Plattsburgh State’s Native People Association offered a screening of the 2016 film “Keepers of the Game,” Monday night in Yokum Hall. The showing concluded the celebration of Native Heritage Month on campus.
The production of the film was sponsored by the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation, Sports Matter, which funds schools with the necessary funding for sports programs.
Keepers of the Game, which was shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of the Salmon River High School girl’s lacrosse team and also shines a light on the girls’ struggles with intersectionalities of gender, cultural appropriation, tradition and spirituality.
Teammates Marcella Thomas, Tsieboo Herne and Mimi and Jacelyn Lazore are featured in the film as they navigate their way through different cultures. The girls find it difficult to establish their identities on the Akwesasne Reservation and in a public high school, as the two worlds clash over the sport they play so fiercely.
“Everyone thinks we’re savages or something like that,” Herne said in the film. “We’re developed people. We don’t live in tipis.”
The sport of lacrosse originated in the Akwesasne nation as a method of peace during time war and was considered a “gift from the creator.” The sacred game was seen as a men’s sport, and women were prohibited from playing.
That is, until students at Salmon River, who also lived on the reservation, created the lacrosse team. Coaches Terri Swamp and Elisha King prepared the girls throughout the season for a championship game against rivals at Massena High School. Salmon River would become the first Native women’s team to bring home a section championship.
The girls faced adversity throughout the season, as the reservation viewed the girls’ playing as disrespectful and unsacred. At one Longhouse meeting featured in the film, the girls in attendance were targeted and told to respect the lineage and culture of their reservation.
Herne’s mother Louise, a clan mother, found acceptance in Herne’s passion for the game.
“What kind of message is this, to have my daughter, the daughter of a clan mother, play lacrosse?” Louise asked the girls in her home. “People say, ‘They don’t carry the honor of the game.’ I know sometimes our culture can be really hard, but the other thing that I know about our ways, is that it grows and it changes to meet the needs of the people. I have to recognize when there is a cry for change, so here I am, sitting in front of you, as clan mother, telling you that it is OK for girls to play lacrosse.”
After the screening, Amy Lazore, mother of Jacelyn and Mimi, revealed Herne played the sport in secret for several years, sometimes leaving her stick miles from the reservation on her way home from school to avoid being caught. She would find it the next morning and bring it to practice.
Aside from disapproval from the tribe, the public school district made the girls’ championship win nearly impossible, as it faced large budget cuts and could not provide funding for the team. According to non-profit organization Up2UsSports, 27 percent of United States public high schools could be without sports programs.
Mothers of the players stepped in, raising just enough to cover the cost of a season through fundraising.
“We’ve had a lot of people try to stop us, but we keep going,” Herne said.
The team faced South Jefferson and fell to an upsetting loss of 22-3 in their first game. In the film, people in the crowd are seen taunting the girls and laughing as the opposing team continues to score.
After the crushing loss, the girls take part in a sweat ritual. Native Americans used the ritual as a way to cleanse the body and mind of negativity.
Salmon River managed to win its second game, against Heuvelton High School. The third game, they faced a loss of 23-6 against Ogdensburg, which ended with Thomas temporarily quitting the team.
Thomas eventually rejoined after participating in a traditional Native fast, in which tribe members connect with nature and spirituality while isolated in the wilderness without food or water for four days.
Thomas said the time spent in the wilderness made her reflect on and pray for her teammates and the sport itself and also gave her the courage to join the team again.
As the season progresses, Salmon River earns a win against Canton, beating the team 18-6. Eventually, the girls face rivals at Massena High School in the Section X Championship game.
The stands are filled with fans, as the Salmon River team has finally earned support from those on the reservation. The game is 8-6 at the half with Salmon River winning. The girls fight hard, but Massena fights harder, tieing the game 8-8 with only one minute left in the second half.
Massena drives toward the goal again and in the last seconds of the game, Thomas blocks what would have been the game-winning goal for Massena. As Salmon River gains control, Herne scores the winning goal with seconds left in the game. The girls clear the bench in celebration as family and community members cheer from the stands.
“Salmon River was considered the ‘bottom of the barrel’ for their first two years,” Amy Lazore said after the screening. She said the 2015 season changed the minds of nearly everyone on the reserve.
The girls arrived home with streamers flying from the school bus windows to find a parade waiting for them. People lined the streets to welcome them home as they were escorted by a fire truck.
The film ends with the Lazore sisters teaching younger girls on the reservation how to play lacrosse. Herne, a senior, was recruited to play lacrosse by SUNY Canton.
Amy Lazore revealed at the screening that daughter Jacelyn, as well as Herne, made the Haudenosaunee Nation Lacrosse Team, playing in the Federation of International Lacrosse. Following the Salmon River championship win, a team photo was placed in the Akwesasne Hall of Fame in Salmon River High School.
“Keepers of the Game” can be streamed on Netflix and a DVD release date is pending.
“This movie is near and dear to my heart because obviously it’s about Akwesasne and all these girls,” said Native People Association President and PSUC student Mahlon Smoke. “Some of them I actually babysat when they were very young and seeing them now just becoming into their own and be given opportunities that I didn’t have growing up in Salmon (River High School), it has never made me more proud to be Mohawk in my entire life.”
Email Marissa Russo at firstname.lastname@example.org