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"> Shayla Scanlan: Don't Call Me Pocahontas | USA Lacrosse Magazine

Shayla Scanlan was a recipient of the Tewaaraton scholarship before heading to Louisville to start her college career. (Courtesy of Louisville Athletics)

Shayla Scanlan: Don't Call Me Pocahontas

This article, as told to Matt DaSilva, appears in the April edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, which includes a special 10-page section featuring faces and voices of the Native American lacrosse community. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

I grew up on Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. I’m one of 11 children. I have six sisters and four brothers. My parents have been together for 27 years. I played lacrosse my whole life.

Backyard lacrosse was what we called it. We would grab a tennis ball and use a box net. There were no rules. My older brother would check me over and say, “Suck it up.” You got beat up by them, pushed into the weeds, and you got right back up again.

People think lacrosse is a rich white sport. Somebody once asked me, “How did you end up playing?” What do you mean? These are my roots. You are able to play this game because of my people, my descendants, my ancestors.

When I first came to Louisville, I would walk around campus in my Iroquois Nationals shirt with the Hiawatha belt. People would stop me and ask, “What does that mean?” I forgot that I’m not at home and that I have to explain things.

I would wear moccasins, and people would look at me. I didn’t wear them for a bit because I didn’t want people to look at me anymore. There aren’t Native Americans here. They don’t know what my moccasins mean to me.

“People think lacrosse is a rich white sport. You are able to play this game because of my people, my descendants, my ancestors.”

Our lacrosse team has a pre-game prayer. I didn’t grow up that way. I pray, but to myself and the Creator. I will never call down anyone else’s religion. We can still think and want our higher beings to do the same thing — to protect us. I’ll say nyoh, and they’ll say amen. My teammates genuinely wanted to know more about my beliefs. I was OK with telling them. I’m spending four years with these women. Might as well get close to them so that I fit in someplace.

When I was in high school, there were only three or four non-Natives on our team. I was in seventh grade and on the varsity team when we played a Catholic school. First, they were calling us Pocahontas. “Why is your hair braided?” they asked. “Why is it so long? Cut your hair.”

My people, when they were sent to boarding schools, they had to cut their hair. They didn’t have a choice. My long hair defines who I am. Why do we have to justify why our hair is long? Our people would cut their hair to show that they were grieving. It’s growing again. You’re going to grow from what just happened.

Another team, in a wealthier part of New York, their parents would yell, “There’s a tomahawk!” It makes you angry. I don’t want to be angry when I’m playing. Lacrosse makes me happy. It’s hard not to listen, though. My children will have to deal with this. My children’s children will have to deal with this. I hope our tribes are even still around then.

If you dressed up in black face, what would happen to you? You would be punished. Your reputation would never be the same. Now go and dress up in a Native American headdress and be a chief for Halloween. People will think it’s funny. That’s acceptable racism. Nobody says anything. We don’t have a big enough voice to shout it.

Pocahontas isn’t somebody you look up to. Researchers say she was only 10-12 years old. When she was with that man, that was rape. Her family didn’t approve of it. That’s what people think of a stereotypical Native, because of that movie. That’s not how we want to be perceived.

Growing up, the things that I was taught at home about all of this is different than what I was taught in school and in textbooks. You get a day off of school for Christopher Columbus. You get a day off of school for a rapist, somebody who killed innocent people, who scalped them. The reason my people are so dead is because of that person. In high school, I was part of a group of Native Americans who put together a PowerPoint and essay. We took it to the board of our school, and we got it changed from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.


We have pacts with the New York state and federal governments. It’s scary, because you don’t know if they’re going to continue them or not, because of who is in charge of the country.

I want to know how government works. As a political science major, I plan to go to law school in Arizona. I want to study Indian law, so I can come back and help not only my tribe, but other tribes throughout the country.

I want to give back to my community, give back to the people who made me who I am today and the place where I was born and raised. Where I played lacrosse. Where it all started.

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