‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’: Film Review

Peter Spirer’s and Peter Baxter’s documentary chronicles the history of lacrosse, a sport created by the Iroquois.

As a red-blooded male, I’m as interested in sports as the next guy. But Peter Spirer’s and Peter Baxter’s documentary about the Iroquois and their passionate devotion to lacrosse admittedly tested my patience. This rambling doc not only covers the history of the sport, but also examines its spiritual aspects to the Native American tribe; includes extensive footage of two championship games; and even has a sidebar concerning the 15th-century papal “Doctrine of Discovery” that declared that any land not inhabited by Christians could be freely colonized. It’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation does so in only sporadically compelling fashion.

It will probably come as a surprise to many of the film’s viewers (or maybe not, considering that few people uninterested in lacrosse are likely to see it) that the sport was invented nearly a thousand years ago by the Iroquois, whose legend is that it was played between land and winged animals before humans appropriated it. The Iroquois still regard the sport and its equipment with a religious devotion, referring to it as their “medicine game.” The film includes an interview with a tribe member who hand carves lacrosse sticks from trees he’s grown himself and talks reverently about “our direct relationship to the earth.”

The Bottom Line

Exhaustive, to a fault.

The game ultimately attained international popularity, especially with the Canadians, who created another version played indoors. In the late 1980s the Iroquois established their own team, the Iroquois Nationals, which quickly rose to the upper echelon despite the smallness of their population. But the team’s standing was affected by such complications as the Iroquois regarding themselves as a sovereign nation — one that was not recognized by the Federation of International Lacrosse. When the championship was held in England in 2010, the Iroquois were denied the opportunity to compete because the country refused to accept the players’ Iroquois Nation passports.

How much things have changed became evident when the Iroquois hosted the 2015 world indoor championship in upstate New York near their tribal ground. The athletes from all but one of the 12 competing nations not only allowed their passports to be stamped by the Iroquois, but also declared it an honor. (The only exception was Canada, which demonstrates that the country’s reputation for politeness may be somewhat overrated.)

The film’s digressions tend to detract from its narrative focus. It’s interesting to see several Iroquois attempting to meet with Pope Francis when he came to the United States, with the hope of persuading him to condemn the Doctrine of Discovery. But too much screen time is devoted to such matters as the tribe’s spiritual leader being denied permission to wear his horned headdress because it supposedly represents a security threat. To add insult to injury, one interview subject bitterly complains that the sacred headdress was left unattended sitting on a table.

The extensive game footage provides visual evidence of the Iroquois’ talent, especially the members of the Thompson family, three brothers who have become some of the best players in the world. But the clips from the two championship matches go on far too long, ultimately proving more numbing than exciting for any but the sport’s most ardent fans. Those ranks apparently include Al Gore, who shows up at one of the championship matches and, ever the politician, declares, “I’m rooting for the Iroquois.”

Production: One Bowl Productions
Distributor: XLrator Media
Directors: Peter Spirer, Peter Baxter
Producers: Christopher Brewster, Peter Spirier
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Gayle Anne Kelley, Oren Lyons, Compton Ross, Peter Spirer
Directors of photography: Alex Rappoport, Buddy Thomas
Editor: Joel Rutkowski
Composers: Marcus Boeltz, Joanne Shenandoah
102 minutes