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The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The Indigenous history of Lacrosse

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Created by artist Seth Eastman in 1851, the painting “Ball Playing among the Sioux Indians” depicts a group of Indigenous people in the midst of a competitive ball game.

The sport today that we call lacrosse is rooted in some of the most fascinating, seldom-discussed Indigenous history to date. The original game, played since the 12th century, was referred to by Native Americans as the Creator’s game, alternatively known as Baggataway or Tewaaraton. Most Indigenous nations believe that the game of lacrosse is a gift from the Creator. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Haudenosaunee described it as a “power or being that has created the world and everything in it.” In one version of the myth, the game was introduced to humans when a group of warriors ventured into the Sky World, the “spiritual realm beyond the clouds, and found that a lacrosse game was in session.” Originally a way for men to “work out their aggression without violence,” lacrosse as we have played it for the past 150 years has been highly adapted with much European influence, and is now only a vague representation of the Creator’s game.

Indigenous Origins and Cultural Significance

One of the earliest Indigenous stories involving a ball game is the legend of a game between birds and land animals. According to Jeffrey Carey’s thesis, “New Directions of Play: Native American Origins of Modern Lacrosse,” in other versions of the story, it is instead a game that pits animals with feathers against animals with teeth. Regardless of variation, the Oneida Nation’s website writes that unity is a core principle of the legend, reinforcing the cultural belief that everyone has a role according to the Creator’s plan.

Phyllis McIntosh, in her book “Lacrosse: Inspiring Feats,” writes that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (which Britannica defines as consisting of six distinct nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Cayuga and the Tuscarora), still refers to lacrosse as “the Creator’s game,” believing lacrosse is a gift from the Creator and should be played “for the Creator.”

McIntosh further writes that games had no formal time limit. They could last a few hours or many days. Goal posts were marked by large rocks, trees and later poles which could be set several miles apart. Field borders, like goal posts, could also span for miles. Lacrosse held more significance than a recreational pastime, and was viewed as a contest for honor and tradition, sometimes even as a means to settle cross-nation disputes.

By the early 17th century, according to Carey, the sport had 48 documented variations, with many more likely existing. Variations existed in nearly every facet of the game with different rules, strategies and equipment depending on the players and location.

Some of the most common differences were in goal scoring techniques. Carey writes that nations from the Great Lakes Region including the Chippewa, Fox, Huron, Haudenosaunee, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Sioux had three different ways of scoring. One could strike a goal post with their stick, the ball could be thrown and count for a point if it hit the post, or a player could run past the post while in possession of the ball. If a ball was thrown unsuccessfully, it would be returned to centerfield and the game would resume, much like in a modern faceoff.

Carey writes that variations played by the Choctaw people were similar to games played in the Great Lakes Region. Their single post had a flat surface and could be hit to earn a point, either by carrying or throwing the ball.

Carey further states that the Haudenosaunee people’s games had more variation than other nations. Ceremonial games and secular games required different numbers of goals to win. The number of goals to win a secular game was agreed upon before the match began and was usually an odd number. According to McIntosh, ceremonial games were considerably more significant and surrounded by rituals similar to those of battle. Games were played not just to develop strong young men and settle cross nation disputes, but also to please and appeal to the Creator for healing and other requests. Carey says that games played by the Cayuga people to help the sick during midwinter ceremonies were determined by 7 goals. Winning these games meant little to the Cayuga who believed instead that the healing aspect came from the natural beauty of the gameplay itself, a belief, according to Thomas Reed’s PhD dissertation, “Oneida College Lacrosse Players’ Perspectives of the Sacred Game of Lacrosse,” still held in modernity.

According to Carey, Sticks differed regionally as well. The two main types of sticks were those with closed pockets, often used in pairs by southeastern nations, and those with open pockets. Players from the Great Lakes region had their stick length determined by their position. Longer sticks increased passing range while shorter sticks were ideal for ground balls. The largest sticks, which are the most comparable to modern day lacrosse sticks, were those used by the Haudenosaunee. The webbing was more densely laced and elaborate than other stick types and the shaft was bent to form a crook at the end. Equipment was sacred, entrusted to specialists for decoration. Many Cherokee sticks were also painted or engraved with designs representing lighting, a rattlesnake skin pattern or a hummingbird.

European Influence and Change

Britannica states that the name “lacrosse” stems from the French word “la crosse”, translating to “bishop’s crozier.” Early settlers drew similarities between croziers, which Merriam-Webster defines as stylized staffs, and lacrosse sticks.

According to Brittanica, Europeans first started playing the game in the 1840s, though there was no major change in the sport until the 1860s. Canadian Geographic states that in 1867, Canadian William George Beers attempted to “civilize” the sport through multiple rule changes. Beers, Britannica writes, replaced deerskin balls with rubber ones, limited the number of players allowed on the field at once to 12, and modified the lacrosse stick for easier catching and throwing. In his book “From Baggataway to Lacrosse: An Example of the Sportization of Native American Games,” author Fabrice Delsahut says that Beers also campaigned for lacrosse to be named Canada’s national sport in an effort to promote Imperial Canadianism. In the same year, Beers wrote in an article published by the Montreal Gazette that “just as we claim as Canadians the rivers and lakes and land once owned exclusively by Indians, so we now claim their field game as the national field game of our dominion.”

Delsahut writes that later, Beers became secretary of the National Lacrosse Association (NLA), now Canadian Lacrosse Association. The league aimed to make the sport more “gentlemanly” through intentional discriminatory policies. In his book “Canada Learns to Play: The Emergence of Organized Sport,” Alan Metcalf writes that certain individuals came to the conclusion that “Indians, who always played for money and, by race alone, could not be gentlemen.”

Michael A. Robidoux, in his article “Imagining a Canadian Identity through Sport: A Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey,” writes that amateur athletics were weaponized against Indigenous players. The NLA created an amateur governing body, called the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada, shortly after. This union included in their definition of amateur that the player must have “never competed for a money prize, or staked bet with or against any professional for any prize.” Working class amateurs, including Indigenous players, had relied on prize money and compensation to allow them to play the sport. Without the opportunity, many could not financially afford to miss work or pay for equipment. Instead, the league pushed for amateur players who “had the leisure, economic resource and social approval to explore intensive athletic training in a financially disinterested manner.”

Impact and Reclamation

The legacy Beers and the NLA has left behind is still felt today. In Brandon C. Joseph’s PhD dissertation, “The journey towards critical self-authorship for Native lacrosse athletes at NCAA division I institutions,” he writes that lacrosse now carries a connotation of exclusion and elitism, far from its origins. In 2022, an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune was titled “lacrosse is known as a sport played by rich white people.”

This perception has statistical backing. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), in 1999, only 32 out of 11,418, or 0.28% of total lacrosse players identified as ​​American Indian/Alaskan Native. In 2023, the number has increased to 115 out of 29,471 players. Although there was an increase of 0.11%, indigenous lacrosse athletes still only make up 0.39% of total NCAA players.

Statistics are only one form of measurement, and Indigenous communities have by no means disappeared from the sport. According to their website, the Haudenosaunee Nationals, primarily consisting of Haudenosaunee members, was founded by the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee in 1983. It was accepted as a member of the Federation of International Lacrosse in 1988 and allows Indigenous athletes from other nations to play for them. The New York Times states that the team is highly competitive on an international level, typically ranking within the top five.

On a collegiate level, students find comfort in connecting with their cultural heritage despite such a change in the way they now play versus how their ancestors played. For his PhD dissertation, Reed conducted a study on 13 players. In his findings, he writes that “one of the biggest takeaways would be the theme of lacrosse as a medicine physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually… It was a medicine which keeps us connected to our ancestors and a medicine to help us pave the way for future generations.”

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