Native Americans reclaim lacrosse, their ancestral sport

Modern lacrosse – and its stereotypical “preppy, East Coast” image, or so some say – is enjoying increasing popularity among young people and students. But there is little acknowledgment from wider society about the game’s Indigenous origins.

Indigenous communities in parts of the United States and Canada are seeking to remedy this, reclaiming it and then educating a wider audience about its origins. Gaining more authority over a sport that has been colonized and reclaimed is a way for Indigenous communities to reaffirm their identity and build resilience.

Why we wrote this

Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, but it has lost the connection to its Indigenous roots. Now, some members of the Native American community are trying to restore its traditions.

Lacrosse is believed to date back to the year 1100, when it was played by the Haudenosaunee, an alliance of six nations spanning the northeastern region of North America. While early accounts show the game was played similarly to war – to settle disputes between communities or tribes – it was also played for fun or as a game of medicine.

“Lacrosse served many purposes. … It has cultural and sacred dimensions,” says Anton Treuer, a teacher of Ojibway language and culture. “Healing happens on many levels. There are physical, emotional and spiritual modalities.

St. Paul, Minn.

David Bezh Butler holds a shell bowl the size of a coconut in his palm, a thin line of hot herbal smoke swirling through the air. One by one, he passes it among the 15 Twin Cities Native Lacrosse team players surrounded on the grounds of the Oxford Community Center.

“It’s for anyone who brings something extra to the game,” says Mr. Butler, a self-proclaimed elder during the pickup game, as he leads the smudging ritual. “Whatever energy you bring to the game, that’s what you get back.”

This ceremony, performed before each game, does more than set the tone for mindfulness. It’s an integral part of what community lacrosse is all about here in the Twin Cities — home to one of the nation’s largest urban populations of American Indians: healing and building community.

Why we wrote this

Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, but it has lost the connection to its Indigenous roots. Now, some members of the Native American community are trying to restore its traditions.

Unlike its modern, competitive counterpart – and its stereotypical “preppy, East Coast” image, according to players here – community lacrosse isn’t about who wins. Tribal teams also participate in the competitive variety, but here in the Twin Cities, community play is all about respect and fun. The “Creator’s Game,” as it’s known within the community, can be played in celebration — to honor a family member’s college graduation — or in prayer for someone struggling with health issues.

Although lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States among young people, many are unaware of the game’s Indigenous origins. But there is a growing movement within Indigenous communities in parts of the states. United States and Canada to address it, reclaiming it and then educating a wider audience about its origins. Gaining more authority over a sport that has been colonized and reclaimed is a way for Indigenous communities to reaffirm their identity and build cultural resilience.

“I think the majority culture should be educated about the origins of the sport,” says Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language and culture at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. “They should recognize [it] at college events and take the opportunity to draw attention to history and the often marginalized Indigenous communities who have shared it with the world.

“At the same time, Indigenous people should be encouraged and empowered to revitalize the Indigenous form of lacrosse and all of its cultural teachings and healing modalities.

Community lacrosse isn’t about keeping score, but players are still trying to get the ball down the field and throw it at the goal post during a game on August 7, 2022 in St. Paul, Minnesota .

physical and spiritual

Scarcity of data means the origins of lacrosse are unclear, but the game is thought to date back to the year 1100, when it was played by the Haudenosaunee, a six-nation alliance among the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca , Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora tribes, covering Canada and the northeastern region of North America, who were historically (and somewhat pejoratively) known as the Iroquois Confederacy.

While early accounts show the game was played similarly to war – to settle disputes between communities or tribes – it was also played for fun or as a game of medicine.

“Lacrosse served many purposes. … It has cultural and sacred dimensions,” says Treuer. “Healing happens on many levels. There are physical, emotional and spiritual modalities.

The game of traditional stickball can take three basic forms – Iroqouian, Great Lakes and Southeast – which differ in equipment and stickhandling techniques. The modern, competitive game most closely resembles the Iroquoian game, whose stick ended in a large triangular net, compared to the Great Lakes version – the one played in the Twin Cities – which used a stick with a round, closed net pocket. and a deer skin. – wrapped ball.

The modern, competitive game of lacrosse, by contrast, in which players wear protective padding, uses sticks up to 6 feet long and a rubber ball, which players use to catch, carry, and shoot in an effort to the opposing team. Despite being one of the fastest growing sports on US college campuses and having 69 countries represented in World Lacrosse (the international governing body), lacrosse has not been included in the Olympic Games since 1908.

The Haudenosaunee Nationals men’s lacrosse team is one of many teams looking to change that. The team has finished third at the last two world championships and claims to be the only Indigenous team in any sport to compete at this level.

But the Nationals have run into administrative hurdles in some international competitions. While the Haudenosaunee have their own passports, their members come from parts of Ontario and upstate New York.

“There were questions about, are we a legitimate participant? Are we a country? It has been interesting to engage with governments, who are not fully aware of our status,” said Nationals executive director Leo Nolan.

And although the team plays the modern version of the game during competitions, they try to maintain the traditional and community aspect of the original activity. Oren Lyons, the team’s faith keeper, helps the team maintain spirituality and peace by hosting a tobacco ceremony before each game as a way to “reach the Creator,” says Nolan.

“It’s important for all of us to understand what lacrosse was originally,” says Nolan. “Now, over time, lacrosse has moved on to a more contemporary game, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect what the Creator gave us. One of our responsibilities is to share this game with others.

Still, some players are ambivalent about advertising the intricacies of traditional styles of lacrosse to a wider audience, due to how the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples have been erased in the past.

“Many cultural bearers don’t want to share their practices because they feel they will be attacked again, and there has been a long history of control and repression,” says Janice Forsyth, associate professor of sociology and Director of Indigenous Studies at Western University in London, Ontario.

“There are others who want to say, ‘Hey, we survived and we’re still here.’ … Communities will decide if it’s important to revive their own ball-and-stick game and decide who they want to be.

“Learn History”

On the grounds of the Oxford Community Center, players from the TC Native Lacrosse team gather on the sidelines for a mid-game water break. The team includes people from all tribes, but the game primarily focuses on Ojibwe and Dakota traditions. Mr. Butler, who officiated today’s game, says he hopes lacrosse will become as accessible as soccer or basketball. “You get sticks, a ball and a few people and it’s a game.”

Mr. Butler brought his community lacrosse expertise to South High School in Minneapolis, where he runs the All Nations Program, a school program designed for Native American students. He has formed an informal lacrosse group and teaches students how to make their own sticks.

“It’s important for them to know how and why you do it,” he says, “and to learn the history.”

For Chris Knutsen and Alexandrah Walker, lacrosse is particularly meaningful – they met in a pickup game and got engaged six years later to the day. Knutsen, who has played both modern and community lacrosse, says he approaches the two games differently.

“When I play modern lacrosse, it’s more competitive and I’m tough on myself,” he said, throwing a deerskin ball during a break in the water. “With community play, I feel happier and uplifted. It’s okay to make mistakes.”

Ms Walker has done her undergraduate thesis on the power of lacrosse to heal trauma and wants to continue teaching the game to others.

“For a long time I didn’t want to play, but now I always have sticks; we give them to encourage people to play,” says Ms. Walker, who says lacrosse sticks are an extension of the self, each with its own spirit.

“It’s our game. Each tribe has its own story. We’re trying to reclaim it and revitalize it, … the creator’s game. We want to take it with us wherever we go.

Nohemi M. Moore