BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — America’s oldest team game sprouted from this territory. Revered as a gift from the Creator to be used for enjoyment, medicine, communal connection and conflict resolution, the sport of lacrosse originated more than 900 years ago, bonding the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The Senecas were known as “Keepers of the Western Door,” due to their geography among the Six Nations. Through that door, lacrosse was introduced to Canada, where it later became the national summer sport. Expanding internationally, in and outside of the box, seven generations after another, the Indigenous roots of lacrosse remain strong.
That cultural touchstone was honored Saturday when the Buffalo Bandits, along with presenting sponsor Seneca Resorts and Casinos, celebrated Native American Heritage Night in front of a crowd of close to 15,000 people KeyBank Center.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to share our culture,” said Kevin Nephew, CEO of Seneca Gaming Corporation. “The Native community takes great pride in this being our Native sport, from the kids to the grandparents, the coaches, and everyone who plays the sport. It brings communities together, making connections.”
Native American traditions were showcased throughout the night, while the Bandits rallied to defeat the Rochester Knighthawks 13-10 and move into first place in the East Division with a 7-2 record at midseason.
“The Bandits have inspired the growth of the game in Western New York, said Gary Sundown, a Seneca Nation member and coach of the state finalist Akron boys lacrosse team that was recognized on the field during Hometown Heroes Night at Buffalo’s previous home game.
Sundown and his family have cherished Bandits season tickets since the franchise formed in 1992. He has enjoyed many of the Native American Heritage Nights in Buffalo over the years. On this occasion, however, he attended a National Lacrosse League game in Toronto, where his son Larson was playing with the New York Riptide.
“It’s big deal for the Native reservations and societies,” Sundown said. “Attendance for this night is phenomenal. On social media all day, people post about going to the big game. Having a major box lacrosse team here inspires us, not only Natives, but all of the local high school teams and feeder systems, in growing the game.”
Bandits arrived to the arena on Saturday wearing custom beaded medallions handmade by Native artist Jacky Snyder. The game’s first star, NLL MVP Dhane Smith sported his new neckwear postgame after a 10-point tally (four goals, six assists) raised his league-leading total to 73 this season.
“It means a lot any time we can show support to the Native American community that started the game of lacrosse,” Smith said pregame.
Players also wore orange “Every Child Matters” t-shirts and helmet decals as part of a league initiative bringing awareness to the forcible placement of Indigenous children in residential and boarding schools by the Canadian and U.S. governments from the 19th century to as late 1996 in Canada.
Layla Seneca performed rousing rousing renditions of the national anthem backed by colors presented by women from the American Legion-Iroquois Post #1587, before Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. officiated a ceremonial face-off.
“We have a strong relationship with the Native community,” said coach John Tavares, the franchise’s all-time great player. “We’ve always had Native players on the team, some years as many as eight or nine. This year we have (Adam) Bomberry and Tehoka (Nanticoke). We’ve had coaches, Darris and Rich Kilgour,” from the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County, who also were original Bandits players with Tavares.
“The Native community is a big part of the game,” Tavares said. “The beliefs they have about the game, there’s a big connection. When I played, I loved playing on the reservations. It was always a special place to play.”
At halftime, the Dëdwa:d drum and dance troupe performed prior to a Seneca Girls Lacrosse youth scrimmage. The girls joined the Buffalo Bandettes line during player introductions, and were visited this week by Nanticoke, a Six Nations member from Ontario who was a ballboy at Bandits practices in his youth.
“What makes me most proud is remembering where I come from and never forgetting where I come from,” Nanticoke said in a recorded video package that was shown on the arena scoreboard. “Being able to go to games and seeing the kids having fun, smiling, that’s what I love. … We’re always preparing for the next seven generations. I’m thinking of the seven generations behind me. I want to leave them a better place than what I got.”
Nanticoke also recorded a video message for the NLL about how lacrosse can support Indigenous populations facing mental health challenges.
“Mental health, depression is real. I struggle with it,” Nanticoke said. “Lacrosse is my medicine. Lacrosse is how I get by. Waking up every day realizing I get to do what I love, it’s helped me. I’m still here for a reason.”
The Bandits Youth Lacrosse organization invited champions from the Newton Golden Eagles and Onondaga Redhawks teams on the field to be recognized.
Adalia Plain, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians Turtle Clan who played lacrosse for Lake Shore Central and is now a senior studying biology at Syracuse University, was awarded the Native American Scholarship.
Breaks in the game were utilized to display Native cultural terminology on the scoreboard. The educational programming also included a video promoting Roswell Park’s Indigenous & Rural Patient Management department.
“The Buffalo Bandits are just a great source of pride for the Indigenous community in Western New York,” Nephew said. “For the Seneca Nation, this is our territory, our homeland. We were here before it was Western New York. Now we share the area. To have an opportunity to educate and inform the Western New York community, to highlight our culture, what we do and what we truly are, on a night like this is a wonderful opportunity.”
Buffalo’s third straight victory avenged a 15-12 loss in Rochester two weeks ago that was the Knighthawks’ first win against the Bandits. … The Bandits overcame the absence of lead attackman Josh Bryne, who missed the game with a lower-body injury. Bryne remained atop the NLL leaderboard with 25 goals. … Connor Fields, an East Amherst native and Bishop Timon graduate who played for the Bandits last season, is tied for second in the NLL at 24 goals after scoring three on Saturday night. Fields also had four assists, bringing his season point total to 46, on pace to surpass the career-high 67 he tallied in Buffalo. … Canisius College graduate Matt Vinc, the Bandits’ 40-year-old goalie, made XX saves to win his 40th game in four seasons with
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.