Lacrosse is the oldest team sport in North America, having been played by Native American tribes long before any European had even set foot on the continent. A century after European missionaries discovered the game played by Native Americans, they began to play it themselves, starting in the 18th century. From there, it evolved and grew in popularity from a very savage game that resembled war, into what it is today, a recreational sport played widely in America and other countries. As U.S. Lacrosse literature aptly puts it “Lacrosse is a game born of the North American Indian, christened by the French, adopted and raised by the Canadians, and later dominated by the Americans.”
When the first people of America started playing lacrosse centuries ago, the game served many purposes. It was played to amuse the Creator, to train young men for war, and to settle disputes between tribes (Source B). The game was played by tribes in all parts of the United States and Canada; it was played by the Mexican Kickapoo in Texas, the Seminole in Florida, the Bungi in Manitoba, the Cherokee in Tennessee, and the Passamaquoddy in Maine (Source B). The game was called Baggattaway, meaning they bump hips by the Algonquin tribe, and Tewaarathon, meaning little brother of war, by the Iroquois tribe (Source B).
In the earliest times of American Indian lacrosse, the game had few rules, if any. Lacrosse games would last for days, stopping at sunset and continuing the next day at sunrise. The fields had no boundaries, and goals were usually between 500 yards to a half-mile apart, though sometimes they were several miles apart (Source A). The goals were usually marked by a single tree or a large rock, and points were scored by hitting it with the ball. There were no limitations on the number of players on a team, and often there would be as many as one thousand players in a lacrosse game at the same time (Source A).
The game was especially violent when used as an alternative to war to settle intertribal disputes. One example was a game between the Creek and Choctaw tribes in 1790 (Source B). This game, which was to determine which tribe had the rights to a beaver pond, broke out into a violent battle after the Creeks were declared the winners of the game. Because of the massive attack and the savage play, lacrosse truly was the little brother of war.
The game also had important religious value to Native Americans. Especially in the Iroquois tribe, lacrosse was played to please the Creator, whom the Natives worshipped. Although the Natives were for the most part polytheistic, the Creator to whom the Iroquois referred is likely the divine leader Deganawidah, who, according to Iroquois legend, united the Six Nations of Iroquois in the 15th or 16th century.
During this period of growth and modernization, Native tribes continued to play lacrosse as they always had. The Natives’ game was modernized in that it was not played so savagely (Source A). However, it had not modernized as much as the game played by whites. In the early 20th Century, the Great Lakes and Southeastern variations of lacrosse were very rare, but the Northeastern version of the game was still played. The Six Nations of Iroquois played the game competitively against other countries, including Canada, and once toured Europe (Source A). However, American Indian lacrosse in all areas but the northeast was experiencing demise because the games had become too violent and too many people were gambling on them, thus impoverishing and damaging the Native way of life. In 1900, lacrosse was banned among the Oklahoma Choctaw when it was found that they were attaching lead weights to their sticks to crack another’s skull.
Although it was still a rather obscure sport, lacrosse had grown considerably by the turn of the century from an almost unheard of sport played only by Native Americans, into a sport that was played by many European Americans, mostly on the East Coast (Source A). When it was featured as an Olympic sport at the Olympics in St. Louis in 1904 and in London in 1908, lacrosse gained more recognition in the U.S. and the world. In 1904, Canada won the gold medal by defeating the St. Louis AAA Club team, which was representing the U.S. Canada once again won the gold in 1908, defeating England (Source A). The Johns Hopkins University team, which was to represent the United States, did not go to the Olympics that year due to lack of funds. Although the Olympics provided lacrosse with more national and international exposure, the sport did not return to the Olympics until it was an exhibition event in 1928 (Source A).
Lacrosse is a game that has evolved from a sport that would be used as a substitute for war to a recreational game played by many Americans. People always say that baseball if America’s past time, but if they take time to think about it lacrosse has been around centuries before baseball. So technically lacrosse is America’s real past time.
Lund, Peter Bailey. Lacrosse: a History of the Game. (Source A)
Vennum, Thomas. American Indian Lacrosse. (Source B)