Review: ‘Spirit Game,’ about the Iroquois roots of lacrosse, is no ordinary sports documentary

Film Critic

“Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation” isn’t a standard sports documentary. Its focus is on spiritual matters as well as the physical because it deals with a game its adherents believe is just about as old as time.

That would be lacrosse, a sport the Iroquois, who originated it, call “the creator’s game,” something they believe was played between animals, the winged creatures versus the land ones, before man was on the scene.

“My grandfather played the game. His grandfather played the game. How far back do you want to go?” says Oren Lyons, who has the title of wisdom keeper for the Native American Haudenosaunee, a confederation of tribes in northeast North America the French called Iroquois.


As co-directed by Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter, “Spirit Game” covers a lot of territory, which gives it something of an all-over-the-map quality. But the subject matter is always enough to hold our attention.

A key aspect is the special place, very unlike other American sports, lacrosse has in the culture of the Iroquois.

“It’s part of our spiritual process,” says Lyons, while a contemporary player avows, “you have to play with a clear mind, giving thanks to the creator.”

Considering themselves a sovereign nation, the Iroquois fought for many years to be recognized as such by the Federation of International Lacrosse.

Though finally accepted, the Iroquois, with only 400 players to draw from compared with the 600,000 the U.S. and Canada can claim, did not initially do well.

And, as an added insult, in 2010, when England hosted the World Lacrosse Field Championships, the United Kingdom refused to accept the team’s Iroquois Nation passports and so they did not compete.


All this is backdrop to the two tournaments “Spirit Game” covers in depth: the 2014 Field Championships, held outdoors in Denver and boasting 83 teams, including a New Zealand contingent that greeted the Iroquois with a stirring Maori chant.

This was followed by the 2015 World Lacrosse Indoor Championships held at Onondaga in the Iroquois area of upstate New York and featuring dread rival Canada, who pioneered the indoor version of the game in the 1930s.

That coverage means “Spirit Game” includes considerable lacrosse action, highlighted by video featuring the four Thompson brothers, namely Miles, Jeremy, Jerome and Lyle (considered perhaps the top player in the game today), all playing together for the first time.

Because they have played the game since they were practically toddlers, the Thompsons and other Iroquois players are able, as a dazzled ESPN announcer puts it, to “make plays they shouldn’t be able to make,” including a knockout no-look behind-the-back goal by Miles Thompson.

As if this weren’t enough, “Spirit Game” also has a more overtly political agenda concerning the Iroquois’ long-standing frustration with Pope Alexander VI’s papal bull of 1493.

That proclamation, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, said that any lands without Christians living on them were empty and free to be colonized. In the film the Iroquois try to meet with Pope Francis, who was visiting the U.S. in 2015, as part of an attempt to get him to renounce that doctrine.


As noted, this is a lot for one film to attempt to take on, but what “Spirit Game” does best is something else again. By detailing the enormous pride in who they are and what they do that lacrosse instills in the Iroquois, it provides the kind of window into another culture’s belief system that sports films rarely attempt.


“Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation”

Not rated.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood; Arena Cinelounge Santa Monica, Santa Monica.

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