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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70 Comments

  • This article was very interesting and was on a topic I find quite surprising. I did not know lacrosse was a sport developed by the Native Americans and such an originally dangerous one at that. Very sacred traditions. It really makes one wonder actually how primitive our “primitive” precursors were. This was a very well written article and it is not hard to see why it was nominated.

  • This article was so informative and interesting. I did not know that lacrosse was sport of native Americans and such a dangerous one. I can’t believe some players died in the games, and also they kept doing it almost all of the day. I think that lacrosse at that time was not sport at all but a war itself. However, it was considered so important that they buried the stick in the tomb, which surprises me so much.

  • I would have never imagined that the Native Americans invented lacrosse. We never really question the things or activities we do today, we all just take it for granted. Though I do not know much about lacrosse or the culture around it, it is intriguing that despite the European seeing the Native Americans as savages they adopted and loved the game themselves.

  • This was definitely an interesting article on both Native American culture and Lacrosse. Heck, I didn’t even know the game had roots with the native Americans in the first place! I never really played the game nor did I stop to think of the cultural background the game came from since in this day and age we don’t really stop to think about stuff like that since we’re so far into the future and don’t really have to worry about the past.

  • This was a very interesting article on the Native American culture, and the game of lacrosse. I can honestly say that I did not know that the game of lacrosse had such a significant impact on the culture of Native Americans. It is amazing that the Native Americans were so competitive in this game that they came away with cuts, broken bones, and sometimes deaths after engaging in a game.

  • Lacrosse is not my type of sport that I would enjoy, but the significance of the sport in history is essential to Native American tribes. I didn’t know the sport was more than just a sport for the Native Americans. It was part of their religious rituals and the form they connected with other tribes. For historians, I believe it is important to know this, because this information gives them a closer understanding of a group of people.

  • I have never been a huge fan of lacrosse, however I did not know the game’s origins had such significance among the Native Americans. To play a game rather than go to war, such a humanitarian outlook, saving lives for scoring goals. Also the athletes (if they were called that back then) must have been in great shape; sun up till sun down on a field that could be two miles long just sounds brutal. It goes to show the Native American mindset was a lot stronger than people think

  • I do not have many knowledge on the sport of lacrosse but it definitely is different to what this article explains. The first thing I learned while reading this article is that Native American are the ones who invented this sport. It was also interesting to read how lacrosse has evolved to the sport it is today. After reading this article I now have a better insight to the history of lacrosse and the meaningful value it has to Native Americans.

  • Brilliant beginning, I really like the introduction, as it really hooked me, as the reader, in. Usually, informational articles can potentially be a little dry, so I loved how the writing style differed. It was interesting getting to see how Lacrosse was integrated into the culture of the Iroquois, but I feel like the article may have been stronger if you added at least a sentence on the background of the Iroquois. From my understanding, they were the one of the most violent Native American tribes, so it would have been interesting to see how the background of their violence integrated into why the Lacrosse games sometimes led to death. In addition, you mention “lacrosse wasn’t just a sport, but … their religion”, but I failed to see much detail in the article on how religion played a major part in the Lacrosse games. Overall, the article was great – it kept me engaged, and informed me that the Native Americans didn’t only play the Ball Game, but a form of Lacrosse as well. I really liked how you integrated George Catlin as well. Great job!

  • 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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