April 14, 2020

For hundreds of years, the Kanienkehaka, one of six Native American nations that comprise the Haudenosaunee, have been playing the game of Tewaaraton in which players catch, carry, pass, and shoot a ball using long sticks with a net at one end. Most people know the modern-version of the game as “lacrosse”, a name given to it by French explorers to Haudenosaunee territory in the early 1600s. But Kahentaienni (Ga-hahn-da-yanni) "Yanni" Thompson, a Tewaaraton player from Akwasasne, NY, is keeping the history and traditions of his people alive by bringing his culture and talents to the Phillips Exeter Academy community. Yanni, who is a postgraduate at Exeter, graduated high school early with stellar grades from Salmon River School District where one of his teachers suggested he pursue a postgraduate education and recommended that he apply to Exeter, among a handful of other schools. “But for many Native Americans, attending a school like Exeter presents not only a financial, but a social and cultural barrier,” says Matthew Callahan ‘09, head coach of the boys lacrosse program.

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and churches. Once at the schools, they were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that represented cultural practices, and stripped of traditional clothing, hair, and belongings that reflected their culture. Given this history, Yanni’s mother was understandably nervous about him leaving home for a boarding school.

Athletics is a cornerstone of the Exeter experience, promoting character development and collaboration, but tuition alone cannot fuel Exeter athletics and all the other exceptional programs that set Exeter apart. Lacrosse player Yanni Thompson ’23 (#36 pictured above), shared his Exeter experience.

“Even though it was scary, and that trauma changed the DNA of several generations to be skeptical of institutions, it isn’t stopping us. We are stronger than our fears; our DNA also has things like resilience and lacrosse and wisdom of ancestors,” says Yanni. “It’s important to our future generations for us to push ourselves past the fears, use the strengths that we have been gifted, and gain these experiences that will help not only ourselves but also our future children.”

“Gratitude.” That was the subject of an email Yanni recently sent to “Coach Cal”, as the players call him. And that was all it was, an email expressing how grateful Yanni is for the experiences he’s had and the support he’s received from Callahan and others at the Academy. He has enjoyed all of the people and experiences he has been able to have at Exeter; even the ones that have been a challenge, he seems to embrace and appreciate the opportunity to try new things. Mention of his Spanish language course makes him simultaneously smirk and groan. He also played golf for the first time and though he “lost track of the score” as he says with a laugh, it was one of his favorite experiences so far. 

“In his brief time on campus, Yanni has already made an impact, connecting our lacrosse players with the values, traditions, and roots of the game they love,” according to Callahan. Although the game of lacrosse is still won by the team who scores the most goals, traditionally there are many other reasons for playing. “Our people are known as the inventors of lacrosse, but our goal in playing is to bring good medicine for those who are ill and no longer able to play,” expounds Yanni. “I try to play with a clear mind and remember who I’m playing for. We don’t disrespect anyone, even our opponents.” In Native American communities, lacrosse was and still is played as a way to bring families, communities, and nations together. “When Yanni plays, he has no focus on the opponent, he’s focused on his personal performance,” confirms Callahan, who hopes other players can learn from this mindset. 

It makes me happy that lacrosse is such a popular sport. I like telling [my teammates] about the game from a traditional perspective.
Kahentaienni Thompson '23

“Exeter’s commitment to providing access to youth from every quarter has fostered this transformational experience for Yanni and others on the Exeter boys’ lacrosse team. As a coach and alumnus of Exeter, I could not be more proud of our community and thankful for the generosity of others who facilitate these life-changing experiences,” says Callahan.

“Sports, especially here at Exeter where there are so many demands on students’ time, teaches commitment and time management, and provides an avenue for relationship building with peers and coaches.” Callahan, who still keeps in touch with his own Exeter lacrosse teammates, is especially moved by the way “sport has created an avenue for Yanni to share his culture with others.” Donor generosity transforms lives like Yanni’s every day and makes Exeter a place defined by possibility. The Exeter Fund supports coaching and athletic training professionals, equipment, transportation costs, and maintenance of Exeter’s athletic facilities and fields. When you give, today’s student-athletes benefit and no gift is too small to transform a life. Thank you for being part of our team.


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