Gaylord Powless’s impact on lacrosse is immense
Once the game’s best and most marketable player
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.”
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.