High school funding for sports, and girls’ sports in particular, is on the decline, but fundraising isn’t the only issue for the members of the Salmon River High team. As the first all-Native girls lacrosse team in their section, they’ve got something to prove, and not just to their rivals, but to their own community as well. Lacrosse was born on their land, the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, but it’s a game traditionally reserved for men. Considered a gift from their Creator, lacrosse was meant as a way for men to settle disputes among tribes. The community is split as to whether women should be allowed to play this sacred game at all. Some believe that like all surviving culture, theirs too must grow and change to meet the needs of the people. Others cling to tradition. But all agree that this game is medicinal and can be used for healing. When the girls play, they take it seriously; they too want to honour their culture. Is it really such an abomination to take up their Nation’s sport?
Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport (or its summer sport, hockey being our winter one), and it so happens that I grew up on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. The fact that none of this was unfamiliar to me didn’t make the documentary any less watchable – that’s a real credit to the movie. I have a deep respect for Aboriginal people, for their values, culture and beliefs, but there’s still a big part of me that struggles to see any woman being shut out of, well, anything in 2017. So I’m going to remind myself of some pretty important cultural context: the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first games in which every participating country included female athletes, and in which women were able to compete in all sports. The very first Olympics were of course men only, and when women did start competing last century, it was only in golf and tennis. Women didn’t curl or play hockey in the Olympics until 1998. Weightlifting, pentathlon, taekwondo, and triathlon weren’t added until 2000. Also new to women in sports this century: bobsled, wrestling, and BMX. And finally in 2012, boxing and ski jumping were added to make women competitive in every sport. Isn’t that crazy? Of course, just because those sports are now included doesn’t mean you’ll get to see them played. NBC still spends more time covering men’s sports than women’s, particularly in winter (women fare a little better in the summer because American women win more medals than their male counterparts – BUT EVEN THEN IT’S STILL NOT EQUAL). TV time for women’s sports are still mostly dedicated to thinks like gymnastics and figure skating rather than say, judo or shotput. Women’s beach volleyball seems to get quite a bit of coverage, but I’m not sure that’s about pride in athleticism so much as the REGULATION uniform of bikinis. Yes, American women do quite well in beach volleyball. In 2008 both the men’s and women’s teams medaled but more coverage went to the women’s teams. The women’s indoor team also medaled that year but it wasn’t covered at all. So before we get on our high horses about a culturally-held belief, we need to remember that the sports most associated with women today – figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball – are all sports in which women are non-aggressive and scantily clad.
Back to the movie. Director Judd Ehrlich does an excellent job of sitting back and letting the girls speak for themselves. It’s clear from footage that there is no lack of skill or athleticism, but the girls are also thoughtful and expressive. Ehrlich frames the documentary as one season’s push to defeat a rival team, win a championship, and change hearts and minds along the way, but this documentary, part of the programming at the Canadian Sports Film Festival, is also an exploration of culture and identity. School sports do not exist in a vacuum. The girls attend a public school where the curriculum is very light on, and sometimes misleading about Native culture. They are taunted with racial slurs. They play competitors that have racist mascots. The film is much more than the game. And thanks to nimble editing and savvy camerawork, it’s a thrill to watch, too.