You can call it heritage, a proud legacy or, as many do, the Creator’s Gift. Or you can just call it lacrosse. The Haudenosaunee play the game they invented centuries ago with respect and passion, and Brett Bucktooth, Oneida Indian Nation, Turtle Clan, is as good a representative for the heart and soul of the Creator’s game as you’ll find. Syracuse University All-American? Check. National Lacrosse League All-Star? Check. Member of the Iroquois Nationals and the Onondaga Redhawks? Check and check.
Last summer, Bucktooth and his fellow Nationals put on a lacrosse clinic for kids on the South Lawn of the White House, an event hosted by first lady Michelle Obama. The previous summer, Bucktooth and his teammates weren’t allowed to fly to England to play in the LAX world championships because they were traveling with Haudenosaunee passports.
Is lacrosse just a game or does it have a greater significance for you?
For Natives who play lacrosse, it’s more than just a game. What lacrosse means to us goes deeper than words and time. Lacrosse goes back to the beginning of our people. The game was not invented for sport. The game is a gift from our Creator. He gave us lacrosse for his enjoyment. It is meant to be played fair, tough and with a good mind. Today, people of all races play the game as competition and sport. But at home we still play as our ancestors played. We still use lacrosse in our ceremonies as a medicine of healing—healing for the community and for individuals who need it. That’s something special because we are playing for other people’s well-being and not for ourselves or for championships.
How old were you when you started playing lacrosse?
I started playing competitive lacrosse when I was 3 years old. The same for my son, who is now 6 years old! Growing up, I was very active. Besides lacrosse, I played hockey, football, soccer, basketball and ran cross-country. It helps that my mom is still playing competitive softball today! Like most kids around the Syracuse area, I grew up watching Syracuse University greats such as Gary and Paul Gait, but when I was in my early years of high school I favored hockey more. I played hockey right up until I enrolled at Syracuse to play lacrosse.
How old was your son when he got his first stick?
My son received his first stick on the day he was born! As soon as I held him for the first time I put a stick in his possession and he slept with it on his first night. I had just come home from a National Tournament in Canada and I felt really proud to hold my son.
Your father excelled as a player and now as a coach. Your brothers and cousins also play. This seems like a true family tradition. Other than family, were there elders or other community members who helped you develop as a player?
Every male I knew growing up played lacrosse at some point. My role models growing up were my parents. They both worked hard and sacrificed a lot in order for me to pursue my dreams. My father taught all his sons to watch and learn. I would watch both younger and older players as well as listen to the coaches. I was eager to learn and practice new skills every day. My father has taught me a lot about the game and life itself. I grew up idolizing veteran players like Mike Benedict Jr., Rex Lyons and Ace Stout. The players who paved the way for my dreams were younger players like Neal Powless, Gewas Schindler, Marshall Abrams and my oldest brother, Drew Bucktooth. They starred in college and made playing at the highest level conceivable. Not only are they role models on the playing floor, but they are role models in their community. Along with those great players I have a great coach in Darris Kilgour. He has helped take my skill and knowledge of the game to another level.
You were a member of the Iroquois Nationals squad that was denied entry to England for the world championships because of your Haudenosaunee passports. Did anything positive come from that experience?
Not being able to travel to the World Championships was very frustrating. Not just as a player but as a fan of the game. It’s frustrating because as Haudenosaunee we have been traveling on our own passports and for the U.S. and Canadian governments to deny us and not respect us as a people was sad. The positive that came out of the situation was that we stood our ground. As a people we came together and believed in our rights as Haudenosaunee: we should be traveling on our own passports.
What is the feeling you get when you pull on your Nationals jersey and represent the Iroquois on the world stage?
Pride. There is a lot of history in those jerseys. Not only is there respect for the players who wore them before you, but for the struggles and sacrifices the elders made to help the Iroquois Nationals get to where we are today. We owe them a lot of respect.
How about when you suit up for the Redhawks and play in a tournament like the Nations Cup—are there bragging rights on the line there among the Haudenosaunee?
There is a lot of pride in wearing a Redhawks jersey. It’s right up there with wearing a Nationals jersey because you know that your grandfather, dad, uncles and cousins all wore the same jersey. It’s about the pride on the front of your jersey and not the last name on the back of the jersey. That’s why we don’t put last names on our Redhawks jerseys. There are definitely bragging rights when attending Nations Cup. While the tournament is very competitive and played tough, at the end of the day you’re glad to be playing and hanging out with friends.
Do you see yourself getting into coaching? When you work with kids, is teaching the game’s history as important as teaching the fundamentals?
Coaching is a great way to pass on knowledge and the history of our game. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Coaching is a way of giving back to my community after it has given me so much.
Soccer has begun to find a niche in the U.S. but lacrosse hasn’t found a broad audience yet. Is there any way to increase exposure to the sport?
Although lacrosse is America’s oldest sport, only recently has it begun to really expand and grow in popularity. There are two lacrosse movies coming out this year I think will help the sport grow. With individual lacrosse players gaining more popularity in their postcollegiate careers due to contract endorsements, we are seeing more than the traditional lacrosse hotbeds grow.