Lacrosse Rooted in Tribal Tradition
By Grady Winston
Ball Players, Painting by George Catlin
It may not have the
popularity of football, baseball or basketball, but the spirit of
lacrosse is alive and well on fields and college campuses across the
United States. The sport is even more popular with our neighbors to the
north, where lacrosse serves as a dual national
sport of Canada,
alongside the spotlight-stealing sport of ice hockey. One thing that
sets this sport apart from many others is its origins in Native American
culture and is one of the oldest team sports originating in North
Native American origins
Lacrosse traces its origins to North American Indian
tribes. Outside the United States and Canada, lacrosse is relatively
unknown, although it will be featured at the 2017
World Games, in Poland for
the first time. Lacrosse enthusiasts hope that means the sport may be
one step closer to making it into the Olympic Games.
The full-contact, fast-moving sport of lacrosse was ideal
for training young Native Americans in the art of battle, but lacrosse
competitions also took
the place of battle.
When disputes arose over land or resources, tribes would agree to a
contest instead of rushing into war. These contests would be scheduled
at agreeable times for both tribes and would end
the dispute with
less bloodshed, though broken bones and severe injuries were not
uncommon, and death was not unheard of in the contests.
Lacrosse may have served as a more sensible
replacement for war, but it wasn’t solely a dispute-settler. The sport
was also used within tribes to cultivate social relationships. Each
tribe had different mythology regarding the origins of the game, and the
ball was representative of the sun and the moon, which according to
legend, the gods tossed back and forth in the original game.
Lacrosse as originally
played by Native Americans wasn’t the same as lacrosse played by collegiate
athletes today. There would have been no
specialized tasks on the field,
but an open field on which a player could move freely after the ball. This
resulted not only in greater camaraderie on the field, but on-field fights
as well. The area could range from anywhere between several hundred yards to
several miles, and goals could be anything from a boulder, a tree, or simply
a designated area on the ground.
Some similarities exist
between the original version of lacrosse and modern incarnations:
Sticks with netting,
much like today’s rackets. However, preparing for the game was very
similar to preparing for war. Players would adorn war paint and decorate
their sticks with paint and feathers.
balls, stuffed with animal hair. Some early versions of the ball were made
from wood, while others were made of stuffed deer hide or even solid
Boundaries, though much
broader than today’s lines. Playing fields could go on for miles, and
typically the game time lasted from sun up until sundown.
Each team was required to place wagers on the game, which included valued
items, food or tools. The winner of the game would receive the prizes,
which were on display during the game to spurn players on.
At the end of each
game, there was a ceremonial feast for each tribe and their players, the
original form of sportsmanship.
The object of the game
was basically the same: to get the ball through the other team’s goal in
order to score points, using body checks and stick checks as needed to steal
the ball from the other team. However, in the Native American tradition,
passing the ball from one player to another was seen as a trick, and dodging
an opponent or their stick checks was seen as cowardly.
Many tribes throughout
the U.S. and Canada have played lacrosse, including the Chickasaw,
the Choctaw, the Cherokee and
the Creek. Consider teaching your kids a sport that will also give them a
lesson in culture – whether it’s a lesson from their own ancestry or a
cross-cultural lesson about the country in which they live. Native tribes
that used sport – rather than warfare – to settle disputes exhibited an
enlightened approach to problem-solving that society could definitely
benefit from today.
Grady Winston, December 2012
George Catlin painting "Ball Play of the Choctaws-Ball Up, circa 1846-1850
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