The Warriors by Joseph Bruchac

Jake loves lacrosse. He loves his family and his culture and heritage as an Iroquois boy. So he isn’t happy when he has to move to Maryland, where his mum is working as a lawyer. Leaving his uncle’s household, his team, and everyone on the reserve to live in a commuter complex and attend a very white, very posh boarding school is not, to his mind, a good exchange.

Jake winced a little. Chief. Super chief. Somehow he’d gotten those two names. He didn’t know when or how, but once you were given a nickname on a school team, it was harder to get rid of than dried gun on the bottom of your sneakers. He’d thought of telling them that he didn’t like the names, that being a chief was a sacred thing and that he really wasn’t one. But he hadn’t been able to get the words out, mainly because he knew they didn’t mean to hurt his feelings.

It was crazy, he thought, how so many of things they did to show they liked him and approved of him made him feel so uncomfortable. Instead of making him feel included, they made him feel like more of an outsider. It was as if there was a glass wall between him and the other kids on the team, and only he knew it was there. (86-87)

Things that were great:

Lacrosse! Jake’s love for and skill in the game shine through; if you’ve never played, you will want to pick up a stick and head outside; if you have, you’ll twitch for a round of pass with a friend. The Warriors opens mid-match between two reserves’ teams, and I loved how playing with dedication and honour is presented as a tribute to the Creator and as a matter of community – the teams vie without degrading themselves or the other team; the people who watch applaud for every skillful play, not only for their own side.

Jake loves his culture and remains rooted in his heritage on reserve and off. If you’re looking for a story with a modern-day protagonist who takes traditional rituals and perspectives seriously, here it is. Iroquois culture is very much present and alive, and the presentation of this contemporary vibrancy is a wonderful relief to read.

There is a strong sense of male mentorship and (extended) family relationships. Jake’s father is dead, but his Uncle Irwin and Grampa Sky are trusted and caring guides. There is no shortage of positive Indigenous male models for Jake.

Jake’s roommates at school, also far from home and from Othered backgrounds, form a quiet connection with him as they adapt to the very white, very privileged world of the academy. Instead of turning on each other, the three most obvious outsiders at school recognize their individual points of advantage – and disadvantage – and offer understanding. I would have liked to see more of Mohammad and Kofi as they negotiate the halls of Weltimore.

It is entirely fitting that the horribly racist lacrosse coach, Coach Scott, is also the history teacher. This detail underlines how much of all forms of culture, including sports and the arts, is informed by our understanding of history. Coach Scott teaches history from an exclusively settler, white, colonial perspective, and this translates on the field to his particular approach to lacrosse.

Things that weren’t great:

The ending is too easy.

Where are the women? Jake’s Aunt Alice is given a wholly beautiful description when we first meet her, but she appears on only half a page, total. Jake’s mum is more an absence than a presence; and although she is described as an intelligent and determined woman who is helping her people, we only meet her when she is hesitant and uncertain. Coach Scott saves a woman and child offstage; these are the only women or girls in the whole story.

The Warriors is a good story for young sports fanatics, boarding-school enthusiasts, and provides much-needed representation of Iroquois* culture, in particular positive male mentor figures. However, Jake is the only developed character and the cultural representation almost completely omits Iroquois women. It was an enjoyable, easy read; I wish the women in Jake’s home community and minor characters like Kofi and Mohammed had had more page time.

*Note: the text frequently uses “Indian” to refer to Indigenous Americans, which may be (former) common practice in the USA? (I’m Canadian, I wouldn’t know.) I found it odd and disruptive, BUT seeing as Joseph Bruchac *is* Indigenous American, this isn’t a reason to not read this story. Just – heads up.