Aboriginal lacrosse was concentrated around and to the east and southeast of the Great Lakes. Two teams, often numbering in the dozens and occasionally in the hundreds, faced off in a huge playing field. Ostensibly, the object of the sport was to score more goals than the opposing team. For indigenous participants and spectators, however, lacrosse was more than a recreational activity; the game possessed important spiritual components, reinforced local, kinship-based social organization, and had deep associations with physical combat.
In some Native societies, lacrosse was considered sacred. Individual Potawatomis convened matches to honor their guardian spirit. Other Native groups, like the Iroquois League, played the game in connection with key religious rites. Lacrosse was frequently associated with funerary and memorial ceremonies. Further, medicine men and conjurers played a key role in the sport, blessing players and equipment alike, while often engaging in combat with one another through spells. Finally, some people viewed its medicinal powers as evidence of the sacred character of lacrosse. Some tribes, like the Hurons, believed lacrosse could cure diseases, whereas others, such as the Potawatomis, thought it could prevent illness.
Beyond its spiritual significance, lacrosse had profound social importance as well. Matches were grand gatherings of people, encouraging economic activity and cementing social relations. Moreover, games were the occasion of intense gambling.
Lacrosse also provided a means for individual distinction and culturally sanctioned competition. In fact, many American Indian communities understood the game to be a surrogate for warfare, often speaking of the two in similar terms, employing shared rituals and designing lacrosse sticks after war clubs.
In the seventeenth century, French missionaries offered the first written description of the sport. For much of the next century, largely in New France, Europeans watched and wagered on matches between Native Americans, sometimes engaging in competitions against them. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Euro-Canadians, particularly in the vicinity of Montreal, began playing the game among themselves, systemizing it in 1867. Although indigenous peoples outside Canada played lacrosse, it did not capture much public attention in the United States until after the Civil War, when it become an established intercollegiate sport in the northeast by the 1880s. As lacrosse was systematized in the United States and Canada, American Indians were excluded and marginalized. More recently, an indoor version of lacrosse, known as box lacrosse, has served as the basis for the professionalization of the sport.
The institutionalization of lacrosse in the United States eclipsed, but did not eradicate, indigenous forms of the sport. Throughout the twentieth century, indigenous communities continued to play local versions of the ball game and began to embrace modern lacrosse as well. Importantly, for many Native Americans, the ball game has fostered the rediscovery of cultural heritage and the validation of ethnic identity. Indeed, the formation of the Iroquois Nationals team in 1983 marked a pivotal moment in indigenous activism and sport. In 1990, the Iroquois Nationals team played the U.S. team in the Lacrosse World Cup.
At the start of the twenty-first century, lacrosse remains a vital sport summarizing the Native American experience: a powerful tradition replete with religious and social meanings; a cultural complex taken from indigenous peoples, then modified to fit the ideals of western sport and society; a game in which American Indians were discouraged from further play and banned from participation in established leagues; and, most recently, a sport repossessed as a resource of ethnic identity and an emblem of indigenous resurgence.
C. Richard King
Blanchard, Kendall. 1981. The Mississippi Choctaw at Play. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.; Fisher, Donald M. 2002. Lacrosse: A History of the Game. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Lipsyte, Robert. 1986. "Lacrosse: All-American Game." New York Times Magazine, June 15: 29–38.; Vennum, Thomas. 1994. American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.