At times Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation feels like at least two documentary smashed into one, but its multiple narratives actually help to underscore the film’s larger point.

The broadest description of the film is that it covers the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team as it competes at the World Championships. The team’s journey from the 2014 outdoor championships to the 2015 indoor tournament, which the Haudenosaunee Nation is hosting on their Native land in upstate New York, serves as the film’s framework. But before the story settles into a familiar narrative about an underdog team of Native Americans trying to win a World Championship in a sport they created, the film switches gears.

Suddenly the shots of men with lacrosse sticks disappear in favor of a hard cut to a CNN anchor announcing that Pope Francis will be visiting the United States and a quick history lesson concerning the Doctrine of Discovery.

Issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery established that any land not inhabited by Christians could be “discovered” and claimed as territory by Christian explorers and countries. In effect, it offered a justification for colonization and the subjugation of indigenous peoples. At the drop of a hat, the same interview subjects that spoke so eloquently about lacrosse and its importance in Native American culture seamlessly switch into professorial lectures about post-colonialism. For a moment like that to appear 15 minutes into a documentary about lacrosse is certainly jarring and from that moment on the film’s narrative structure splits.

Half the time you’re watching the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team’s quest to win the 2015 World Championships on their Native soil. The other half you’re watching as some of interview subjects leave the World Championships to try to get an audience with Pope Francis in the hope that they can convince him to walk back the Doctrine of Discovery.

The danger with pulling at such disparate narrative threads is that it can lead to an unfocused story. Spirit Game is guilty of hopping around from subject matter to subject matter, but in every aspect the goal is always the same: the desire to be recognized as a unique people with their own sport, their own culture, their own identity and their own Nation.

In that sense Spirit Game is a study in post-colonialism that’s engaging, educational and empathetic. It’s like if Franz Fanon’s seminal work on post-colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, periodically took breaks from the laying bare the dehumanizing effects of colonization to discuss the author’s love of sports.

But Spirit Game is far from a philosophical tome and it’s not preachy or confrontational in its advocacy. Instead, the major takeaway from the film is that in every facet of daily life, from issues with the lacrosse team’s passports to the alleged security risk posed by a sacred headpiece, Native peoples are confronted by a society that delegitimizes their claim to history, culture and identity.

No matter which storyline the film switches to the struggle to be recognized as a sovereign people crops up, which serves to showcase just how pervasive the issue is and how any success, on or off the lacrosse field, represents at least some progress in the fight for Native Americans to assert their identity.

The fact that Spirit Game manages to pull such weighty issues out of a documentary ostensibly about an underdog lacrosse team is impressive and makes the movie something that should be sought out by anyone interested in lacrosse, Native issues or the intersection of sports and identity.

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