Mitchell Peck was a young Hollywood producer with a dream of making a mainstream movie about lacrosse. He had played it in high school, and he had what he was sure was a good idea: a heartwarming story of a team of American Indian kids from the reservation taking on the privileged players from a nearby prep school. He envisioned something in the tradition of The Mighty Ducks, The Bad News Bears and Hoosiers. “These movies are all about misfits vs. the establishment,” he says. “The coach swoops in and helps the kids realize their potential, and the kids humanize the coach in the process.”
Those may have been selling points in Hollywood, where new films are often pitched to producers in terms of successful films of the past (“It’s Jaws meets Sleepless in Seattle!”). But the notion of white filmmakers making up a story about Indians was met with suspicion in Indian country. To use a common phrase, they’d seen this movie before.
Peck acknowledges as much: “Native Americans haven’t had the best treatment in films, so of course they were wary.” Peck knew he could make a film that audiences would like, but he also knew that he didn’t know enough about Native culture, and he was determined to honor that culture, not exploit it. “We researched the material—we got a lot of information from a book by Thomas Vennum called American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War and we had the script vetted by [a historian at] the Smithsonian.”
Crooked Arrows has a story line reminiscent of the hockey film The Mighty Ducks. Joe Logan (Brandon Routh) is a former local lacrosse standout now working for the tribe’s 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 (Gil Birmingham), by rediscovering his spirit. He is told to coach 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 against privileged prep school competition to reach the state championship finals. Audiences should come away with a clear understanding of the values of the game and why lacrosse is important in Haudenosaunee culture. “That was one of the highlights for me, doing a real historical portrayal of the game and what it means to the people,” says Birmingham. “I had no prior experience with the game, it wasn’t something I was exposed to. The game has so much to offer. Even if you don’t play you can enjoy just the skill, the speed and the agility.”
Getting a story that pleased lacrosse players and Natives to the screen was a delicate operation. “We tried to be as accurate as we could with the script,” Peck recalls. “But the truth is, if you’re not in the community, you’re going to get some things wrong.”
Enter lacrosse legend Neal Powless, Onondaga, a three-time all-American while playing at New York’s Nazareth College who represented the Iroquois Nationals at four world championships. He played for professional clubs in Rochester, New York; Syracuse, New York; Columbus, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; and in New Jersey. Just as important, he is the son of Chief Irving Powless Jr., and his Haudenosaunee name means “His Voice Is Heard Among the People.” In other words, you couldn’t makeup a better résumé for the person needed to serve as a consultant on a movie about lacrosse.
“Without Neal, this film would never have been made,” Peck says. “We found we could make a few phone calls and get a thousand fresh-faced white boys showing up to try out for this movie. But we couldn’t get the Native players. And without the Native American players, you can’t make the movie.”
The producers met Powless in upstate New York, where he is the assistant director of the Native Student Program at Syracuse University. They needed help with casting and the script, so they hired him as a consultant. “Part of my contract was that we [made] certain changes to the movie,” Powless says. “As that process moved forward, they realized I was easy to work with.”
“Neal endorsed our project,” Peck says. “He understood it could be a good thing for his people.”
Some Native kids had been forbidden by their parents from trying out for the film. Powless understood why, and put up his reputation as collateral of sorts. “One of my main concerns was for the kids in this movie. I didn’t want them to go back to their communities when it was all over and not be able to hold their heads up high.
“I made some phone calls and called in some favors,” he recalls. “We were able to fill up five buses [with Native people] who came and were the extras in the crowd scenes for the big game. When they saw I could do that and had the support of the Native groups, I became a co-producer.
“It was an interesting give and take,” he says of his interactions with Peck, the director and the writers. “They knew the Hollywood aspects they wanted. And I knew the cultural aspects that were necessary. It was good because mostly everybody realized that we needed to make changes.
“My goal is that this movie will change the perception about [Natives]. People see the rez as a place they would never go to.”
Crooked Arrows isn’t the first lacrosse movie. The Creator’s Game was released in 1999, but that was a low-budget affair. Crooked Arrows had a much larger budget and legitimate Hollywood talent behind it. It was co-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 Routh (One Life to Live, Superman Returns) and Birmingham (Twilight, Into the West). The Native characters are portrayed by Native actors—Routh is Kickapoo; Birmingham is Comanche—and the players on the field are not actors pretending to be lacrosse players; they’re lacrosse players.
And they’re actual Indians—the Mohawk, Onondaga and Tuscarora Nations are all represented on the Native team. “This movie was perfectly cast,” says Birmingham. “It was a great decision to go with athletes who could play the game. And so many of these boys came straight off the reservation, they brought such authenticity. They sang the songs of their people; they did the drum group.”
“The movie pays homage to lacrosse at a high level,” says Powless. “The majority of the lacrosse guys in the movie are at that level. The acting could have been better or cleaner. But I think all the Native players carried their performances rather well. And some of them are now getting calls for other roles. If they are bad actors, why are they getting calls now for other jobs?”
One actor who doesn’t have to worry about when he’ll get his next casting call is Routh, who is already a big star in Hollywood. He admits that his Kickapoo heritage was a vital component of his performance in Crooked Arrows. “I think it was important for the producers to have somebody who had some connection to that, to be able to bring truth and to be honest about the character and the role,” he told CraveOnline.com. Routh admits he hadn’t been looking to do a Native-themed movie when this part came up. “It hadn’t been something that was high up on my list just because it was so far back in my ancestry. But when [this] opportunity came about I really thought it would be awesome to be able to do, since I had no connection, to have this little bit and learn about the culture and why they play this game. The spiritual aspect to it was really something I was looking forward to and got a lot from subsequently.”
It took Peck eight years to get the film made, and he had to travel all over the country recruiting investors to do it. “We’ve been in living rooms and country clubs; we pitched tribal councils and we’ve been invited to longhouses,” he recalls. “We built an extremely broad coalition behind this movie, we had tribes with casinos on board and tribes without casinos. We raised $8 million to make the film and another $5 million to market it.” It was a long journey, but he is thrilled to have walked that road, and to have made this movie.
At the March 25 sneak preview in Seattle, 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.”
The audience was just as enthusiastic at the premiere May 9 in Syracuse. “It was an incredible experience,” Peck recalls. “There were 1,000, maybe 1,200 people in the crowd, mostly Native American, both young and old. A lot of them showed up in regalia. They packed the house to see this movie they’d heard so much about. And [I was moved by] the poignancy of seeing their reaction to the movie—their enthusiasm and happiness, and that was magnified by seeing their culture represented in the right way. It made all of us behind this film feel like we were doing something good.”
Sam Laskaris and Richard Walker contributed to this story.