Cultivating the Creator's Game 

Montana's fastest growing sport is the oldest in North America

Page 3 of 4

Or so he thought. Of the 200 boys who put their name on the sign-up sheets, not a single one showed up to his first clinic, even though he had followed up on each name with phone calls and emails. Alviar was deeply discouraged, but then he got an email from a kid named Dan "Big Dan" LaFranier, an American Indian football player from Polson, one of the schools that had refused Alviar's request to stage a demo. Big Dan had somehow gotten wind of the lacrosse clinic and wanted to check it out. He brought a couple of friends, and his buddy Al Plant from Arlee brought a couple of his friends. Soon the friends brought more friends, including a boy whose dad, J.R. Daniels, had coached lacrosse in Indiana. Alviar had his 10 kids.

He credits the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point with affecting a change in his focus. Instead of casting a wide net for players, Alviar started going after the kids who really cared about the sport, or "the 20 percent who do 80 percent of the work," as he puts it.

The 10Sticks club has bootstrapped its way up since that "borderline disaster" first year, Alviar says. He secured a grant to buy helmets. One player went out into the community to seek donations for the team. Gatorade, bottled water, printed team jerseys, even the occasional check started to trickle in.

10Sticks is in its third season now, and continues to grow and improve. Daniels handles the Xs and Os, freeing Alviar to write grants, schedule games and clinics, lead community outreach and generally "craft the narrative" of the Creator's Game on the Flathead Indian Reservation. His latest venture is a crowd-funding project, "Ten Sticks In Ten Days," that will raise money to send three or four players to a tournament hosted this summer by the Six Nations of Iroquois, which he calls "the motherland of lacrosse."

click to enlarge Two Missoula Elite women’s coaches demonstrate a face-off during practice at Jefferson School. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Two Missoula Elite women’s coaches demonstrate a face-off during practice at Jefferson School.

Alviar is highly driven, and dead serious about telling the story of lacrosse and sharing its meaning among Native Americans. "We're not just here to change the face of lacrosse," he says. "We're here to change what it means to love lacrosse. I want lacrosse to be as ubiquitous as basketball in Indian country out here in Montana, and it all starts here."

Ironically, the Creator's Game can be a tough sell in some Native communities. Efforts to start a lacrosse program on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation were met with "intensive opposition" from the high school in Browning, Alviar says. There was plenty of interest from the kids, but no parents or coaches stepped forward to coordinate and run the program. The high school administration did not want to make room for a new sport, even one with deep Native roots. Browning is a tight community, and parents didn't want to be viewed as opponents of the school.

"They need someone who's immune to the school board," Alviar says.

•••

Rick Roy is a garrulous, affably self-assured devotee of lacrosse who runs the Nadzitsaga lacrosse program in Burns, Ore. The club, which attracts kids from all over Harney County, just east of Bend, largely comprises American Indians. Astonishingly, Nadzitsaga and 10Sticks are the only two mostly Native lacrosse high school teams in the West, although a Native program in Umatilla, Ore., is reportedly gearing up.

Like 10Sticks, Nadzitsaga forms a spirit circle before and after games, offering up prayers of thanks to the Creator. The Missoula teams they've faced eagerly join the circle, sharing their respect for the game and for each other. Other Oregon teams, Roy says, will have no part of it.

Nadzitsaga has been around since 2008, and the program faces the same funding challenges as 10Sticks and other Montana club teams.

click to enlarge Montana Lacrosse reported 47 registered statewide players in 2009. In 2013, that number is closer to 1,000. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Montana Lacrosse reported 47 registered statewide players in 2009. In 2013, that number is closer to 1,000.

"It's a marketing game," Roy says bluntly, when asked how he generates the resources for his team. "We have access to three fields, and I'm working on getting lights on one of them." It comes across as a boast, but it's a well-earned one. Lacrosse can be difficult to establish in any school district when parents and school administrations fear that it will take a bite out of the school's thin budget. But Roy understands the game's spiritual essence and its positive impact on the lives of Nadzitsaga's players. He's worked hard at fostering a mutually beneficial relationship with Burns' school administrators.

"We don't get direct financial support from the schools, but we get lots of tangible support like fields for no charge, early releases, morning announcements, inclusion in the yearbook, et cetera, from the school district," he says. "That is very important. It's about outreach, not just coaching Xs and Os. I think we are seen as benefiting kids, not just playing a sport."

Nadzitsaga players are highly visible in the Burns community. The team is regularly featured in the local paper and radio, and they host Indian Taco feeds to raise money. Roy says they have sent six or seven kids to college to play lacrosse. By heavily networking within his community, Roy just may have found the template to navigate the tricky waters of high school athletics.

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