The Creator's Game
Enduring Values to Guide the Future of Lacrosse
The modern variations of lacrosse – field lacrosse, box lacrosse, and women’s lacrosse – are all descended from stick and ball games played by Native peoples as early as 1100 AD. By the 17th century, Native lacrosse in various forms was well established across the eastern half of North America and was documented by Jesuit missionary priests in present-day Canada. These priests called the game they witnessed la crosse, meaning "the stick" in French.
Native peoples, particularly in present-day New York State and neighboring areas of Canada, continued to play lacrosse into the 19th century. English-speaking Canadians from Montreal were the first non-Native players. They began playing among themselves in the 1930s after having observed games being played by Native peoples. In 1856, the Montreal Lacrosse Club was founded, and the club’s founder codified rules in 1960. Compared to the Native game, these rules shortened the length of each game and reduced the number of players to 12 per team. The first official game played under these rules took place in 1867.
In the early stages of this growth, Native teams were active participants. They played in competitions and demonstrations in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. By the 1880s, however, Native teams were routinely banned from international competitions due to their dominance. Box lacrosse was invented in Canada during the 1920s and 1930s. Canadian field lacrosse players experimented with indoor games at unused ice hockey rinks during the summer, with strong support from arena owners. Canadian players enthusiastically adopted the new six-man indoor format. It quickly became the more popular version of the game in Canada, supplanting field lacrosse. Also, Native peoples adopted box lacrosse as the primary version of the game played in their territories, both in the United States and Canada.
A Rapidly Growing Game
In the United States, lacrosse during the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s was primarily a regional sport centered around the Mid-Atlantic states, especially New York and Maryland. However, in the last half of the 20th century, the sport spread rapidly outside this region, and can be currently found in most of the United States.
The total number of players at all levels at the end of 2017 was 3.3 times the number of players at the end of 2001. Recently, the strongest growth has been at the high school level, where both boys’ and girls’ lacrosse have been the fastest growing sports nationally. Some 22 U.S. states now have full championship status for lacrosse. At the collegiate level, women’s lacrosse has been the fastest growing sport of any kind. Some 498 colleges and universities sponsor a women’s lacrosse team in one of the NCAA’s three divisions (376 for men’s lacrosse).
Internationally, there has been a significant increase in the number of countries playing all three versions of lacrosse – field lacrosse, box lacrosse, and women’s lacrosse. Each holds a world championship tournament every four years. At the most recent world championship, there were 46 participating nations for field lacrosse (2018), 25 nations for women’s lacrosse (2017), and 20 nations for box lacrosse (2019).
Lacrosse has a history at the Olympic Games, having been a medal sport more than a century ago and a demonstration sport on other occasions. Given its international growth, lacrosse likely also has a future at the Olympics, and the governing bodies of the sport are working to make that dream a reality, with current ambitions set on the 2028 Olympic games.
A Game with Native Roots
For players, coaches, officials, and fans in the United States and, increasingly, across the world, a fundamental truth about the game deserves emphasis: Lacrosse is a Native game. Native nations and communities throughout North America played different versions of “lacrosse.” Indeed, the traditional Native names highlight the diversity of indigenous stick and ball games. For the Mohawk people of the Northeastern region, the game is called tewaa:araton, which translates to “little brother of war.” For the Choctaw of the Southeast region, the game is named kabucha, which means “stickball.” And for the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region, the game is called baaga’adowenwin, translating to “knocking the ball with an instrument.”
While there are many different historical and modern variations of Native “lacrosse” games, three principal styles come from the Great Lakes, Southeast, and Northeast regions. In the Great Lakes region, Native nations such as the Ojibwe, Menominee, Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Winnebago, Santee Dakota, and others traditionally played with a single three-foot stick that had a rounded head about four inches in diameter. Stories are told that each player made his own stick from white ash, decorated with symbols of personal meeting. In the Southeastern region, which includes the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Yuchi peoples, players used two small lacrosse sticks – one in each hand – usually carved from hickory and adorning symbols (e.g., lightning design to symbolize swiftness) of community or personal significance. Many of these traditional games continue to be played in Native communities today.
The modern field version of lacrosse, however, traces its roots most closely to the Northeastern region, which is home to the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, people. The word, Haudenosaunee (pronounced, “hoe-dee-no-sho-knee”), means “People of the Longhouse.” Located in the northeastern woodlands, the Haudenosaunee refer to Native peoples who traditionally lived in longhouses – large, rectangular wooden buildings – and shared a common language family and cultural beliefs.
About the Haudenosaunee
The original five Native nations who called themselves Haudenosaunee were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. These nations were – and continue to be – principally located in what is now known as upstate and western New York, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Canada. These nations enjoy a government-to-government relationship with the United States and, as sovereigns recognized under the U.S. constitution, possess the ability to govern their own affairs, such as creating and enforcing their own laws, controlling their natural resources, and administering health care for their citizens.
It is important to appreciate that the Haudenosaunee contributions to the United States extend well beyond their status as the original stewards of the game of lacrosse. Of particular importance are the Haudenosaunee contributions to the principles of democratic governance. In the 12th century, the five Haudenosaunee nations came together to form an alliance, often referred to as the League of the Iroquois or, more commonly, the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy. The confederacy was formed to ensure peace among the five nations, and established a sophisticated set of democratic laws and processes by which the nations would interact with each other and outsiders. The confederacy later became a source of inspiration for America’s founding fathers, who drew upon the Haudenosaunee model when crafting the U.S. Constitution, which was signed in 1787. Several years later, a sixth Native nation, the Tuscarora, joined the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The Haudenosaunee flag is a representation of the Hiawatha wampum belt, commemorating the union of the five original nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. From west to east – or left to right – they are the Seneca (keepers of the western door), Cayuga, Onondaga (which is the capitol of the confederacy and is represented by the Great Tree of Peace), Oneida, and Mohawk (keepers of the eastern door. This confederacy remains active to this day, and the flag is often featured on Haudenosaunee lacrosse gear and uniforms, and donned by those – both Native and non-Native – to honor the Native roots of the game.
A Special Relationship
One of the core beliefs among the Haudenosaunee is that lacrosse is much more than a game.
According to the Haudenosaunee oral tradition, the very first game of lacrosse was not played between humans, but rather was a game between the winged animals (i.e., birds) and the four-legged creatures (i.e., the land mammals). And while the story is told in slightly different ways among the various Haudenosaunee communities, one version is as follows:
Our Grandfathers told us many stories that would relate to lacrosse and how one should conduct themselves and the importance of the individual to the game. Lacrosse was a gift to us from the Creator, to be played for his enjoyment and as a medicine game for healing the people. The Haudenosaunee people know that all creatures, no matter how big or small, are significant and have a contribution to make to the overall cycle of life.
Long ago we were told the following story about a great ball game that took place between the four-legged animals and the winged birds...
The captains for the four-legged animals were: The Bear - whose weight overpowers all opposition, The Deer - whose speed and agility to stop and go made him invaluable to the team, and The Great Turtle - who could withstand the most powerful blows and still be able to advance towards the opposition.
The captains for the winged birds were: The Owl - who excelled in the ability to keep his eye on the ball, no matter what position or direction the ball may be traveling. The Hawk and Eagle - both excel in quick, swift movements. These three represented all the winged animals.
While the birds were preparing for the game, they noticed two small creatures, hardly larger than a feather, climbing up a tree where the winged leaders were perched. Upon reaching the top, they humbly asked the captains to be allowed to join the lacrosse game.
The Eagle, easily noticing that they were a squirrel and a mouse, inquired as to why they didn't ask to join the animal team. The little creatures explained that they had asked, but had been laughed at and rejected because of their small size.
On hearing their story, the bird captains took pity on them, but wondered how they could join the birds' teams if they had no wings. After some discussion, it was decided to that they would try to make wings for the little fellows, but how would they to do it?
By happy inspiration, one bird thought of the water drum that is used in social and ceremonial gatherings. Perhaps a piece of the drum’s leather could be taken from the drumhead, cut and shaped and attached to the legs of one of the small creatures. It was done and thus originated the bat. The ball was now tossed into the air, the bat was told to catch it. With his skill in dodging and circling he kept the ball constantly in motion, never allowing it to hit the ground. Through his impressive performance he convinced the birds that they had gained a valuable ally.
The birds thought they could do the same for the squirrel, but, to their dismay, all the leather had been used on the making of the bat's wings. There was no time to send for more. At the last minute it was suggested that perhaps stretching the skin of the squirrel itself could make suitable wings. So, by tugging and pulling the fur between the front and hind feet, the task was completed and there originated the flying squirrel. When all was ready, they began the game.
Eagle and Bear met, a face-off ensued and the flying squirrel caught the ball, cradled it up the tree and passed it off the Hawk. Hawk kept it in the air for some time. Then, just as the ball was to hit the ground, the Eagle seized it. Eagle, dodging and doubling, maintained possession and kept the ball from even the Deer, the opposition... the fastest of the four-legged team. Eagle then faked to Squirrel and passed to Bat, who moved in hard and left to score the goal. This goal won the victory for the birds.
This story shows that regardless of how unworthy you feel an individual is that person may have qualities that could be a great help to you some day. (Source: Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse)
In the original Haudenosaunee form of the game for humans, large sticks were used that had a triangular pocket that extended down two-thirds of the stick. The ball featured a fiber core wrapped in leather. Though the Haudenosaunee stick has evolved over time, certain features have remained consistent. Hand-cut, steam-bent, and hand-carved almost exclusively from hickory trees, the sticks use leather, and animal gut (or a contemporary equivalent), and are considered “living” instruments that deserve great respect and care. The significance of the wooden stick is evidenced by a longstanding Haudenosaunee tradition that a baby boy is gifted his first stick upon birth. To this day, a significant proportion of Haudenosaunee baby boys sleep in their cradles next to a small wooden stick. The traditional wooden stick is also brought along to those going on to the afterlife; many Haudenosaunee believe that being buried with their favorite stick allows them to be ready to play with their ancestors in the most beautiful and never-ending game when they greet the Creator.
For the Haudenosaunee, lacrosse is a gift from the Creator, to be played for His enjoyment as a medicine game that heals and strengthens individuals, families, and communities. There is “medicine” in lacrosse if the game is played traditionally and with the right frame of mind. Specific medicine games continue to play an important role in contemporary Haudenosaunee community life. An individual player may call for a medicine game to bring blessings to a community or particular person. For example, if a player’s brother or sister is ill, he might call a medicine game to bring the sibling to good health. Many players will ask the spirit of an animal for guidance, so the he may have the eyes of the hawk, the toughness of a turtle, or the agility of a deer. Thus, while lacrosse is a sport pursued by non-Native players around the world, it is still a medicine game imbued with a sacred significance and special powers.
Lacrosse also is viewed as a cultural legacy that succeeds in teaching the lessons of how to live a good life. The game demands teamwork, leadership, commitment, sacrifice, and physical prowess – virtues that benefit the Haudenosaunee on and off the playing field. The game serves as the bond that brings the Haudenosaunee together as individuals and nations and, as such, it is used for community advancement.
Finally, for the Haudenosaunee, lacrosse is an expression of Native sovereignty. In 1983, the United States National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) invited the Haudenosaunee to field a team and play an exhibition match at the National Lacrosse Championships in Baltimore, Maryland. They did, and were roundly defeated by the Canadian national team. This loss, while disappointing, mobilized the Haudenosaunee to take a stand on a global level. Team members and coaches decided that, as the originators of the game and as citizens of the Iroquois Confederacy, they would participate in international field lacrosse competitions and recapture their status as the best lacrosse players in the world. More importantly, they were determined that their participation should stand as a symbol of their sovereignty. With the sanction of the Haudenosaunee Grand Council of Chiefs, a dedicated group of Haudenosaunee citizens organized the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team to represent the confederacy in international competition. Today, the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team is the only Native national sports team in international competition. The Team, which has won numerous medals and awards, travels overseas using Haudenosaunee passports, and in so doing, has successfully engaged state departments, embassies, and consulates around the work in recognizing the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and its member nations. (Source: Harvard Kennedy School, Honoring Nations tribal governance award)
Enduring Native Values with Contemporary Relevance
All of us – Native and non-Native – have an opportunity to understand, respect, and adopt the core values associated with the Creator’s game. As players, coaches, officials, fans, and supporters, we can learn a great deal from studying these values. By understanding and, ultimately, embracing these values, we ensure that lacrosse is played in the right spirit, and the game is made stronger.
The game of lacrosse requires diverse gifts. From an individual perspective, it requires skill, athleticism, intelligence, and perseverance. From a team perspective, it requires offense, defense, goalkeeping, gaining possession, and transition. Each of these requirements has many constituent elements, and no one single type of player can cover all of these elements. As a result, every player has something to offer, and a successful lacrosse team is an effective combination of the diverse talents of its individual players. The Haudenosaunee story about the first lacrosse game between the animals and the birds is also a story about inclusion and the coordination of unique talents. Whether a person is fast, slow, strong, weak, or embodies a variety of characteristics, everyone has something valuable to contribute, and, therefore, we have a collective obligation to make the game as diverse and inclusive as possible. For the Haudenosaunee, the game is made stronger when we bring diverse talents together – which, indeed, provides valuable guidance for those who want to grow the game, especially at the youth level.
The game of lacrosse requires the hard work of individual and team preparation. At the core of individual preparation are caring for your stick and equipment, caring for your body, and caring for your mind. In some Native communities, young children learn to value the lacrosse stick and what it represents long before they develop the skills to use it. The high-maintenance and fickle nature of the traditional wooden sticks reinforces the need to care for the stick and equipment. By its nature, lacrosse is meant to be played hard, and proper preparation and conditioning of the body is critical. Also by its nature, lacrosse is meant to be played with the right spirit, and proper preparation of the mind is equally important. For the Haudenosaunee, the “power of the good mind” is a fundamental tenet of their cultural and spiritual beliefs, and players have an obligation to step onto the field or into the box with a good mind, void of ill thoughts, ready to play in a way that pleases the Creator. Great lacrosse (and great fulfillment) is made possible when the hard work of preparation and the right mindset come together to produce a hard-fought game.
The game of lacrosse is played best when it reflects creativity and innovation. In Native communities, the Creator’s game is considered a thing of beauty, and both individual and team creativity are highly valued as expressions of that beauty. That lacrosse is an important platform for creative expression among Native players is evidenced by an endless variety of innovative stick skills, hidden ball tricks, and pick-up game formats. The beauty and effectiveness of these inventions is honed by much individual and collective repetition. The importance of innovation in the game of lacrosse is reflected in the first game between the winged birds and the four-legged creatures. By thinking creativity, the birds added valuable members to their team. This ancient lesson teaches us that the game is meant to be played creatively, and this type of thinking not only keeps the game exciting but also helps explain the prowess of Haudenosaunee players.
The game of lacrosse requires integrity. For centuries, the Haudenosaunee have used lacrosse games – medicine games – as pathways to healing and personal and communal transformation. The community’s expectation is always for fierce competition to be followed by mutual appreciation. Each participant’s ability to both play hard and respect opponents reflects positively on the community. It is in this spirit, along with the understanding that we are all brothers and sisters in lacrosse, that we show our respect by shaking hands and giving sincere thanks after a well-played game. With a growing number of unfortunate incidents occurring in youth sports – from the way officials are sometimes treated poorly to offensive sideline behavior – it is more important than ever to underscore that lacrosse is a different kind of game, one that puts a premium on playing and acting with integrity.
The game of lacrosse requires generosity. For Native peoples, lacrosse is a gift from the Creator. Native peoples have freely shared the game with non-Natives. Most notably, prior to the invention of the plastic stick, every lacrosse stick ever used was created by a Native stick maker. Non-Native lacrosse would not have been possible without this gift. The generational transfer of skills, knowledge, and spirit is an important part of both Native and non-Native lacrosse communities. It’s critical that this culture of generous sharing and gift giving. The Haudenosaunee principle of seven generations is inspiring. The principle holds that whenever leaders make decisions, they have a solemn obligation to consider the wisdom of those who came seven generations before, and to make decisions that will benefit those to be born seven generations ahead. For all lacrosse players, coaches, officials, and supporters, the principle of seven generations means that we always need to be mindful about the roots of the game and, importantly, act as responsible and generous stewards so that children born seven generations ahead can enjoy this beautiful game.
Note: We would like to thank Andrew Lee and Andy Phillips who authored this article and who generously shared it with us.