SEATTLE—At the March 25 sneak preview of Crooked Arrows, former college and pro lacrosse player Neal Powless spoke reverently of lacrosse as more than just a sport. “Everyone has their own skill—strength, speed, agility, size,” he said. “Those are gifts from the Creator, and that’s what lacrosse is—a celebration of your gifts and bringing them together as a group and using those gifts for the betterment of the whole. That’s a Native value—coming together as a group, working together as a community, as you did today.”
Powless was speaking to a full-house audience at the China Harbor Restaurant in Seattle. The values Powless spoke of are the foundation of the sport portrayed in the movie, a feature film about a young Onondaga man who, in coaching a team of underdogs, reconnects with the values—and the game—of his ancestors. Audiences should come away with a clear understanding of the values of the game and why lacrosse is important in Haudenosaunee culture.
It’s a fine film—Powless calls Crooked Arrows the “first Native American family movie”—and it received a standing ovation at the sneak preview. Among those who stood to praise the film was CBS News correspondent Hattie Kauffman, Nez Perce.
Crooked Arrows will see its theatrical release May 18. It’s the first feature film about lacrosse since The Creator’s Game (1999), the low-budget but well-received film starring Cree actor Dakota House.
But Crooked Arrows is a much bigger film than The Creator’s Game. It’s got an $8 million budget, is written by Brad Riddell (Slap Shot 3: The Junior League, American Pie Presents Band Camp), directed by Steve Rath (The Buddy Holly Story, Can’t Buy Me Love), and stars Brandon Routh (One Life to Live, Superman Returns), and Gil Birmingham (Twilight series, Into the West).
All Native characters, save one, are portrayed by Native actors. Routh is Kickapoo, Birmingham is Comanche. The players on the field are not actors pretending to be lacrosse players; they’re lacrosse players who were found at casting calls in Baltimore, Boston, Syracuse, and in Hempstead, Long Island; Norwalk, Connecticut; and Summit, N.J. The “About” page at CrookedArrows.com shows portraits of 13 members of the team; Mohawk, Tuscarora and Onondaga nations are represented.
The script was vetted to ensure it is culturally and historically accurate. Powless, Onondaga, is assistant director of the Native Student Program at Syracuse University. He was introduced to the script when the producers visited Syracuse for a casting call. He suggested changes that needed to be made to make the story true to Haudenosaunee culture, and became an adviser and co-producer.
“There were nine different versions of the script from that point,” Powless said. “Revisions were made as it was shot.”
Crooked Arrows has a story line reminiscent of the hockey film The Mighty Ducks. Joe Logan (Routh) is a former Onondaga lacrosse standout who now works for the casino, where he manages its expansion plans. In order to win council approval for expansion, he must first prove himself to his father, a traditionalist Onondaga council member portrayed by Birmingham, by rediscovering his spirit. He is tasked with coaching the reservation’s high school lacrosse team, which competes against the better equipped and better trained players of the elite Prep School League.
Ignited by their heritage and believing in their newfound potential, coach and team climb an uphill battle to the state championship finals against their privileged prep school rivals.
The involvement of Powless, son of Chief Irving Powless Jr., was ideal. His Haudenosaunee name means “His Voice Is Heard Among the People.” He was a three-time All-American in lacrosse at Nazareth College, played on the Iroquois team at the World Lacrosse Championships in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2004, and played for several professional lacrosse teams, including the Six Nations Chiefs of the Ontario Lacrosse Association and Rochester Knighthawks.
It’s ironic that lacrosse—a game that predates the nations of the world, a game the Creator gifted to the Haudenosaunee as a way to bring people together—has been negatively affected by international politics in the Haudenosaunee’s exercise of their sovereignty.
In 1990, the Haudenosaunee played at the World Games for the first time in 100 years; they had been banned from international competition for a century, Powless said, because they were too good at the sport and were considered professional by other nations of the world.
In 2010, the Iroquois Nationals, a team of Haudenosaunee players, chose not to compete in the world championships in Britain because the U.S. and the United Kingdom would not accept Haudenosaunee passports.
But as Robert Upham, the Dakota independent filmmaker who organized the sneak preview event in Seattle, said, sports can be a catalyst for social change. One, the Haudenosaunee have returned to international competition. Two, the decision to not back down and use U.S. or Canadian passports in 2010 was, in itself, a defense of Haudenosaunee sovereignty. And, three, the game has given the world a great movie which Powless hopes will inspire all Native people to not only play lacrosse, but to discover the games that are indigenous to their own cultures.
The sneak preview included a concert by the blues band Gary Farmer and the Trouble Makers; Farmer, Haudenosaunee, is an actor known for his roles in such films as Dead Man (1995) and Smoke Signals (1998).
Guest speakers included Bill Mendoza, Lakota, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education; and Arlie Naskahi, Dine’, director of Indian Education for Seattle Public Schools. Native students were admitted to the sneak preview for free, compliments of the Indian Education Title VII Program.