Lacrosse is one of many varieties of stickball games being played by American Indians when Europeans began coming to America. Almost totally a male team sport, it is different from the others, like field hockey or roller hockey, by the use of a netted racquet with which to pick the ball off the ground, catch and throw it into or past a goal to score a point. The rules of lacrosse are simply that the ball, with few exceptions, can not be touched with the hands.
Early info on lacrosse, from missionaries like French Jesuits in Huron country, is vague and often different from source to source. Their information is mostly about team size, equipment used, and the length of games and length of playing fields but say very little about stick handling, game strategy, or the rules of play. The oldest sticks are 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 legend, rituals, and the rules and preparation for play.
Given the little amount of info and vagueness of early instructions, we will probably never be able to reconstruct the history of the sport (darn J). Connecting it to the rubber-ball games of Meso-America or to an even older game using a single post covered by some animal hide and played together by men and women is likely, but not 100% positive. As can best be determined, the spread 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 shows tribal rituals to those areas in the nineteenth century. Although stories exist of some form of lacrosse between northern California and British Columbia tribes, the late date brings the questions of any true link to the early sport.
From the equipment, the type of goal used and the stick handling techniques, it is possible to figure three basic forms of lacrosse: the southeastern, Great Lakes, and Iroquoian. Among southeastern tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and others (to many to type out)), 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 caught and held in between them. Great Lakes players (Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Winnebago, Santee Dakota (again to many)) used a single three-foot stick. On the end is a round, closed pocket about three to four inches in diameter, not much larger than the ball, which was usually made of wood, charred and cut into shape. The northeastern stick, found in Iroquoian and New England tribes, is the progenitor of all present-day sticks, both in box as well as field lacrosse. The longest of any of them (usually more than three feet!) it was know by its shaft ending in a sort of bend and a large, flat triangular surface of webbing extending as much as two-thirds the length of the stick. Where strings meet the shaft, it forms the pocket of the stick. (Note: This is kinda odd because this stick required less skill then the other but yet the people who played with this stick could often beat the other teams)
Lacrosse was given its name by early French settlers and explorers, using the generic term for any game played with a curved stick (crosse) and a ball. Native language, however, describe more the technique (Onondaga DEHUNTSHIGWA’ES, “men hit a rounded object” *grunt*) or, especially in the southeast, to show the game’s aspects of war strategy (“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 (tribes), 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. Because Indians had to charge money in order to travel, they were excluded as “professionals” from international competition for more than a century L. Only with the creation of the Iroquois Nationals in the 1980s did they successfully break this barrier and become eligible to compete in World Games.
Apart from all the fun, lacrosse traditionally played a more serious role in Indian culture. Its beginnings are known only in legend, and the game continues to be used for sacred purposes and surrounded with ceremony. Conjurers still ritually prepare game equipment and players, 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 fairly. 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. So basically lacrosse is a good excuse to go out on the field and fight with other peoplecool!
A number of reasons led to the fall of lacrosse in many areas by the late nineteenth century. Betting 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. LOL!
Meanwhile, the spread of non-native 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 equipmentthe 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. Oddly, the field lacrosse game of non-native women today most closely resembles the Indian game of the past, retaining the wooden stick, without the protective gear and specific sidelines of the men’s game, and tending towards mass attack rather than field positions and off sides (thats what the game should be all about right?). In conclusion lacrosse is a decent game with an expansive background and requiring great skill (and courage could u imagine getting smacked in the head with one of those wooden balls!?).