was one of the many varieties of indigenous stickball games being played
by American Indians at the time of European contact.
Almost exclusively a male team sport, it was distinguished from the
others, such as field hockey or shinny, by the use of a netted racquet
with which to pick the ball of 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 the ball, with few
exceptions, must not be touched with the hands.
data on lacrosse, from missionaries such as French Jesuits in Huron
country in the 1630s and English explorers, such as Johathan Carver in the
mid-eighteenth century Great Lakes area, are scant and often conflicting.
The inform us mostly about team size, equipment used, the duration
of games and length of playing fields but tell us almost nothing about
stick handling, 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) describe
in detail the “(Eastern) Cherokee Ball-Play,” including its legendary
basis, elaborate rituals and the rules and manner of play.
scarcity 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.
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 tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole,
Yuchi and others), a double-clicked 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 singe. Three-foot-long stick.
It terminated 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 into shape.
The northeastern stick, found among Iroquoian and New England
tribes, is the originator of all present-day sticks, both in box (indoor)
lacrosse as well as field lacrosse. The
longes 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
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
(example: the Onandaga tribe referred to the game as DEHUNTSHIGWA’ES,
which translates to “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.
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 serve 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
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 attaché lead weights to their
sticks around 1900 to use them as skull crackers, the game was outright
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