C/O Yoohyun Park
While lacrosse may be a game many Canadians are familiar with, its history often goes unnoticed
In 1994, by the National Sports of Canada Act, lacrosse was officially declared as the national summer sport of Canada. The term lacrosse came about in 1636 when French missionary, Jean de Brebeuf, compared the stick they played with to a bishop’s crozier, or la crosse. However, the game has existed for centuries, originally played by Indigenous tribes across North America, referred to as stickball, The Creator’s Game, Baggataway by the Algonquin and Tewaaraton by the Iroquois, both of which translate to “little brother of war.”
The Creator’s Game was an essential part of Indigenous culture and religion. This name came from the idea that lacrosse was gifted to the people by the Creator, the being responsible for creating everything on earth. As such, the game was used by the Iroquois to teach lessons, for instance, that everyone has struggles and that the key to survival is friends and allies.
The other name, “little brother of war,” stems from the Iroquois using the game as a way to train young men to be warriors and to settle disputes without going to war. The game could include anywhere between 100 and 1,000 players at a time, playing until the predetermined number of points were achieved by one team. The game was vicious, injuring players with cuts, broken bones and the occasional death.
Indigenous lacrosse was played with three to five foot long sticks made of wood and the netting was made of dried out animal hide. Alf Jacques is an Onondaga Turtle Clan lacrosse stick carver. Jacques explains the significance of the wooden stick in an interview with The Equinox.
“You make that stick from nature. That’s a living piece of wood that you make that out of. The energy of that living tree then transfers to the player,” explained Jacques.
This fits with the Iroquois culture and belief that, when a man dies, his lacrosse stick is buried with him. The first thing he does when waking up in the afterlife is to take the stick and begin playing.
However, after the Indigenous people were colonized and assimilated into Canadian culture, so was the game of lacrosse. In 1834, a group from the Caughnawaga tribe demonstrated the game in the city of Montreal. In 1856, Canadian dentist, Dr. William George Beers, founded the Montreal Lacrosse Club and ten years later came up with an adjusted set of rules for the game including a rubber ball and newly designed stick.
Allan Downey (Dakelh, Nak’azdli Whut’en) is a McMaster professor in the department of history within the Indigenous studies program. His first book, The Creator’s Game: Lacrosse, Identity and Indigenous Nationhood, traces the history of lacrosse in Indigenous communities and demonstrates how lacrosse is an example of the appropriation, then reclamation, of Indigenous identities.
In his book, Downey describes why he played lacrosse, but also the inherent appropriation he recognized within the game.
The book examines the process through which identity is created, articulated and the transformation within Indigenous communities as they continue to play their sport and maintain it as an Indigenous game amongst external and internal challenges.
While lacrosse is a sport that may sometimes be overlooked in mainstream media, it is important to recognize its Indigenous roots and reflect on how Indigenous culture has shaped the Canadian landscape. There is still much to learn and many inherent biases to recognize and put aside as we work to reconcile the past and create an equitable future.