Gay­lord Pow­less’s im­pact on lacrosse is im­mense

Once the game’s best and most mar­ketable player

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - STEVE MILTON

If, as Mo­hawks be­lieve, there is al­ways a lacrosse game be­ing played in the sky world, Gay­lord Pow­less is prob­a­bly the lead­ing scorer.

The first Indigenous lacrosse player, the first box lacrosse player of any back­ground, to tran­scend the sport, Pow­less also per­son­i­fied ev­ery­thing about “the fastest game on two feet,” which is most read­ily as­so­ci­ated with the Iro­quois Con­fed­er­acy: Pa­tience, courage, sense of his­tory, skill, com­pet­i­tive­ness, spir­i­tu­al­ity and re­spect, es­pe­cially for those who went be­fore.

Born, raised, and even­tu­ally buried at Six Na­tions, Pow­less was honoured there Thurs­day af­ter­noon as part of the North Amer­i­can Indigenous Games. He will be in­ducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in Novem­ber, as just the eighth mem­ber whose pri­mary sport was lacrosse.

Pow­less’s im­pact on the cur­rent world of the an­cient game was cel­e­brated just prior to Team On­tario play­ing Team Saskatchewan (mak­ing its first ap­pear­ance in a NAIG lacrosse fi­nal) for the boys U16 gold medal at the Iro­quois Lacrosse Arena in Oh­sweken. In a sce­nario you could not script, David An­der­son, Gay­lord’s grand­son, was play­ing for Team On­tario and wear­ing his grand­fa­ther’s iconic No. 15.

It was Gay­lord Pow­less — and to some de­gree his fa­ther Ross and Hamilton’s Bill Isaacs be­fore him — who be­gan the repa­tri­a­tion of “The Cre­ator’s Game,” which had been sys­tem­at­i­cally usurped from Indigenous peo­ples by white or­ga­niz­ers and play­ers in the late 19th cen­tury. “In­dian teams” and most play­ers too, had been banned from na­tional cham­pi­onships in what was then a field game, os­ten­si­bly be­cause they were pro­fes­sion­als but in re­al­ity be­cause they were too good. Af­ter box lacrosse was in­tro­duced to off-sea­son hockey rinks in the sum­mer of 1930, some Indigenous play­ers such as Isaacs and Ross Pow­less were wel­comed as rev­enue-pro­duc­ing stars and were paid rel­a­tively well. But it took Gay­lord Pow­less and the leg­endary Oshawa Green Gaels to make the game, and its Indigenous roots, known in the wider sports cul­ture.

Mov­ing from the Hagersville In­ter­me­di­ates to the Oshawa Green Gaels in 1964, Pow­less was in the same town at the same time as Bobby Orr was dur­ing his hockey ca­reer. Ar­guably, Pow­less was bet­ter known at the time. The Gaels won seven straight Minto Cups, em­blem­atic of Canadian ju­nior lacrosse supremacy, one be­fore Pow­less ar­rived, two af­ter he left and four when he was in Canadian news­pa­pers al­most ev­ery day as the lead­ing scorer from the pre­vi­ous night’s game. He was twice the Most Valu­able Player in the Minto Cup tour­na­ment, and grad­u­ated the ju­nior ranks as the top scorer in tour­na­ment his­tory.

He went on to be the most mar­ketable player in two short-lived pro­fes­sional leagues — Detroit, of the Na­tional Lacrosse As­so­ci­a­tion paid him $80,000 for the 1968 sea­son — and played se­nior lacrosse in sev­eral lo­cales, win­ning cham­pi­onships at most. In a game dom­i­nated by fam­ily con­nec­tions, he and Ross is the only fa­ther-son tan­dem in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Pow­less al­ways cel­e­brated the Iro­quois roots of his game, and the ba­sic spir­i­tu­al­ity of the sport which grew out of an­cient medicine matches. He died 16 years ago next Fri­day at the age of 54 and, while he was in bed dur­ing his ill­ness, there was al­ways one of his hand­made hick­ory lacrosse sticks, with deer hide web­bing, in his di­rect sight­line: an em­blem of the life he had lived and the af­ter­life he was head­ing to­ward; a sym­bol as com­mand­ing as a cru­ci­fix.

If you were lucky enough to know him, cu­ri­ous enough to ask and smart enough to lis­ten — which most of his non-Indigenous team­mates were — he would share the depth and his­tory of lacrosse’s mean­ing to the Iro­quois, will­ingly and at length.

“Through the game of lacrosse, Gay­lord helped cre­ate bridges, friend­ships, and good­will be­tween Indigenous and non-Indigenous play­ers and cul­tures in Canada, and would have loved to be here to see Six Na­tions host­ing lacrosse for the Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Indigenous Games,” his daugh­ter Gay­lene Pow­less wrote in an email this week.

It was ap­pro­pri­ate to hon­our Pow­less at Six Na­tions, where an arena is named af­ter him, and dur­ing NAIG, which ar­rives here dur­ing an un­prece­dented pe­riod of Six Na­tions lacrosse dom­i­na­tion. They are con­stant con­tenders for Canadian Jr. A, Jr. B, Se­nior A and Se­nior B cham­pi­onships, and three years ago won three of those na­tional cham­pi­onships and were run­ners-up in the fourth.

Pow­less had to leave Six Na­tions to win na­tional ti­tles and be­come the game’s most widely-known player but, ar­guably be­cause of him, to­day’s play­ers don’t have to leave.

“You just knew what he was put on this earth for,” Six Na­tions recre­ation di­rec­tor Ch­eryl Hen­hawk once told The Spec­ta­tor.

“To play lacrosse.”

BARRY GRAY, THE HAMILTON SPEC­TA­TOR

David An­der­son of Team On­tario U16 ac­cepts his gold medal from Six Na­tions Chief Ava Hill fol­low­ing their 9-2 vic­tory over Team Saskatchewan at Iro­quois Lacrosse Arena Thurs­day. He is the grand­son of Gay­lord Pow­less.

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