Winning Ways

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Playing lacrosse connects youth to traditional wisdom, shared goals and new possibilities

Photo by Shaun Friedrichsen/Alliance Times-Herald

Edison Red Nest III didn't grow up playing lacrosse. He discovered the ancestral sport at around the same time he found sobriety, awakening in him a profound new sense of purpose and belonging. Today he carries that hope forward through his work with young people.

"I feel fortunate that I was able to turn my life around and live a positive lifestyle," says Red Nest. His business, Native Futures, helps other people create their own turn-around stories. Native Futures contracts with community, tribal and government organizations in the remote Nebraska panhandle region to provide an array of outreach, education, prevention, recovery and diversion services.

In the spirit of giving back, Red Nest also started a lacrosse league as a conduit for youth development, community engagement and cultural connection.

"My goal is to stop the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects our youth and to create, instead, a lacrosse-to-college pipeline," he shares.

Roots of Identity

For Native American youth, no sport could be more culturally relevant than lacrosse, Red Nest explains.

The sport's origins trace back more than a thousand years to the Huadenosaunee peoples who live in an area encompassing what's now known as upstate New York and parts of Ontario and Quebec, Canada. The Huadenosaunee viewed the game as a gift from the Creator. "Warriors played the game for the enjoyment of the Creator, demonstrating the traditional values of generosity, humility, bravery, creativity, honesty, integrity and all that warriors were expected to embody," Red Nest shares.

In working with local youth, Red Nest teaches both the traditional Creator's Game/Medicine Game version of the sport as well as "mainstream" lacrosse. The traditional game includes players of all ages—from kindergartners to community elders—and the sport is played on whatever size field is available, with no clock and no rules about contact. In fact, players don't wear protective padding.

"The idea is that we're all in the game together, we're all aware of one another, looking out for the younger kids, playing to each other's strengths, competing as a team," Red Nest says. "Just as in life, if you get hit or knocked down, the game doesn't stop. So, what are you going to do? And just as in life, when you're down, you might need friends and the people around you to help you get back up and back in the game."

Red Nest also describes the Creator's Game as "playing inside a prayer." At the start of the game, each player calls to mind someone in their life who is hurting or suffering. "As we're moving and running and passing the ball, we're making medicine for that person in our life. We're putting that healing energy out there in the universe. And likewise, when we get hit or hurt, the pain has a spiritual dimension—we're taking on the pain for that other person."

A Pathway for Healing

The community is rallying around the game, reports Red Nest. The Society of Care, a trauma and resiliency care provider serving Nebraska's Native youth and their families, has been a huge supporter of the lacrosse program. Hazelden Betty Ford's Jim Cowser learned about Red Nest's lacrosse league and other Native Futures community-based services through his collaborative work with the Nebraska Panhandle Public Health District. With shared goals around community health and wellness, Hazelden Betty Ford became a key sponsor of the first annual Creator's Game Event in the summer of 2019.

Held in Alliance, Nebraska, the day-long gathering drew Creator's Game players and families from six tribal nations and featured a workshop with lacrosse superstars, the Thompson brothers. Known as the first family of lacrosse, all four Thompson brothers—Jeremy, Jerome, Miles and Lyle—play professionally. As members of the Onondaga Nation, the Thompsons are also known for introducing new generations of players to the origins and spiritual nature of the sport. The event also featured addiction prevention and recovery resources, health screenings, food as medicine training and parenting education—creating numerous access points to public health services.

"Our vision for lacrosse in western Nebraska is to bring the game back for our kids, our people and our community as a pathway for healing and hope," Red Nest explains. 

Red Nest hopes to resume the annual Creator's Game Event in Alliance in 2022, after a pandemic-related pause. In the meantime, league play goes on.

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