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"> Bill O'Brien: Question of Identity | USA Lacrosse Magazine

Bill O'Brien played Division I-AA football at Sacred Heart before pursuing a career in pro lacrosse.

Bill O'Brien: Question of Identity

This article, as told to Matt Hamilton, 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 picked up my lacrosse stick a little later than most kids around. I started playing in fifth grade with field lacrosse with my middle school team. That summer, I started playing box lacrosse with some friends. I played box lacrosse at Onondaga and grew up right off the reserve, so I learned the traditions of the game. You learn at a young age why this game is so important — because it’s a gift from the Creator. It's used as a form of medicine. It has made an impact on the community.

My teammates have always been accepting. They see how important it is. With teammates, it was always easy to explain and there was an air of respect. When you’re playing other teams, in high school especially. The team I played for is Lafayette — it was a rural area 50-50 Native and white. We would go play other rural schools and there was some ignorance from some of the players at other schools. Whether they’re chirping or talking trash, it’s usually ignorant-rich.

It didn’t really hit me until I went off to school. I got a scholarship to play Division I football at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. As I was at school, I had long hair. I remember going to camp when I was 18 years old. One of the guys asked me ‘You’re like Indian or something?’ I told him I was from Onondaga and I was Native American. He was like ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know you guys existed still.’ That kind of hit me really hard. I was like ‘What do you mean?’ After thinking about it, clearly not everyone has the same experiences as I do.

"'You're like Indian, or something? Oh my god. I didn't know you guys still existed.'"

That moment was very eye-opening. From that point on, I was very proud to be from Onondaga and to be Native. Every opportunity I had to educate people about what it is to be Native American. You get crazy questions. ‘So do you guys live in a teepee?’ Very ignorant questions, but I do my best to answer them and raise a little bit of awareness.

It was a difficult time for me to digest that question. I had to reflect on where that question stems from. I was a kid coming off to college. I was 5.5 hours from home and in a whole new world trying to earn a scholarship playing college football. I don’t know anyone. People were questioning the identity of my family and the people that I love. It’s kind of funny to reflect on it. It didn’t come from a harmful place. I didn’t feel like it was a negative statement. It was a genuine inquiry like ‘Wow, you guys are still around.’ It really opened my eyes and really made me want to dive into the history of the Iroquois.

There was a time in history where Natives were supposed to be exterminated. The government wanted the land of the native people. That person, and that question, it was probably a genuine question because they had never met a Native person in their life. I dealt with it and probably made some sort of joke. It came to a point where my duty was to educate people and make something of myself to show that ‘Oh, there are Native Americans out there doing good things’ not only for myself but everyone coming up behind me.

When someone does make a snarky remark, you don’t want to go punch them in the mouth, but rather educate them. More can be done if you begin to educate them on ‘Why do you have long hair?’ or ‘Oh, you are still around? Where do you live?’ Things of that nature.

Playing lacrosse at a professional level in the NLL, it’s really cool to see and play with guys. Some the best players are Native — Lyle, you look at Jordan Durston, Randy Staats, Vaughn Harris. There are very good Native players right now, and for being such a small population compared to the U.S. or compared to Canada, having such a large percentage of that population playing in the NLL is a huge accomplishment. When someone says lacrosse is more than a game. Hockey, to Canadians, is more than a game. It doesn’t have this religious aspect and history to it.


O'Brien spent time with the New England Black Wolves and Buffalo Bandits of the NLL before joining the MLL's Boston Cannons this season.

It’s important to us as Native Americans to be prominent in communities and show that there is a path for success for young kids. A lot of reserves are poverty-stricken, rampant drug use. The dropout rates are higher than any other type in the country. By going back and being a face of the community is a way to help quell all that. In doing so, we’re going back to the points of this conversation, about how to make Native Americans more respected and prominent and raise awareness. It’s going to be something that evolves, more so than it being a quick fix. I definitely see strides being made in an increase in Native American awareness, where the game comes from, and having the people’s respect.”

That way we create a real path for a community that has faced genocide, racism, atrocities because they were the first inhabiters of the land. It’s our responsibility as athletes and Native Americans.