The History Of Lacrosse & Its Native American Origin

history of lacrosse

Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in America. It is quick, hard-hitting, and exhilarating. But did you know that lacrosse is the oldest team sport in North America? Surprisingly, most people are unaware of lacrosse’s deep-rooted origins, and how it was played by Native American tribes nearly 1,000 years ago to heal the sick and settle tribal disputes. In this article, we will take a closer look at the history of lacrosse and how it has evolved into exciting sport that it is today.

A “Medicine Game” For Indigenous Cultures

american indian version of lacrosse spanned several miles

Lacrosse is North America’s oldest team sport and originated with Native Americans in as early as 1100 A.D. The game was played amongst Native American communities throughout modern Canada, New York, the Great Lakes, and Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. The Haudenosaunee people (or Iroquois) were first gifted this game over 1,000 years ago from “the Creator“. It was played as a Medicine Game to heal the sick, make peace among nations, and to have fun.

Many First Nations had different names for the game of lacrosse. In Onondaga, they called it dehontsigwaehs, meaning “they bump hips”. In Mohawk, it was called Tewaaraton, meaning “little brother of war” – due to the rugged nature of game.

Rules

Traditionally, lacrosse games could last several days, and were played by upwards of 100 to 1,000 men. They were played on open plain fields often nearing two miles long with no referees.

Due to the deeply-rooted spiritual nature of the game, the fields were often near rivers or streams to facilitate cleaning rituals. Lacrosse was played from sun up to sun down, with no stoppages in-between. The fields were laid out East to West, oriented with the path of the sun.

There were no out of bounds, and players could not pickup the ball with their hands. Instead, they must scoop it with their stick. Originally, the goals were selected before the game as a large rock or tree, but eventually the goal evolved to be wooden posts.

The game began with a ball being tossed into the air and the two sides rushing to catch it (like a jump-ball in basketball). Because of the large swaths of players on each team, the ball would often get swarmed by mobs of players, making it difficult to move the ball upfield quickly.

Rituals

north american indians history of lacrosse

Before a game, players observed a spiritual fast. They would only drink special potions from Medicine Men. Players would decorate their bodies with paint and charcoal (not too distant from eye black designs of today). They’d also decorate their sticks with objects representing qualities they desired in game. Prior to stepping on the field, Medicine Men would perform rituals to prepare players and their sticks. One pregame ceremony included “going to water”, where players dunked their sticks into a stream and received a spiritual and strategic pep talk from the shaman.

Equipment

Lacrosse Ball Origin

Early lacrosse balls were molded out of wood. Some were fashioned out of deerskin and stuffed with hair, typically at 3-inches in diameter.

Lacrosse Stick Origin

Lacrosse was a ceremony game played with a wooden stick, made from the hickory tree – representing all plant life. The stick’s pocket was made from the sinew of deer – representing all animal life. Together, the wooden stick would represent the Native People’s connection to the natural world. The game of lacrosse is designed to connect us to the Earth.

European Influence On Lacrosse

ball games were played near great lakes

The first recorded game of lacrosse took place in 1636, when French Jesuit missionaries observed members of the Mohawk tribe playing a game that resembled field hockey. The Jesuits were so impressed by the game that they began to play it themselves. Lacrosse then spread to other parts of North America as more and more people were exposed to it.

In the 1630’s, the French missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, coined the name “la-crosse” because they thought the stick looked like a crozier or cross that bishops carried. They also changed the Haudenosaunee name to the “Iroquois” as the game began to take a new shape.

200 years later, Canada declared lacrosse as its national sport. Victorian Canadiens stated that “lacrosse should be viewed as a symbolic torch passed from the noble savages of primitive Canada to modern, progressive gentlemen of a nation-state.” Lacrosse was becoming distanced from its native roots and intentions.

College Lacrosse Origin

College lacrosse was born when Manhattan College and NYU played the first game in 1877. By the 20th century, many high schools, colleges, and universities had adopted lacrosse as a league sport. In the 1950’s, legendary athlete Jim Brown played lacrosse for Syracuse University, and is still widely regarded as one of the best players of all time.

Traditionally, college lacrosse took place in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. As “grow the game” became a popular rallying cry amongst the lacrosse community, the sport has seen its geographically footprint expand in 21st century; with hotbeds in places like Denver, Dallas, San Francisco Bay Area, and the Pacific Northwest.

Box Lacrosse Origin

In the 1930’s, an indoor version of the game was introduced in Canada known as box lacrosse. It rapidly became the prominent form of lacrosse in Canada due to the severe, cold weather that made it difficult to play outdoors.

Professional Lacrosse League Origin

In 1987, the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League was the first professional lacrosse league ever founded. It eventually became the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, and then the National Lacrosse League (NLL). In 2001, Major League Lacrosse (MLL), the first professional outdoor league was founded. After two decades of limited growth, the MLL was absorbed by the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), a new league which offered players more pay, health insurance, and equity in the league.

Modern Lacrosse

women's lacrosse players ball play

Lacrosse is now played all over the world, with leagues in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, England, and Japan. Although lacrosse isn’t considered a “mainstream” sport yet, it is rapidly growing at the youth and high school level, with programs emerging all over the world. Lacrosse was the fastest growing collegiate sport from 2003 to 2018.

The modern game is played with more equipment than in the past, with gear such as:

Even with fast-paced growth at the youth level, the MLL (Major League Lacrosse) struggled to capture the momentum of the sport and increase attendance numbers. Seeking to revamp and modernize the game at the professional level, Paul Rabil and Mike Rabil started the PLL (Premier Lacrosse League), pooled together an A-grade team of investors, and built a league with mainstream television rights on NBC and ESPN. The PLL continues to innovate with a cutting-edge social media strategy that soaring lacrosse viewership to new heights.

FAQ

Where did lacrosse originate?

Lacrosse is North America’s oldest team sport and originated with the Haudenosaunee Native Americans in 1100 A.D. in what is modern day upstate New York.

When was the first lacrosse game played?

It is believed lacrosse was played by the Native Americans from as early as 1100 A.D. The first recorded game of lacrosse took place in 1636, when French Jesuit missionaries observed members of the Mohawk tribe playing lacrosse for the first time.

The name of lacrosse is of what origin?

The name of lacrosse comes from the French. In the 1630’s, the French missionaries coined the name “la-crosse” because they thought the stick looked like a crozier or cross that bishops carried.

Wrap Up

sport played for north american religious reasons

Lacrosse is a fascinating sport with a long and rich history. Although it has evolved over time, it is important to remember lacrosse’s Native American roots. This was a highly spiritual game that was played with honor, respect, and deep meaning. Remember to play it that way.

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