The Creator’s Game: Native American Culture and Lacrosse

Sioux Playing Ball | Charles Deas | Oil on Canvas 1843 | Courtesy of  Wikimedia
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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This Post Has 88 Comments

  1. Kendall Guajardo

    Awesome article! I never knew the origins of lacrosse from the name to even its cultural influence. I have seen time and time again that Native Americans have such a rich history and to know that the game was so different for many different tribes is really interesting. We can even now study the way the sport has evolved from its roots and took on a different meaning to many different types of people today. I understand that now it is predominantly a sport that has transcended to different countries more so but I never knew that Native Americans made it. Very insightful to see such a great influence from Native American to different countries throughout the world. Who would have known a mediation tool would become so popular?

  2. David Castaneda Picon

    This is a great article, and a very interesting story. I was not very familiar with this sport until I came to this country. However, it amazes me the story that goes behind this sport called Lacrosse, it is very intriguing how this game is very ancient and how has been changing over time, nowadays this sport is just played for fun but is incredible how in the past Lacrosse was used to train warriors among other interesting things.

  3. Berenice Alvarado

    It is amazing to know that lacrosse wasn’t only a game to the Native Americans. And even though now it was lost it’s meaning I thank this article for teaching me that this game once had a meaning to people. I remember watching an old movie which was about how Aztecs would fight by playing soccer. I know it isn’t the same game but which ever team that lost would get sacrificed to their God. And I thought it was ridiculous but also crazy how much meaning these games had before.

  4. Raul Colunga

    It is fascinating to learn that the game of lacrosse originated from Native Americans. Also, the scale of the game compared to what it is now is massive. It is crazy to think that a thousand people can participate in a game. It is interesting that the Creator’s Game was used to deal with disputes rather than going to war.

  5. Sara Guerrero

    This story reminds me of another story I saw about Cricket and African Tribes playing the game and is believed that Europeans got Cricket from them. The most interesting part was that these Native American tribes like you said for instance the Iroquois played this game and it had a religious purpose for them and it was meaningful. I didn’t know the history behind it and this publication shows that New Historicism perspective.

  6. Michael Thompson

    I really like this article and the back story behind the game. There are not many other sports who have the same rich history and cool backstory the Lacrosse does. I think it’s amazing that in some cases, instead of going to war, they would just play Lacrosse instead. It would be amazing if today, instead of war, we could just play a sport of some sort and fight it out that way. That way lives wouldn’t be lost, or at the very least destroyed. The Iroquois had the right idea.

  7. Jake Mares

    Great article! I think its interesting how Natives were able to make equipment to play with from animals. Today, we have all sorts of manufacturing devices, but they only had their hands. Also, using a sport to train warriors does not seem like a bad idea at all as it tests endurance and coordination.

  8. Cassandra Sanchez

    I never knew the origins of Lacrosse and it was interesting to learn that it came from the native American tribes. I can only imagine how intense the games were back then when it was used to settle disputes instead of going to war. Nowadays this sport is just played for fun and leisure so it is sad to see how the significance behind it has been lost.

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