‘Keepers of the Game’ Showcases Evolving Mohawk Lacrosse Culture

Courtesy Peter Eliot Buntaine/The Salmon River Girls Lacrosse Team in the documentary “Keepers of the Game.”

‘Keepers of the Game’ Showcases Evolving Mohawk Lacrosse Culture.

Judd Ehrlich’s lacrosse documentary “Keepers of the Game” highlights a contemporary stance that goes against hundreds of years of Mohawk culture. One of the players featured in the film, Tsieboo Herne, a high school senior fighting against depression and for an athletic scholarship, says the time for that change is now: “There’s a value of the way the men play the game that has been lost,” says Herne, “and our women are trying to rebuild that and put honor into the game in a different way.”

The film, which debuted May 30 on ESPN2, centers on the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, where a group of more than 22 female athletes attempt to keep alive the sports program amidst major budget cuts at Salmon River High School.

“Lacrosse is the center post of Akwesasne,” Ehrlich told ICTMN. “It’s where the sport was born. It’s so embedded in the culture and traditions in so many ways and in such a deep way. … But girl’s lacrosse is something that’s relatively new. And so it was obviously something that had a lot of layers of meaning to a lot of people.”

Herne anchors a youthful team that rallies for success despite a cultural barrier that is ever-present: The notion that the sport is a medicine game for the men. “[Females] shouldn’t be discouraged from something that’s also a medicine for us,” she says. “For me, it was a really big thing to share the struggles Mohawk women, indigenous women face.”

Herne, the daughter of Mohawk Clan Mother Louise Herne, explains how the sport turned her life around, after she had made suicide attempts. She hopes her story helps others who may find themselves in a similar position, “because I don’t want them doing the same thing or getting ideas from it.”

Furthermore, Herne says, “the producers did an amazing job in interpreting our story. There was no confusion on what it is that they were trying to get across and it was really clear. There were no misinterpretations of my people and my community and who we are and I thought that was really important.”

Along with Herne, the film centers on three fellow athletes and the day-to-day struggles they endure: including Catholic upbringings away from the culture, and the loss of a father. “The greatest hope of a filmmaker is that people, no matter what their backgrounds are going to be, will be able to connect to the subjects of the film in a way that’s deep and meaningful to them, whether or not their experience is the same as the people represented in the film,” Ehrlich says. “I think if people are able to see the film and be moved by it and changed by it in some way, on a deep level – beyond takin the information in – I think that goes to how incredible these subjects are that we were able to find.”

Since the film, Herne, 18, moved on to earning a lacrosse scholarship at State University of New York – Canton, traveling home frequently to watch her former team play. More than 120 girls committed to lacrosse the following season. Herne says she knew good would come from the discrimination being brought to light via documentary, as there are other Mohawk areas that “really, really discriminate women from playing.”

Ehrlich followed a fundraiser he found online and pitched it to the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation and Tribeca Digital Studios. “They wanted to make a film having to do with high school sports that involved funding issues in some way,” he said, noting the similarity to his previous football documentary, “We could be king.” “They said, ‘We want to do another one of these, but to be about a girl’s team.’ … So I went about researching and finding stories and found online a fundraiser that was going on for Akwesasne girl’s lacrosse.”

Ehrlich cites a New York audience, specifically, including himself at one point, that is likely not even aware that such a culture exists upstate. “There are many people who live in New York City that aren’t even aware that this community still exists.”

“Living in New York City my entire life,” the director adds, “I always like to think I’m from such a diverse place. I know about all different cultures. I have friends of different races, creeds, nationalities, religions… but I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the people who were here first. And that’s not uncommon in this country.”

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