April 5, 2005

History of Native American Lacrosse

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When the athletes of the women’s lacrosse team head to Syracuse tonight, they will go along land that the Iroquois Confederacy once farmed. They will play where the Onondaga once gathered their annual harvest. And when they return to Cornell, they will come back to where the Cayuga once hunted and kept fires in the cold winter.

So maybe it’s appropriate that the team plays an Iroquois sport.

The history of Native American lacrosse goes back many centuries. Indians were playing lacrosse long before Europeans arrived, and they competed with remarkable intensity. Games went on for days, and hundreds of men would participate. The playing field could be over a mile long.

The Mohawk — one of the Iroquois tribes — called the sport “Tewaaraton,” or “the little brother of war.” In fact, that name can still be heard today, as the annual Tewaaraton Trophy honors the best college lacrosse player in America.

The sport was played throughout the Eastern Woodlands and the upper Midwest. The Cherokee played in the southeast, and the Fox played in the Great Lakes region. But the Iroquois — who live in New York and Canada — remain the most famous group to play lacrosse.

The sport was more than just a Native pastime. Lacrosse helped bring together the allied Iroquois tribes. A game was a spiritual event, and maybe even a political one.

There was a famous Seneca-Mohawk game, in 1794, that has been described by Smithsonian researcher Thomas Vennum, Jr., among other historians.

The Seneca and the Mohawk — two tribes of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy — were going through a difficult period in their history. Not only was the new American nation eager to move onto their land, but the two powerful tribal leaders had a great dislike for each other.

The Mohawk leader thought a lacrosse game would help bring the tribes together. It would remind them of their alliance, and their common heritage.

And so the Seneca — who lived west of Ithaca — traveled into Mohawk country, which is north of Albany. But the game did not help bring about tribal unity. One Mohawk player broke the ancient rules, getting into a violent fight with a Seneca. The event would actually damage the tribal relationship for a few years.

And yet, the two tribes would reconcile, helped by a rematch game on Seneca land. That’s how important lacrosse was to the original inhabitants of upstate New York.

Indeed, the Iroquois — who call themselves Haudenosaunee, or “people building a longhouse” — did not view lacrosse as a mere game. The sport was a connection to nature, to the spiritual world, and to the past.

It was also a symbol of war. In fact, Vennum believes that the lacrosse stick evolved from the Indian war club.

Lacrosse was played in different forms throughout the east. But, the Iroquois version had the most influence on modern lacrosse.

Whites started to play lacrosse by the 19th century, adopting it from the Iroquois. Canada was actually the first country where non-Indians actively played. New rules were developed, and the centuries-old game was “civilized” by whites. Club teams were started, and some squads even traveled to England to demonstrate the sport.

You can probably figure out the rest of the story. The Canadian amateur sports union would soon ban many Indian teams, claiming “professionalism” among the tribes. Although Indian clubs would sometimes charge money to raise travel funds, the underlying reason for the ban was racism. Soon, modern field lacrosse would develop at U.S. colleges — and Native Americans weren’t included in the university ranks.

Yet, lacrosse would survive among the Natives. The Iroquois continued to play in upstate New York and in Canada. And now, more and more people have become aware of their contribution to lacrosse.

Today, the best Iroquois players compete on a team called the Iroquois Nationals. Despite the small size of the Iroquois population, the team is able to compete at the highest level of play.

The Nationals have played at the World Lacrosse Championships since 1990. They are the only Native team to be recognized by an international sports federation.

They play a game originated by their ancestors so many years ago. And it’s a version of that same sport — “the little brother of war” — that will be played by the women’s lacrosse team tonight in Syracuse.

And it’s that same sport which Tewaaraton Trophy candidates Sean Greenhalgh and Joe Boulukos, will play next Tuesday, when the men’s team also heads to Syracuse.

And so when the Red and the Orange meet under the bright lights of the Carrier Dome, we should remember that they are playing a truly ancient sport — one with meaning far beyond that of a simple game.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times will appear every other Tuesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman