The Creator’s Game: Native American Culture and Lacrosse

Sioux Playing Ball | Charles Deas | Oil on Canvas 1843 | Courtesy of Wikimedia

Imagine running across a field. You’re tired and out of breath. You’ve been in what seems like an endless game. From sun up to sundown you’re running and fighting to make a goal. To some, it may seem like a game, but not to you. To you, it’s part of your culture, your religion, and, to you, the outcome matters.

Lacrosse was first played by Native American tribes in different regions of North America. There were many different versions of the game, rules, numbers of players, and sizes of the fields that would change depending on the tribe. Names of the game also varied, and included Creators’ Game, Baggataway, and Tewaaraton, which translates to “little brother of war.”1

Ball Players | George Catlin | Hand colored Lithograph on paper | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The name that we know today as lacrosse came about in 1636 when French Missionary Jean de Brebeuf compared the shape of the sticks used by players of the game to a bishop’s crozier, which is ‘‘crosse’’ in French.2

For many Native American tribes, lacrosse wasn’t just a sport, but rather part of their culture and their religion. Since the game was very rough and people could be injured and even die while playing, the Iroquois used lacrosse as a way of training young men to be warriors, and the game was used to settle disputes without actually going to war. This is why lacrosse is nicknamed “little brother of war.”3 Lacrosse also had religious significance among some tribes. It was called the Creator’s Game, and it helped the players put their lives into perspective and teach lessons, some of the most valuable lessons being that everyone has struggles and opponents and the key to survival is friends and allies.

In the culture of the Iroquois, when a man dies, his lacrosse stick is buried with him. They believed that the first thing he would do when he wakes up in the afterlife is to take the stick from his coffin and begin playing that day.4

Play of the Choctaw Ball Up | George Catlin | Oil on Canvas | 1843 | Courtesy of Wikimedia

Native American lacrosse was often played on a stretch of land up to two miles long with sticks between 3-5 feet long made of wood and animal skin. A game could include between one-hundred to one-thousand players at a time. There was no set time to the games. The two teams would agree on a set amount of points and would play from sunrise to sunset until the amount of points was achieved.5 Violence and injuries were very common, and players would often walk away with minor cuts, broken bones, head injuries, and occasionally a death would occur.

Few people can claim to have experienced a Native American game of Lacrosse. Artist George Catlin had a passion for learning about Native Americans, and how they lived. He once said that “If my life is spared, nothing shall stop me short of visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America.” He attended a major Choctaw lacrosse game in 1834. In his time there, he recorded everything that he saw and described how the game was set up from the length of the field and deciding where the goals would be places, to how each team was set up. He described how the night before the match both teams danced and chanted all night. Each team had a medicine man who chanted incantations to strengthen their team and weaken the other. He recorded his experiences through paintings and writings.6

Lacrosse is a sport that has a beautiful history and carries a meaning that many of us will never be able to understand. To Native Americans, lacrosse was a sport, a teaching tool, a religion, and a way to connect their cultures with other tribes.7 Today the history and meaning behind lacrosse has been lost, and to many it has become just another sport played for recreation and friendly competition.

  1.  The Gale Encyclopedia of Fitness, 2012, s.v. ‘”Lacrosse,” by David E. Newton.
  2.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v., “Lacrosse,” by Justin D. Garcia.
  3. Thomas Vennum Jr., “American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War,” The Journal of American Folklore 108, No. 427 (1995): 98-99.
  4. S. L. Price, “Pride of a Nation,” Sports Illustrated 113, no. 2 (2010): 60-71.
  5. Stanley A. Freed, “Lacrosse yesterday and today,” Cobblestone 15, no.9 (1994): 32.
  6. Joanna Shaw-Eagle, “Catlin saves vanishing Indians on canvas,” The Washington Times, January 4, 2003.
  7. John Seabrook, “Gathering of the Tribes,” New Yorker 74, No. 26, (August 1998): 30.
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61 Comments

  • I have heard about Lacrosse and it reminded me of the Ball Game in Aztec and Mayan cultures. The cultural and religious similarities are amazing, but I’m a bit surprised the author didn’t mention the Ball game. The amount of people involved in Lacrosse is astounding and makes me wonder how they were able to make it work. The amount of injuries is brutal and makes me hope there’s a doctor there…

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