For the first time, an Anishinaabe lacrosse team will compete as an independent nation

COVID-19 cancelled Anishinabe Baagaadowewin’s international debut. But the team is still focused on reviving a vital part of Anishinaabe culture
By Laurent Beausoleil - Published on Nov 09, 2021
Anishinabe Baagaadowewin leading a demonstration of the traditional wooden-lacrosse-stick game in Minneapolis in July 2021. (Courtesy of Isaiah Kicknosway)

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This story was published in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights.

Author’s note: Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe people, is not standardized. This article uses the spellings of the word “Anishinaabe” (e.g., Anishinabe, Anicinabe) preferred by the respective sources.

On June 25, team president Isaiah Kicknosway had a difficult conversation with the managers and his coaching staff over Zoom. Eighteen months earlier, Kicknosway had launched Anishinabe Baagaadowewin, the Anishinabek Nation’s U20 junior lacrosse team — which had been looking forward to competing in an international lacrosse tournament for the first time as an independent nation not tied to colonial borders.

The team had been poised to make its debut at the 2020 U20 International Indoor Junior Lacrosse World Championship, set to take place in Winnipeg last summer. But the event had been cancelled due to the pandemic. Since then, the team had watched anxiously as COVID-19 waves came and went. As this year’s rescheduled tournament approached, it became clear to team leadership that it would not be safe to participate. The virus was spreading quickly in several Anishinaabe communities in northern Ontario and also in Manitoba, where Sagkeeng Anicinabe First Nation was seeing a spike in cases. 

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So the team announced it was withdrawing from the tournament. “We knew the emotional and mental impact it would have on our players,” Kicknosway says. “With the health and safety aspect of our players and their communities taken into account, and the many unknowns prior to the tournament, it made it a sensible decision.” 

The group’s debut may have been deferred, but its goal remains the same: to support physical and mental well-being while reviving a vital aspect of Anishinaabe culture.

The historical roots of the sport of lacrosse are undeniably Indigenous, says Kicknosway, who’s from Bkejwanong Unceded Territory, in southwestern Ontario. “It’s a First Nations game, no matter which way you look at it.” Although it is often associated with the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe also have a long history playing the game in both its traditional and modern forms. 

three men (two in blue jerseys and one in blue) wearing helmets and playing a game with sticks
Jeff Shattler (middle), head coach of the Anishinabe team, competes for the Saskatchewan Rush in the National Lacrosse League finals on Saturday, May 26, 2018. (Liam Richards/)

For the Anishinaabe, the traditional game, called Baaga’adowe, was played with wooden sticks, often referred to as “Great Lakes style” lacrosse sticks. Shorter than the traditional Haudenosaunee lacrosse stick, the Great Lakes style had a completely circular pocket enclosed by bent wood. The ball was supported by strings that ran from the outside of the wooden circular ring to the centre of the pocket. The unenclosed, traditional wooden Haudenosaunee stick is the basis for the modern lacrosse stick.

“Lacrosse among Anishinabe was a large social and ceremonial gathering played in many communities,” Kicknosway says. “To my knowledge, that type of event, played in the completely traditional way, has not been organized in living memory.” Now, though, the game — both traditional and modern — is slowly being revitalized among Anishinabe people.

The Anishinabe Baagaadowewin team was officially launched in December 2019. It was created by Kicknosway, who’s based in Bkejwanong Unceded Territory, in southwestern Ontario, to give Anishinaabe youth the opportunity to compete in international lacrosse competition under their own nation’s flag. Its mandate is to awaken (the spirit), educate (the people), develop (the game), and unite (the fires), guided by the principles of the seven teachings: Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth.

The Indigenous nation is the second to be allowed to compete as a sovereign nation in the IIJL World Lacrosse Championship. Kicknosway had taken inspiration from the Iroquois Nationals, whom he’d competed for during both the 2010 and 2011 seasons as a non-passport-holding player.  The Haudenosaunee, who have a long history with the sport, formed the Iroquois Nationals Men’s Lacrosse Team in 1983 to allow Haudenosaunee players to represent and compete as their own nation in international competition — and they consistently rank in the top three nations in the world. 

Brothers Kieran and Jesse Peltier, creators of 5 Feathers Lacrosse — a program based in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory for children ages eight to 12 — have plans to collaborate with Kicknosway by hosting camps in Anishinabe communities, with the goal of providing professional or university-level coaching. Prior to the creation of their league, Kieran Peltier says, the nearest lacrosse team was located two hours away in Sudbury.

“We’re trying to provide youth with the opportunity to engage in a sport that is culturally relevant to our people so that they can experience the health and fitness benefits, develop their mental skills, and build cultural connections,” says Peltier. “We’re not only trying to teach youth how to play lacrosse but are trying to teach them why we play. It’s super-exciting.”

Whether a player is a registered band member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki in Quebec, or the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota, they are eligible to compete for the Anishinabe Baagaadowewin team. (The Anishinabek Nation — consisting of the Ojibwe, Mississaugas, Odawa, Potawatomi, Saulteaux, Oji-Cree, and Algonquin peoples — is nested within the settler states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota and sprawls across the border into Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.) “The foundation of both Canada and the United States is based on agreements and treaties with First Nations peoples,” says Kicknosway. “To recognize those foundational documents is to recognize our rights as sovereign peoples.”

Working with athletes on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border made putting a team together very difficult. “Venues for traditional team tryouts were unable to be booked in the majority of our jurisdictions because of COVID limits,” says Kicknosway. “Potential recruits filled out our prospective players form online.” 

“Our numbers [of players) were looking pretty good. It wasn’t the numbers that were the big issue,” says Jeff Shattler, professional Ojibwe lacrosse player, member of Wiikwemkoong First Nation, and head coach for the Anishinabe team. “We didn’t really know what these kids were like, to be honest with you. You didn’t know their skill level, and it’s going to be pretty hard to find out skill level when you can’t even see them in person.”

group of children in orange jerseys in front of a net
Kieran and Jesse Peltier's 5 Feathers Lacrosse is based in
​​​​​​​Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. (Courtesy of Kieran Peltier)

For Shattler, though, the experience is about more than just sport. Like Kicknosway, Shattler has also competed for the Iroquois Nationals as a non-passport-holding player. “It means a lot to our people,” he says. “On a personal level, it’s taught me to be a part of something. It’s taught me to work together with others. It’s taught me the spirituality of the game and what it can do for you … I always feel blessed and cleaner, and my mind is right after I play a game. Whether it’s mental issues or things at home, I found that I could use lacrosse to get through [to the youth], and just that, on its own, is a beautiful thing.”

Although Anishinabe Baagaadowewin’s debut on the international lacrosse stage will have to wait, players have stayed active. On July 10-11, the Premier Lacrosse League hosted the Lightning Stick Society and Twin Cities Native Lacrosse— led by Anishinabe Baagaadowewin — in Minneapolis for a demonstration of the traditional wooden-lacrosse-stick game. 

Kicknosway is optimistic about the year to come. “We are looking to 2022 to provide many opportunities for the lacrosse-playing youth and organizing teams for different tournaments,” he says. “With the easing restrictions and the solid connections that we have developed in the past year, it will be a great time to be proud of being Anishinabe and play lacrosse.”

And Shattler is looking forward to creating a new precedent. “To go out there under our own flag for the very first time, it just creates history,” he says. “We’re making history here and that’s huge … to be a part of something like that is very, very special.”

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