being really the first film about lacrosse, we had to have the lacrosse community in our corner,” said Routh. “If we didn’t, we were really shooting ourselves in our foot.”
“If we could convince the lacrosse world that we were making a respectful and true movie about their world, we could gain their confidence,” added Harris.
But they soon realized they needed the same support from the Native population. Powless was tasked in part with making sure the movie rang true for Native Americans. The son of a chief, Powless, who is also a box lacrosse coach and an officer for the diversity office at Syracuse University, helped to make the lacrosse lore and rituals seem authentic -- but not too authentic, as many Native American ceremonies are private.
“It’s a tricky line a lot of Native people … have to navigate,” he said. “How much we’re willing to share. And the answer is, not everything.”
Just enough to infuse a feel-good sports movie with authenticity and a sense of history.