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5 cool facts about the Indigenous origins of lacrosse

 

Mekwan Tulpin, a Cree from Fort Albany First Nation, is helping coach Team Ontario lacrosse. (CBC)

So you think you know all there is to know about lacrosse, Canada's official summer sport? Maybe you even play the sport yourself. But I bet we’ve got some facts about the Indigenous history of the sport that you’ve never heard before!

What is lacrosse?

 the Kahnawà:ke lacrosse team from Montreal, Quebec, 1876

Indigenous lacrosse teams have been playing competitively for a very long time. These players were from the Kahnawà:ke lacrosse team from Montreal, Quebec, 1876. (public domain)

Lacrosse is an action-packed, fast-paced sport played with ten players per men's team or twelve on a women’s team. The players use sticks with nets on the end to throw a ball to each other, moving up the field to score on a goal at the end of the field.

They call it the fastest sport on two feet!

Where did lacrosse come from?

Painting by Charles Deas, young Sioux warriors play lacrosse in 1843.

There are no photos from 500 years ago, but there are paintings. In this one by Charles Deas, young Sioux warriors play lacrosse in 1843. (public domain)

No one really knows who invented lacrosse. But we do know that First Nations people first played it all across Canada over 500 years ago. Each nation had their own version of the sport but they all played it to thank the Great Spirit — called Gichi-manidoo in Anishinaabe — for the life and gifts they had been given. Lacrosse was played for fun, as part of festivals, to settle tribal differences or to prepare warriors for hunting and battle.

Why is it called lacrosse?

Drawing of an original lacrosse stick from

Drawing of an original lacrosse stick from "Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada." (public domain)

Before it was called lacrosse, the Algonquin called the sport baggataway and the Iroquois called it tewaarathon. Legend has it that it was named lacrosse by French settlers who thought that the stick looked like the staff carried by their Bishops at church, called a crozier. In French, the crozier is called a crosse. The settlers watched the Indigenous people playing their game and called it “la crosse.”

How did the First Nations people play lacrosse?

In a lithograph by artist George Catlin, he shows Indigenous lacrosse players holding sticks made of wood with sinew nets at the top.

In a lithograph by artist George Catlin, he shows Indigenous lacrosse players holding sticks made of wood with sinew nets at the top. (Public Domain)

Lacrosse was originally played with a wooden ball, which was upgraded to a ball made of deerskin and stuffed with fur. The wooden sticks were topped with a net made of deer sinew.
 

In a painting by George Catlin, he shows how a Choctaw lacrosse game in 1834 had hundreds of players on the field at the same time.

In a painting by George Catlin, he shows how a Choctaw lacrosse game in 1834 had hundreds of players on the field at the same time. (Public Domain)

Instead of a ten-player team playing a one-hour game, originally there was no set number of players. Rumour has it there were games where up to 1,000 players from many villages would participate over a period of many days. The field length changed to suit whatever area was available. Instead of the current length of 100 metres, the field could be 460 metres or many kilometres long. Lacrosse games were huge events! Although women didn't participate in these games, they did have their own version called amtahcha, which had shorter sticks.

The tale of Mong the loon and Kaikak the hawk

Lacrosse isn't just a cool sport, it's also a very important part of Indigenous culture. According to an Ojibwa legend — Why Birds go South in Winter — lacrosse also plays a special role in nature. The legend goes like this:
 

a loon

Long ago, there was only summer. The days were always warm and sunny. Winter and snow were unknown. Mong the loon was no different than the other young birds. He played all their games. But most of all, he loved to play lacrosse. The trouble was that his friends didn't always want to play lacrosse.
 

a hawk

Mong decided to challenge the other birds to a match. No birds wanted to play except Kaikak the hawk. But Mong's team lost all the matches and bets he made with Kaikak. His penalty for losing? Every year after that, the north wind brought the cold winter and Mong and his friends had to fly to the south. If Mong had not been so eager to play lacrosse, winter would never had come. (From CBC Archives)
 

cover of Tales the Elders ToldYou can read the whole story and more stories like it in the book Tales the Elders Told: Ojibway Legends (Basil H. Johnston), which you can probably find at your local library.