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.
The Creator’s Game: Native American Culture and Lacrosse
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61 Comments

  • Lacrosse was a sport that I always wish that I knew more about. I find it to be such a fascinating game and now that I know the origins, I find it even more interesting. As an alternative to war it allows them to settle the conflict. The cultural aspect was also beautiful to see how the entire tribe would come to be a part of it. A very well told article, great job!

  • I am somewhat unfamiliar with the sport of lacrosse. It is interesting that most Indian tribes had their own ways of entertainment. But I did not know lacrosse was invented by Native Americans. I find it sort of sad that the history of this sport is a little bit forgotten. This sport is very popular here in the states and it is very common in most college campuses. Very interesting article I enjoyed reading it.

  • I found this article to be very interesting and well written, I did not even know about the origins of lacrosse. I think the game is pretty cool and wish I could have tried it in high school. It is honestly mind boggling that this game was used to train people for war, I never would have thought of that. If only problems these days could be solved by playing a sport, instead of going to war.

  • Interesting article! I know very little about lacrosse but its really fascinating to learn about its origins. I think I briefly read about how the Native Americans would paly lacrosse but never in this much detail. Its interesting how a thing we treat as a sport to be played for fun was a serious challenge for Native Americans. Overall I really enjoyed this article and found the information presented to be very interesting.

  • My high school had a pickup lacrosse team and I watched a couple games. I remember thinking that the game looked pretty intense and difficult. I can’t imagine the intensity that the early versions of the “game” expressed. History has proven that people are proud of their culture and the things it involved. This article was a very interesting read. I can appreciate the game even more now and I have developed a deeper understanding of the background on Lacrosse.

  • I had heard this before, I think I presented a project about the Iroquois in the 7th grade. I can also remember my lacrosse fase during my freshman year in highschool. What I truly can’t imagine is playing lacrosse with hundreds of players, and along two miles, even one mile. What I will say is that lacrosse is definitely a sport that could easily turn violent, however rules have made it very safe. I wonder why it hasn’t really turned into a big thing if it’s so old, maybe it’s just destined to be among the spectrum of regular sports, I enjoy playing it anyway.

  • I know very little of the sport lacrosse, but to learn how the sport was actually developed is interesting because the last thing I could have imagined was that the sport was created to substitute war in some cases. I knew the sport could be physical, very similar to rugby and football, but death was never in the picture for me when thinking of how intense it could get. To know why it is important to its culture is fascinating because now I can associate what other activities they would partake in, and what the underlying meanings of them are.

  • I have little knowledge on lacrosse, I have family members who grew up playing it but the tradition pretty much died out. It is interesting to see that the native Americans played lacrosse to settle problems, instead of fighting they played a game. There was no bloodshed and no casualties. I feel like this should be implemented in today’s society to solve issues rather than going to war.

  • Lacrosse is one of those obscure sports not many people know about. Before reading this article, I didn’t know Lacrosse came from a mixture of many different Native American cultures. I had seen the sport being played in movies and television and it’s interesting to see how the Native Americans played the sport to train young men for war and even buried people with their lacrosse stick.

  • This was a very interesting article. It was very well put together. I am a bug sports person but when it comes to lacrosse I know very little about it. It is amazing how instead of going into war with many native americans they stayed and played a game. This lacrosse game taught many lessons and created several bridges between tribes. Even if the game was on an intense side there was never a time when the tribes would go against each other off the playing field.

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