By Thomas Vennum Jr.
Author of American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War
Lacrosse was one of many varieties of indigenous stickball games being played by American Indians at the time of European contact. Almost exclusively a male team sport, it is distinguished from the others, such as field hockey or shinny, by the use of a netted racquet with which to pick the ball off the ground, throw, catch and convey it into or past a goal to score a point. The cardinal rule in all varieties of lacrosse was that the ball, with few exceptions, must not be touched with the hands.
Early data on lacrosse, from missionaries such as French Jesuits in Huron country in the 1630s and English explorers, such as Jonathan Carver in the mid-eighteenth century Great Lakes area, are scant and often conflicting. They inform us mostly about team size, equipment used, the duration of games and length of playing fields but tell us almost nothing about stickhandling, game strategy, or the rules of play. The oldest surviving sticks date only from the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and the first detailed reports on Indian lacrosse are even later. George Beers provided good information on Mohawk playing techniques in his Lacrosse (1869), while James Mooney in the American Anthropologist (1890) described in detail the “[Eastern] Cherokee Ball-Play,” including its legendary basis, elaborate rituals, and the rules and manner of play.
Given the paucity of early data, we shall probably never be able to reconstruct the history of the sport. Attempts to connect it to the rubber-ball games of Meso-America or to a perhaps older game using a single post surmounted by some animal effigy and played together by men and women remain speculative. As can best be determined, the distribution of lacrosse shows it to have been played throughout the eastern half of North America, mostly by tribes in the southeast, around the western Great Lakes, and in the St. Lawrence Valley area. Its presence today in Oklahoma and other states west of the Mississippi reflects tribal removals to those areas in the nineteenth century. Although isolated reports exist of some form of lacrosse among northern California and British Columbia tribes, their late date brings into question any widespread diffusion of the sport on the west coast.
On the basis of the equipment, the type of goal used and the stick-handling techniques, it is possible to discern three basic forms of lacrosse—the southeastern, Great Lakes, and Iroquoian. Among southeastern tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and others), a double-stick version of the game is still practiced. A two-and-a half foot stick is held in each hand, and the soft, small deerskin ball is retrieved and cupped between them. Great Lakes players (Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Winnebago, Santee Dakota and others) used a single three-foot stick. It terminates in a round, closed pocket about three to four inches in diameter, scarcely larger than the ball, which was usually made of wood, charred and scraped to shape. The northeastern stick, found among Iroquoian and New England tribes, is the progenitor of all present-day sticks, both in box as well as field lacrosse. The longest of the three—usually more than three feet—it was characterized by its shaft ending in a sort of crook and a large, flat triangular surface of webbing extending as much as two-thirds the length of the stick. Where the outermost string meets the shaft, it forms the pocket of the stick.
Lacrosse was given its name by early French settlers, using the generic term for any game played with a curved stick (crosse) and a ball. Native terminology, however, tends to describe more the technique (cf. Onondaga DEHUNTSHIGWA’ES, “men hit a rounded object”) or, especially in the southeast, to underscore the game’s aspects of war surrogacy (“little brother of war”). There is no evidence of non-Indians taking up the game until the mid-nineteenth century, when English-speaking Montrealers adopted the Mohawk game they were familiar with from Caughnawauga and Akwesasne, attempted to “civilize” the sport with a new set of rules and organize into amateur clubs. Once the game quickly grew in popularity in Canada, it began to be exported throughout the Commonwealth, as non-native teams traveled to Europe for exhibition matches against Iroquois players. Ironically, because Indians had to charge money in order to travel, they were excluded as “professionals” from international competition for more than a century. Only with the formation of the Iroquois Nationals in the 1980s did they successfully break this barrier and become eligible to compete in World Games.
Apart from its recreational function, lacrosse traditionally played a more serious role in Indian culture. Its origins are rooted in legend, and the game continues to be used for curative purposes and surrounded with ceremony. Game equipment and players are still ritually prepared by conjurers, and team selection and victory are often considered supernaturally controlled. In the past, lacrosse also served to vent aggression, and territorial disputes between tribes were sometimes settled with a game, although not always amicably. A Creek versus Choctaw game around 1790 to determine rights over a beaver pond broke out into a violent battle when the Creeks were declared winners. Still, while the majority of the games ended peaceably, much of the ceremonialism surrounding their preparations and the rituals required of the players were identical to those practiced before departing on the warpath.
A number of factors led to the demise of lacrosse in many areas by the late nineteenth century. Wagering on games had always been integral to an Indian community’s involvement, but when betting and violence saw an increase as traditional Indian culture was eroding, it sparked opposition to lacrosse from government officials and missionaries. The games were felt to interfere with church attendance and the wagering to have an impoverishing effect on the Indians. When Oklahoma Choctaw began to attach lead weights to their sticks around 1900 to use them as skull-crackers, the game was outright banned.
Meanwhile, the spread of nonnative lacrosse from the Montreal area eventually led to its position today worldwide as one of the fastest growing sports (more than half a million players), controlled by official regulations and played with manufactured rather than hand-made equipment—the aluminum shafted stick with its plastic head, for example. While the Great Lakes traditional game died out by 1950, the Iroquois and southeastern tribes continue to play their own forms of lacrosse. Ironically, the field lacrosse game of nonnative women today most closely resembles the Indian game of the past, retaining the wooden stick, lacking the protective gear and demarcated sidelines of the men’s game, and tending towards mass attack rather than field positions and offsides.
Culin, Stewart. “Games of the North American Indians.” In Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903, pp. 1-840. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907.
Fogelson, Raymond. “The Cherokee Ball Game: A Study in Southeastern Ethnology.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1962.
Vennum, Thomas Jr. American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.