Growing up in the hills of Branchport, NY—I was a farm girl. When I wasn’t helping my family around the farm, I was either at school or playing basketball. With such rural roots, it was hard to understand the impact of lacrosse on the Finger Lakes region. My youngest son, Andrew, started playing when he was a second-grader in Canandaigua. It was when he went on to play at St. John Fisher College that I realized how popular the game is across the country. Andrew played in Maryland, Long Island and North Carolina. He had a teammate from Colorado.
So the game’s popularity cannot be denied, and its roots can still be tied back to the Finger Lakes region. In fact, you can tie the roots directly back to the native people. I wanted to explore that more, so I connected with Ansley Jemison, who I knew had also played at Canandaigua Academy and had spoken to our students many times about the rich tradition of lacrosse.
Ansley is a member of the Seneca Nation Wolf Clan from the Seneca Allegany territory of Western New York. A graduate of Syracuse University, Ansley played for the then-Orangemen’s nationally ranked men's varsity lacrosse team. In the past, he worked extensively with Pueblo communities in Taos, New Mexico, and did service teaching in São José Dos Campos, São Paulo, Brazil.
Ansley's research interests include American Indian and Indigenous studies, renewable energy and sustainable choices for healthy living. In addition to working full time at Cornell, he is the executive director for the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse program.
Val: Tell me about your background and the beginnings of your lacrosse life.
Ansley: I was born in Buffalo, NY, and I grew up on the Allegany territory of the Seneca Nation in Western New York. I had a lacrosse stick at an early age and didn’t play organized until much later in life. I have had a stick and played a lot of pick-up lacrosse since I was young.
V: Why was lacrosse important to you and your family?
A: Lacrosse has had a spiritual significance in my life and family. However, I would say that the game was played primarily for enjoyment. The game has always been present in Native communities and is a big part of the culture, as it is believed to be a gift given to us by the Creator. The game is believed to also be a medicine and can be used to heal a community or people in the community, as it can be played specifically to heal a person.
V: Why do you think Western NY is a hotbed for lacrosse talent?
A: Lacrosse is popular in this area because the roots of the game come from this area. The game was played here before the European settlers arrived and it has had a strong presence in this area for a long time. I think that as the Indigenous people came into contact with the Europeans, the sharing of culture and influence led to this game becoming more popular in both communities.
V: The game is growing. You’ve played, you’ve coached, you are an executive director of a program. What excites you most about the game’s growth?
The level of play, the competition and the growth of the game. I believe that the game is a sport that can be played by a broader spectrum of skilled athletes and the game is fun and accessible to many young upcoming athletes. I also believe that as the game continues to grow it can be a tool and a vehicle for more people to become aware of Indigenous culture.
V: One piece of advice for aspiring lacrosse players who want to make it to the pros?
A: I would advise aspiring athletes to become students of the game, learn to respect the game and learn from the game, as there are many lessons that can be learned from the game. As more people are exposed to the game, the game will continue to evolve and grow. The more it continues to be a positive influence on people’s lives, the stronger the medicine and spiritual aspect of the game will become.
V: To wrap it all up, we’ve got a few attractions in the Finger Lakes that people can visit to understand more about the Native American culture. Want to plug them?
A: The Seneca Art & Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site is a one-of-a-kind museum that displays the rich cultural heritage of the Seneca and Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Native American peoples. Not only does the museum capture the past, but it displays the present contributions to art, culture and society by native persons. Worth a visit!