As the sun rose over the horizon with a dim fog hanging over the waters of the Saint Lawrence River a crowd of several thousand people gathered just miles away from the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario in a field stretching nearly 200 acres in overall area. There is a competitive spirit in the air. No greater competition has or will ever exist in North America other than perhaps the Super Bowl. It’s the time of year when thousands upon thousands of communities come together to play for regional pride. Stars will be born and once common men will return to their homes as heros. It’s time for America’s most popular sport. It’s time for Lacrosse.
While today millions of people tune in to watch men take the field to play a great football game, face off in a hockey match, or spare in the tactical game of baseball, long ago the game of Lacrosse dominated the North American landscape from modern Canada to modern Texas.
Lacrosse was first written about in 1637 by Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit missionary. He noticed Iroquois men playing the game and called it “la crosse,” french for “the stick.” Many historians now believe that the game Jean de Brebeuf deemed as la crosse existed as early as 2000 B.C. or before.
The modern version of La Crosse that is extremely popular among many high schools and universities around America today differs greatly from that played by Native American’s. Portions of the ancient game were saved through oral traditions and can still be found lingering in native culture. The Native Canadian traditional la crosse version consists of teams made up of between 100-1,000 men. It is played on a great field that can range from 500 meters all the way up to nearly three kilometers in length, or two miles.
The native traditional game was played for two to three days from sunup to sundown. It was like a major tournament that never stopped. Just imagine 30,000 to 80,000 people flowing onto a small piece of land that usually only houses 2,000 people. Most of the athletes would bring their families and friends to witness and cheer them on.
Often times the games were held on a sacred day and were played to honor the great Creator. It was not just a recreational sport. The competition of lacrosse was meant to help the athlete in battle and provide a spiritual preparation to the inner warrior.
The idea of the game was simple. Each team would use a stick, sometimes two small sticks with either a net or a capturing device of sort on the end to move a small ball across the field through various passes. The ultimate goal was to pass the ball through a wooden goal.
Usually the rules of each game were laid out on the day prior to the competition. Most of the time there were no out-of-bounds lines. The one standing rule was that the ball could never be touched with the hands. In it’s earliest forms the goal was a rock or a tree. Early balls were made out of wood. Some were deerskin stuffed with hair or other soft debris. Sticks were first basically giant wooden spoons that had no netting. Later, deer sinew or wattup was used to create netting on larger sticks. Players would customized these sticks by carving elaborate art into the handle. Players seldom ever used any type of protect gear.
Medicine men typically acted as coaches and women served food and beverages to the athletes.
Game-play looked much different than the game of today. It started with the ball being thrown into the air. The two teams would rush to pick up the ball. With between 100-1,000 men on a team, these mad rushes to the ball usually turned into mass swarms of men shoving and pushing, punching and elbowing until the ball was either knocked away from the player with the ball or passed off to another competitor. Most of the time a pass was seen as a trick and to dodge a hit was to be a coward.
The Iroquois of the Great Lakes region used la crosse to keep a feeling of togetherness and unity among their tribes.
Players often times could be seen sporting face and body paint. They were sometimes required to offer a wager before the game. They would place and item such as a knife or trinket up for stake. The winning team would win these items. Remarkably these prizes sometimes consisted of not just tools, but wives and children.
Lacrosse caught the attention of many European colonists. They began to place their own bets on many of these games in spite of Jesuit opposition.
Lacrosse continued to gain in popularity among Europeans over the next 200 years. However, many European changes to the game morphed it into something very foreign to the native version. Eventually the game played by natives disappeared and lost out to progress. Today however, modern lacrosse has become a testament and living history symbol of a game that is truly American.
Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover. Painting no copyright.
Photo 2: George Catlin’s art “Ball players.” Natives would dress themselves in paint and other decorations in order to improve their warrior spirit.
Photo 3: Jim Tubby, Mississippi Choctaw, preparing for a stickball game in 1908
Photo 4: George Catlin’s painting “Ball-play Dance.” Before most games players and their fans sang and danced trying to win over spiritual support.