was featured in US Lacrosse Magazine’s “What It Means” series in 2019.

"> Native American Heritage: Six Questions You Always Wanted to Ask | USA Lacrosse Magazine


Jackie Pata, who is Tlingit, was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians for 18 years.

Native American Heritage: Six Questions You Always Wanted to Ask

As part of our coverage of Native American Heritage Month, we asked some Native thought leaders in the lacrosse community to offer their perspectives on some tough questions that a lot of people wonder about but rarely ask.

Justin Giles, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, played lacrosse at Virginia. He serves on the US Lacrosse Native American Advisory Council and was featured in US Lacrosse Magazine’s “What It Means” series in 2019.

Jackie Pata, also a member of the US Lacrosse Native American Advisory Council, is a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes. She previously served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Kathy Smith, a citizen of the Mohawk Nation, is chair of the Haudenonsaunee Nationals women’s lacrosse board.

“We are still here, over 600 thriving autonomous tribal governments and tribal citizens revitalizing endangered languages and connecting unique cultural traditions with progressive communities of today.”

1. What’s the difference between appropriately honoring the roots of the game and cultural misappropriation?

Giles: Certainly we should continue the consistent acknowledgement of the game as a true North American Indigenous sport with direct ties to ceremonial and cultural life to this very day — emphasis on “to this very day.” Native communities still grapple with being placed in the past and/or characterized as irrelevant in modern day and contemporary times. Even further, honoring the roots of lacrosse involves respect, joy, discipline, creativity and endurance of our shared human experience. Not only for yourself and teammates, but for your opponent as well. This game is meant to be shared, so I don’t believe the term “cultural misappropriation” is necessary in this context.

Pata: Lacrosse is more than just a game played — its roots have spiritual connections, respectful protocol, behavioral discipline and inspire physical/mental development. Each tool used has a history and a purpose. To participate or be a spectator in the sport with that deeper understanding of the connections to those cultural values leads to actions that honor the game, keeping unintentional cultural misappropriation at bay.

Smith: Cultural misappropriation happens when the roots of the game, including the cultural teachings that go along with it, are either not known or ignored or changed to suit the situation, and the game is used for a person or group’s personal gain. Appropriately honoring the roots of the game means to respectfully give credit to the originators of the game and its history and teachings.

2. How can non-Native lacrosse players and coaches honor and pay respect to the creators of the game?

Giles: Respect for the game is to play as hard and as fast as you can. Shake hands at the end of the game and be thankful for life and the opportunity to play another game.

Pata: Coaches should demonstrate respect of the game and honor the values it represents. They teach by example. While living in the D.C. area, my son and grandson’s coaches invited a Native American lacrosse coach and player to share with the team the history of the game. Sharing videos, inviting representatives of local tribes with a connection to their version of “stick ball” or teaching the history of the tools of the game all help build that connection to the lacrosse spirit.

Smith: The game of lacrosse was given to Native Americans by the Creator to be played for the Creator’s enjoyment. Therefore, everyone who plays lacrosse honors and pays respect to the creators of the game when they play the game as it was intended — for the Creator’s enjoyment. It is important to remember where the game came from and to respect that playing it is a spiritual experience. Playing it with honor and respect is the best way to honor the Creator and the creators of the game.

3. There are still a lot of Native-inspired team names and mascots in lacrosse. How do you determine what’s acceptable and what’s not?

Giles: I think it’s time to move away from Native mascots unless true consultation has been made with an established sovereign tribal government, just as Florida State has consulted with the Seminole tribe of Florida or Central Michigan with the Chippewas. Look to the creation stories surrounding lacrosse and you’ll find plenty of nature to use as a mascot — somewhat traditional from an Indigenous perspective.

Pata: Any team name or mascot that is based on a race or ethnicity should be examined critically, especially when they are built upon stereotypes. I have no doubt the majority of Native mascots were created with decent intentions, but the reality is that most Native people aren't honored when they are dehumanized or reduced to a stereotype or cartoon. No one deserves to be dehumanized. Even seemingly agnostic terms (like Warriors or Chiefs) can be problematic when they are accompanied by images (such as feathers) that invoke a Native reference because they may inadvertently prompt abhorrent behavior (like fans wearing “war paint” or engaging in racially offensive chants).

Smith: There’s power in words and names, so team names and mascots need to be given much more thought these days as we all become more aware of the fact that they can hurt people and perpetuate stereotypes. In my opinion, team names and mascots are acceptable when they make people feel good. If there’s a possibility that a team name or mascot will make people feel or look bad, then they’re unacceptable.

4. How should non-Natives refer to Native Americans? Are some terms more appropriate than others?

Giles: If you know someone who identifies as Native American, American Indian, Indigenous or First Nations, then it is completely acceptable to ask what “tribe” or “nation” they are from. Native Americans may be enrolled in a tribal nation as well as having multiple tribal backgrounds — the same as a United States citizen saying they have Irish, Scottish and Spanish ancestry. Currently, there are 574 tribes in the United States with many more tribal First Nations in Canada.

Pata: I advise to use their identifier that is closest to the individual. For example, I am Tlingit. I would prefer to be called that. Recognizing there are many tribes, and the reference may be to a larger group with several tribes represented, there are three types of terms that may suit the situation. Native American: Used by some but not accepted by others because of those that say they are American and are native to America, so it includes anyone born to America. In recent years, however, this term has become more accepted. Indigenous: A term commonly used in global contexts, it would require a qualifier to limit to North American Indigenous or Indigenous to the U.S. American Indian and Alaska Native: These are terms that have legal standing and are used for official policy and protocol.

Smith: This is a difficult question even for a Native American. There are so many different nations/tribes, and every individual person in each of these nations/tribes would probably answer this question differently. To me, Native American refers to Indigenous people in North and South America, particularly North America. Indigenous refers to the original peoples around the world. Native is another term that is more generic and could be a shorter version of Native American. At different times, some terms are more politically correct than at other times. It is becoming more common for Indigenous peoples to use our own names. For example, the six nations who comprise the Iroquois Confederacy; namely the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Tuscaroras, now more often than not, refer to ourselves as the Haudenosaunee. Loosely translated, Haudenosaunee means people of the longhouse, and it comes from our languages.


Justin Giles, who is Creek, played lacrosse at Virginia and serves on the US Lacrosse Native American Advisory Council.

5. For those who do not know much about Native Americans, what are some key things of which they should be aware?

Giles: Begin with understanding that for thousands of years and to this very day, thousands of Indigenous communities and governments existed and continue to exist and reside throughout the western hemisphere from the far north in the Arctic Slope to the farthest tip of Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Pata: We are still here, over 600 thriving autonomous tribal governments and tribal citizens revitalizing endangered languages and connecting unique cultural traditions with progressive communities of today. We want our voice to be heard and included on discussions about us, as we plan to be here for all the tomorrows to come.

Smith: There are many things I could say. However, I’m going to keep it to the four key things that I think everyone should know about Native Americans: 1) There are many different nations/tribes and they all have their own languages, culture, beliefs, teachings and original territories; 2) There are basic spiritual principles that Native Americans have in common. One is that everything in the universe is connected; 3) Most, if not all, Native Americans have a strong connection to the land, which includes nature and Mother Earth; and 4) All Native Americans have been affected by the loss of our languages, culture and land. We have been assimilated into the dominant society to some degree, some more than others.

6. Is it appropriate for non-Natives to hold Native-inspired Medicine Games? How can others benefit from the healing power of lacrosse?

Giles: No, it is not appropriate to hold Native-inspired Medicine Games. Play lacrosse as you know it, and play with respect.

Pata: Many non-Natives have closely connected with Native families and clans and hold deep respect for cultural practices like Medicine Games. It is with that deep respect that they recognize their role to support and assist as requested, but also know their role is not to lead or step in front of a Native American that carries that cultural responsibility. These partnerships and relationships allow the sharing of the healing powers of lacrosse.

Smith: A Medicine Game is a sacred, spiritual ceremony which is conducted with reverence by people who know the spiritual and cultural protocols and therefore needs to be reserved for Natives. Others can benefit from the healing power of lacrosse by using it for doing good, like playing benefit games for good causes, helping a person or family in need, raising the spirit of someone who is sick and simply by playing it to feel good and to enjoy it. It is all about the intention.