Native American Lacrosse Teams Reported Racial Abuse. Then Their League Expelled Them.

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (GMG)
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Lacrosse was played by Native American nations across North America long before it was colonized by Europeans. But despite Native people’s historical and cultural connection to the game, they were periodically banned from playing before the 1973 American Indian Religious Freedom Act restored Native peoples’ right to practice religious and cultural ceremonies. Native Americans who play and coach lacrosse today have recent ancestors who were forced to play in secret.

Jeremiah Moreno, who coaches the 7 Flames youth lacrosse team in the Dakota Premier Lacrosse League (DPLL), says he views instilling a reverence for lacrosse and its history as a part of his job. “The game is a ceremony to us. I tell the kids, this game our ancestors played was a ceremony, so you have to respect it,” he said. “The Creator is the one looking down on you watching you play, with a good happy heart. So no matter what happens, no matter who says what to you, you always remember that.”

Until a few weeks ago, Moreno’s team was one of a few majority-Native lacrosse teams playing in the DPLL, the only lacrosse league in the Dakotas, which includes players from age 11 through high school. 7 Flames draws most of its players from two Lakota reservations, while two other Native-majority teams in the league, Susbeca (which means dragonfly in the Dakota language) and Lightning Stick Society, field mostly players from Dakota reservations.

Last month, these three Native American teams were suddenly expelled from the DPLL by league administrator Corey Mitchell, for reasons players and coaches say they still do not understand. Members of all three teams say they have experienced severe racial abuse from other DPLL players, parents, and referees, and they allege they were kicked out of the league because Mitchell was uninterested in addressing their allegations of racial abuse.

On March 8, Cody Hall, director of 7 Flames Lacrosse, called Mitchell to discuss allegations of racism that have plagued the DPLL from its inception. According to Hall, Mitchell responded by acknowledging that racism against Native American players was an issue in the league, but said he couldn’t do anything about it. Then, Hall says, Mitchell informed him that he was expelling 7 Flames and the two other Native teams from the league.

Registration for the upcoming season was only a week away, leaving the teams no time to fight Mitchell’s decision. Lightning Stick Society director and head coach Franky Jackson was never notified of the expulsion by Mitchell, and only noticed something was amiss when he found he had been locked out of the DPLL registration web page. “My take on that is, [Mitchell] wanted to give them as little time as possible to fight this,” said Michael Butler, a former DPLL official. “He did everything in his power to make sure these teams would not be able to come back this year. Which is totally unprofessional and frankly, evil.”

Mitchell did not return several requests for comment. Deadspin reached out to him via phone and email and left numerous voice mail messages.

On the same day Mitchell broke the news about the expulsions to Hall, he spoke on the phone with Ali Vincent, a volunteer grant writer for the 7 Flames. Vincent recorded this call and shared an audio file with Deadspin. She also shared a screenshot of her phone’s call log, showing that on March 8 she had a 31-minute phone call with a number matching one listed for Mitchell on the DPLL website. (The legal standard for recording calls requires one party’s consent in Kansas, from which Vincent placed the call, and South Dakota, in which Mitchell lives). In the recording, Mitchell said, “I don’t want to associate with guys like Cody, who always want to make it more than just a game.” He continued: “Whenever there’s a conflict that comes up with Cody’s teams it’s never because the ref exists inside the human condition and people make mistakes, it’s because he’s always saying there’s a racial issue involved.”

Mitchell told Vincent that he had indeed refused Hall’s request that more be done to curtail incidents of racial abuse in the league. “He asked me to address racial training or something at referee clinics and coaches clinics. That’s not part of the curriculum U.S. Lacrosse delivers, and quite honestly, I don’t believe—I know there’s racism out there and there are people who are racists and I get it. But what I’m saying is that my focus has to be on training our officials to recognize and call when there’s a penalty,” he said.

In the audio, Mitchell said he had made this decision to expel the teams in June 2017, shortly after the last season ended. When asked why he did not inform the teams sooner, he responded, “It’s a two-way street when it comes to notifications and courtesies.”

The call ended with Mitchell criticizing what he viewed as Hall’s insistence on teaching his players to view the world through a racial lense. “[Cody Hall] teaches his children that whenever something bad happens to them, it’s about their race and not something they may have done. I think we’re done here,” he said.

Coaches from all three majority-Native DPLL teams told Deadspin that Mitchell frequently said he was tired of Native teams playing the “race card.” Meanwhile, seven Native players and six coaches from the three Native teams said racist incidents—from referees, coaches, players, and parents—occurred nearly every game.

A Native American student who has played in the league for five seasons (and who requested to remain anonymous because he feared blowback from the league or its players) said he has dealt with racist comments every season. “We could have played the race card five years ago. But we have dealt with this for five years now, so I honestly think it’s time for us to start using that ‘race card’ if there ever is a time to use it,” he said.

The player said he heard racial slurs and insults regularly while playing in DPLL games. “I may even get more than other players because I have a long braid going down my back, so people just pick that out immediately,” he said. “They’ll say I look like a girl, or they’ll call me a prairie nigger, just a lot of stuff. It’s often from brothers or sisters on the sidelines, they’ll say like, ‘you look like a girl, you should be playing girl’s lacrosse.’ I get that so much it doesn’t even faze me anymore.”

Another Native player said he heard racist remarks from opposing players and coaches who assumed he was white. “I would hear them call my teammates prairie nigger during the games,” he said. I would hear them say ‘they are little savages’ and stuff, and they would call them savages on the field.” Once, he said, a referee told his team at the end of a game to “go back to the reservation.”

Members of the 7 Flames pose for a team photo.
Members of the 7 Flames pose for a team photo.
Photo: Cody Hall (7 Flames Lacrosse)

Coaches confirmed their players’ stories of being called racial slurs, including “savages,” “dirty Indians,” “prairie niggers,” “bunch of drunks,” and more. Kevin DeCora, a coach for Lightning Stick Society, said opposing coaches joined in the players’ insults. “We were playing the Black Hills Shock, and it kept every ounce of me to keep my cool. I was really upset. They were teasing us about the tomahawk chop. ‘Oh they got sticks now, look at them Indians tomahawk chop,’” he recalled. “These were coaches to 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids. Our boys, some of them were upset. They take it with a grain of salt, they know they are going to experience it, but when they do, it hurts.”

Multiple Native coaches and players say safety has also been a concern. Moreno, the head coach of 7 Flames, said that non-Native teams seem to increase their physicality when they play Native teams. “Our boys had bruises and the scars on the neck, the chest, the shins, the arms,” he said. “They were stepping on my boys’ shins for ground balls. We were adamant about getting off the field if something happened. It was no cake walk.”

Representatives from Susbeca, Lightning Stick Society, and 7 Flames each said they had conversations with Mitchell and the DPLL regarding their concerns about racism in the league. “We had offered to set up a cultural-sensitivity or cultural-awareness training for when he does his reffing or coaching clinics. And he was not open to that at all, he just shut down on us,” said Jeremy Red Eagle, a Susbeca coach. Lightning Stick Society assistant coach Dan Paur said he wrote a letter to the league in June 2016 about opponents using slurs against his team, and detailing an incident in which a team made mocking Indian war cries when Lightning Stick Society won an award at a year-end award ceremony.

Deadspin reached out to representatives of all eight teams that remain in the league via emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook messages. The Grand Cities Predators and Red River Valley Polars declined to comment, beyond a denial that their players or coaches had witnessed or participated in any racism. The Bismarck-Mandan Rattlers, Aberdeen Cobras, and Watertown Warriors did not respond to requests for comment. The current president of the Black Hills Shock denied that his program had participated in any racist incidents, and said that if any such behavior was uncovered by the organization the offending coach or player would be banned from the team immediately. The Sioux Falls Spark and the Brookings Rage list Mitchell as the official point of contact. (He is the head coach of the Sioux Falls club in addition to his league-wide responsibilities.)

After informing Hall that the Native teams were being expelled from the DPLL, Mitchell wrote a formal letter about his reasoning, which U.S. Lacrosse CEO Steve Stenersen provided to Deadspin. Mitchell cited seven reasons:

Not having US Lacrosse certified coaches (which, like other sports, requires a clinic, online modules, and background checks, as administered through the national governing body, US Lacrosse)

Coaches neither acknowledging nor accepting the Code of Conduct

Illegal players (non-rostered or playing on multiple teams or age groups)

Not showing up to games, leaving tournaments early, and giving no advanced notice

Rosters which were incomplete or not submitted for required validation

Coaches and players not being registered members with US Lacrosse

Unwarranted hostility toward officials, opponents, and league administrators

Coaches and administrators from the Native teams deny the accuracy of all seven allegations. Deadspin obtained a league incident log that lists each time a team was officially reprimanded, as well as coach suspensions.

Coaches failing to secure U.S. Lacrosse certification has been an issue for nearly every team in the DPLL. Lightning Stick Society had three coaches cited for violations, Susbeca had two, and 7 Flames had two. Meanwhile, the Watertown Warriors had three coaches serve certification-related suspensions, the Spearfish Spartans (now part of the Black Hills Shock) had one, and the Red River Valley Polars had one. Those teams are still playing in the DPLL.

Coaches from the Native teams said the issues were not due to a refusal to follow the rules, but simply long waits for paperwork to be processed. All of the coaches were eventually certified, and none violated their league suspensions, they said. While they waited for the official clearance, coaches said, they coached from the parents’ section at games, with certified coaches standing in for them on the sideline.

Coaches from each Native team also deny failing to acknowledge the league’s Code of Conduct. Multiple coaches are cited for late Code of Conduct filings numerous times: Black Hills, Watertown, Bismarck-Mandan, Grand Cities, Spearfish, Red River Valley, and Aberdeen, in addition to all three Native American teams.

7 Flames does acknowledge using a non-roster player on one occasion: When the high-school JV team found itself a man down before a game, the coach decided to play a 21-year-old, a clear violation of the rules. Hall, who was at a U14 game being played on a nearby field at the time, said he found out about the illegal move after the game. “I was very upset,” he said. “I made sure to let that coach know that should never happen. If you are a man down, just play with what you have, and we’ll be fine. It was something I took very seriously.”

Each of the Native teams denied that missing games was a common occurence; Susbeca claims that its team didn’t miss a single game, while Lightning Stick Society missed one because of a “really bad car accident,” Jackson said. 7 Flames also missed one game, their coach said: “We had a lot of players leaving at the very end of the year to go back to their grandparents or their reservations. It was tough fielding enough guys. So our 14U team couldn’t show up. But we told them ahead of time,” said Moreno.

The coaches from the Native teams all say that they went to great lengths to register their players with U.S. Lacrosse despite limited funding and $25 registration fees for each player. “Corey Mitchell is well aware of our situation,” Red Eagle said. “These kids come from poverty. I have to get support from council and district meetings for these programs to pay the team registration fees. I mean, you’re talking $900 and then an additional fee for games. And that isn’t counting jerseys and equipment, because these kids do not come from homes where their parents can just go out and buy $200-300 worth of lacrosse gear for them.”

As for the league’s claim that the Native teams showed unwarranted hostility towards league officials and administrators, coaches admitted occasional frustration with referees, but said there was never anything more serious than an occasional outburst along the lines of “Open your eyes, ref!”

Coaches for the Native teams say they were subject to additional scrutiny on rules issues, a claim supported by former DPLL official Michael Butler. During a summer of 2015 game between the Sioux Falls Spark (the team Mitchell founded and coaches) and the Sicangu Thunderhawks, which are now part of the Lightning Stick Society, Mitchell demanded a roster check on Sicangu before the game because he objected to the team using younger boys playing up a level (which is allowable under league rules). “You’re allowed to do that and Corey was not okay with that, so he kind of muffed the rules so he could be allowed to keep those players from taking the field.” Butler said. Asked if he had seen similar actions against majority-white teams, Butler answered, “No, not at all. He never, ever came to me for a roster report for the Black Hills team, or for any other non-Native team. I’ve only witnessed this for Native teams.”

In the audio recording provided by Ali Vincent, she asked Mitchell if any of the majority-white teams that served suspensions for various violations were being kicked out of the league. Mitchell replied, “They served their suspensions.” When Vincent responded that 7 Flames did too, he answered, “But then your team didn’t show up, I mean…”

“But then you never brought that up until today,” Vincent said. “We thought that was dealt with and now in the category of a non-issue. We served our suspension. Who else is there to deal with? You either communicated to us that it was a problem, or you did not.”

“I did not,” replied Mitchell.

“Now it is 2018. And you are just now saying this in passing. We’ve never received anything in writing, or seen anything in writing relating to any of that,” Vincent said.

Mitchell responded, “Well, I don’t know.”

Several people affiliated with the three lacrosse teams say the racism they have faced is reflective of a broader sports culture in the region. “In South Dakota you gotta teach your kids that. We know that coming in,” said Lightning Stick Society coach Kevin DeCora. “You’re going to experience racism, you’re going to get called prairie nigger. They’re gonna go ‘oohooh oohooh oohoh’ [mocking an Indian war cry]. Gotta just let it go and let your game do the talking.”

A Native lacrosse player who also plays hockey says he was once called “prairie nigger” by an entire fan section at an ice rink, and his white coach did nothing about it. “I deal with some racial stuff at least once a day,” said another lacrosse player.

Coaches said playing lacrosse has made a tangible difference in the lives of many Native students, and that the racism and discrimination they’ve faced poses a threat to those gains. “I’ve seen where these kids come from. I’ve dealt with young men who were suicidal. Low self esteem, in and out of jail,” said DeCora, who works as a clinical psychologist at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. “But being part of the game, enjoying ceremonies—the game is a ceremony. Look at what we’re doing, getting kids scholarships to go DI, DII. That’s our triumph. There is some good stuff happening.”

Hall puts it this way: “I look at it like, Corey is denying these kids the opportunity to play other youth, and denying a group of kids this opportunity to grow. And as a guy working with youth, I find that very disturbing. Because who has a right as an adult to say that you cannot grow up equally?”

“It’s white privilege,” Red Eagle added. “[Mitchell] doesn’t have to experience it, so why would he attempt to put himself in a situation to try and experience it? Maybe he thinks we are overreacting because he doesn’t understand and he doesn’t live in our world and experience that.”

Even before the expulsion, Susbeca was contemplating not rejoining the DPLL this year because of their negative experiences in the past, Red Eagle said. Now, the team is looking for a different league in which to compete. Lightning Stick Society is planning to join a league in Minnesota despite the long drives from the Rosebud Reservation such a move will require. 7 Flames is still practicing but has yet to commit to another league. “We are trying to move forward with them in a positive way, keep practicing and get ready for some tournaments coming up in Nebraska and Colorado,” Moreno said.

U.S. Lacrosse CEO Steve Stenersen said the organization is in the process of investigating the DPLL situation. U.S. Lacrosse representatives, including a lawyer and Stenersen himself, have reached out to all of the expelled programs, and are considering a mediation session with the league and the teams. 7 Flames, meanwhile, is considering a lawsuit.

“We play this for the Creator, for our ancestors,” said one player. “But now Corey has taken us away from the league. It’s hard to think about. But we still play. We still practice. We still play the Creator’s Game. And that’s enough for now.”

Curtis Waltman is a freelancer and reporter for MuckRock, based out of Boston. You can find him on twitter @CHWaltman.