When the first people of America started playing lacrosse centuries ago, the game served many purposes. It was played to amuse the Creator, to train young men for war, and to settle disputes between tribes. The game was played by tribes in all parts of the United States and Canada; it was played by the Mexican Kickapoo in Texas, the Seminole in Florida, the Bungi in Manitoba, the Cherokee in Tennessee, and the Passamaquoddy in Maine. The game was called Baggattaway, meaning they bump hips by the Algonquin tribe, and Tewaarathon, meaning little brother of war, by the Iroquois tribe.
In the earliest times of American Indian lacrosse, the game had few rules, if any. Lacrosse games would last for days, stopping at sunset and continuing the next day at sunrise. The fields had no boundaries, and goals were usually between 500 yards to a half-mile apart, though sometimes they were several miles apart. The goals were usually marked by a single tree or a large rock, and points were scored by hitting it with the ball. There were no limitations on the number of players on a team, and often there would be as many as one thousand players in a lacrosse game at the same time.
A Dakota lacrosse game by Charles Deas
Because there were no rules and players did not wear any protective equipment or even shoes, injuries to players were severe and occurred often. As one French explorer described the game, "Almost everything short of murder is allowable."
The game was especially violent when used as an alternative to war to settle intertribal disputes. One example was a game between the Creek and Choctaw tribes in 1790. This game, which was to determine which tribe had the rights to a beaver pond, broke out into a violent battle after the Creeks were declared the winners of the game. Because of the massive attack and the savage play, lacrosse truly was the little brother of war.
The game also had important religious value to Native Americans. Especially in the Iroquois tribe, lacrosse was played to please the Creator, whom the Natives worshipped. Although the Natives were for the most part polytheistic, the Creator to whom the Iroquois referred is likely the divine leader Deganawidah, who, according to Iroquois legend, united the Six Nations of Iroquois in the 15th or 16th century.
For many Natives, a lacrosse competition was a ceremonial replay of the Creation story and of the constant struggle between good and evil. The Natives believed that team selection and victory were supernaturally controlled. The game was also played for other spiritual reasons, such as to bring good weather, to honor the deceased, or to cure the sick. As Tony Gray, captain of the 1998 Iroquois National Team says, "We play because we believe it will please the Creator, and he will then help the sick person."
Whether for war or spiritual purposes, there were different types of lacrosse played by Native American tribes. Types of sticks used varied in the southeastern, the Great Lakes, and the northeastern regions. The southeastern tribes played a double-stick version of the game. In this variation, a 30-inch stick was held in each hand by a player, and the ball was cupped between them. The Great Lakes tribes played the game with each player using a single three-foot stick. This type of stick had a pocket about three to four inches in diameter only slightly larger than the ball. The northeastern tribes used a stick from which the present version of the lacrosse stick was derived. This stick was more than three feet long and its major difference from other sticks used by Native American tribes was that it had a large triangular pocket which took up two-thirds the length of the shaft (much more information on the stick craft is available in the E-Lacrosse Native American section).
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