By Joanne C. Gerstner
Nina Polk loves to play lacrosse and is damned good at it.
She is a sophomore attack forward Fort Lewis College, part of the trend of women playing lacrosse. NCAA stats show that women’s lacrosse programs increased 54 percent from 2012 to 2020, according to InsideLacrosse.com
But there is more going on here than just Polk being part of the growth of women in lacrosse. She is a representative of a wave of Indigenous players entering the sport at the college level, with 114 players on teams right now. There were only 54 in 2012. Lacrosse is becoming a little less white, but still is at 83.34 percent in 2020. It was 88 percent white in 2012, according to the NCAA.
Polk is Diné Navajo and Sičangu Lakota, along with other tribes in her heritage, and sees lacrosse as a potent expression of her culture and history.
“Every time I play, I am honoring our ancestors. It is a time of healing for me when I play. I am entertaining the creator,” Polk, a 19-year-old native of Shakopee, Minnesota, said. “When I picked up the stick for the first time, I felt that. I knew this was a powerful moment for me to share. But when I was first introduced to lacrosse, when I was like 13, 14, I didn’t know this was a thing. I did not know the depth and the meaning. Now it I do, and it brings me a lot of grounding in who I really am.”
The connection is real. And the talent pipeline for skilled and talented Indigenous players is also real across North America. Major powerhouse programs, such as Syracuse, have grown their success through recruiting Indigenous players.
The players want to go where they feel comfortable. Polk chose Fort Lewis because of its large Indigenous student body. Being the other, such as how she felt in a mostly-white high school, was a feeling she wanted to escape.
"It is just different here. I feel more at peace, and I am also closer to my relatives in Arizona. I wanted to get out of the state and grow as a person," she said.
Polk uses social media to discuss the different styles between modern lacrosse and the traditional sport. Her style is modern at Fort Lewis, while she goes traditional with her Twin Cities Native Lacrosse group.
The styles of sticks can vary from Nation to tribe.
It seems normal. But it is somewhat groundbreaking. Not all Indigenous allow women to play lacrosse. Cultural differences may not allow girls to get into the sport right now, but Polk – who frequently plays with men because of her skill level – wants to inspire kids to go for more.
“I have had elders and other watch me play and tell me I am one of the first women they have seen playing lacrosse at this level and skill – or even at all,” Polk said. “They told me I am indeed honoring our ancestors with that, and this is very powerful. They said I am inspiring little kids. They can be like me. They can use lacrosse to be an important part of their lives and now, go to college too.”
Which is where Jeff Shattler, an Iroquois professional lacrosse player who also has Ojibwe and Inuit roots, comes in. Shattler is working on grooming the next generation of Indigenous youth to see lacrosse as furthering their education. He was a star ice hockey player and lacrosse player as a kid growing up in Saskatchwan. He could have played hockey at Cornell, but chose not to go because of the distance from his home and culture. He also admits he was falling out of love with hockey because of the grind of juniors. Being far away as a teen and facing the pressure of elite hockey was not bringing him joy anymore.
So lacrosse became more important in his life. He’s had a successful career, winning championships in the National Lacrosse league with Calgary and Saskatchewan, being named the 2018 playoffs MVP, and representing the Iroquois with their Nationals box lacrosse team at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships.
Shattler is 36, and now in his last pro season with the Saskatchewan Rush of the National Lacrosse League. He has started his own program – the Shattler Lacrosse Academy - and works with the Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation to develop their youth players.
If he was a high school senior today, he knows he would be playing Division I lacrosse in his future.
“The opportunities are exploding, and I am so excited because this is what we have been waiting for,” Shattler said. “I want lacrosse to be their opportunity in every way. Opportunity for exercise, expressing and learning about our culture, being part of our traditions, and now using it to have education and career opportunities.”
Shattler works with boys and girls, wanting to show them their potential. The challenges he faces at times are the remoteness or the disconnectivity. Some do not have cell phones or stable internet access. Transportation to a game or a practice may not be possible.
So figuring out the logistics and budget to help get the kids involved is as big as teaching them proper techniques.
“We are working on the funding, we need more to do more,” he said. “We need to get our players to the showcases in Las Vegas and other places around the U.S., where those college coaches can see them play. That is the game. You get noticed at those places and that is where you get the attention for offers. I am really hopeful that we can do that more and more, but it has been hard because of COVID.”
The restrictions placed on travel between the U.S. and Canada, plus the additional provincial COVID rules have made playing games challenging. For Shattler, keeping in pro shape, a routine best done with working out against other players, has been non-existent.
He has worked out on his own, keeping his skills and conditioning as sharp as possible, but knows he is not where he needs to be right now on the eve of his season starting.
“I see it in me, the isolation we have had has not been good. I can't always practice with my wife. (laugh) So take it down to the kids. They need to play, exercise, see each other, this is their outlet they have been denied,” he said. “I want to really get them all together and have things go back to the way we want them.”
For Polk and Shattler, success as lacrosse players is a vehicle for education about their culture and the sport's tradition. Many assume lacrosse, which has the stereotype of being a white, wealthy sport based on ice hockey, is something new.
It’s not. It was co-opted from the Indigenous and now, Polk, Shattler and others want to reclaim, inform, and share its history.
“I should not have to tell people who are into lacrosse about what it is and where it came from, but I do,” Polk said. “I sat down with my team here (Fort Lewis) and told them, and they didn’t know. Now they do, and they can tell others and then we spread the education.
“On one hand, it should have to be my job to explain this. Google it, do some research. Don’t be ignorant. But on the other hand, I am blessed to do it. It is an honor to share my ancestors' history, because they fought to keep us here. I am never tired to teach the sport, be part of sharing what I love to do.”