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Lacrosse, originally an Indigenous game called baggataway

The Story

It's a sport with a rich and fascinating heritage dating back centuries. Lacrosse, derived from the Native game of baggataway, was Canada's most popular sport before ice hockey came along. In this CBC Radio clip from Over The Hill, Miller Stewart examines the history of the sport, taking listeners on a journey back in time to when North American Native people first played it, through the late 1800s when the game flourished, to today's modern game. 

Medium: Radio
Program: Over the Hill
Broadcast Date: June 26, 1964
Host: Miller Stewart
Duration: 12:49
Photo: James Inglis/National Archives of Canada/C-001959

Did You know?

• Considered the original game, baggataway (also called tewaarathon) was known as 'The Creator's Game'. First Nations people believe the game was given to them by the Creator to play for his amusement. It was a recreational sport that also was used as a means of training young warriors for battle. The game also settled disputes between feuding tribes.

• According to some sources, when French colonists arrived in Canada during the 17th century, they saw Mohawk playing baggataway. They adopted the game themselves and renamed it la crosse. The French thought the standard lacrosse sticks (with its wooden shaft and twisted elm bark webbing) resembled the shepherd's crook, a crosier carried by bishops.

• "There is a long history of speculation about where the game of Lacrosse originated, but as Natives of North America, this question has little significance. We do not wonder who invented Lacrosse, or when and where; our ancestors have been playing the game for centuries — for the Creator." — from Tewaarathon, Akwasasne's Story of Our Indian National Game, 1978.

• Montreal dentist William George Beers is considered the father of lacrosse. He formed the Montreal Lacrosse Club in 1856 (one of the first non-Indigenous clubs in Canada) and introduced a standardized set of rules that govern the modern game, including: replacing a hair-stuffed deerskin ball with an india rubber ball, standardizing the dimensions of the field, regulating the size of the team at 12, and devising the names of the positions, as well as much of the strategy and tactics of the game.

• Lacrosse was Canada's most popular sport during the 1800s, with games regularly drawing crowds of over 5,000 fans (sometimes 10,000 in larger cities). In 1867 there were 80 teams in Canada and by 1893 every province boasted a handful of lacrosse clubs.

• There are three forms of modern lacrosse: box lacrosse, field lacrosse and inter-lacrosse. Box lacrosse is played indoors on a standard-sized floor (usually in hockey arenas), while field lacrosse is played outdoors on a 100m x 55m field. Inter-lacrosse is played indoors and is the most recent incarnation of the game. In this non-contact version, players use a moulded plastic stick and a softer ball. It's generally used in recreational and school leagues for young children.

• Box lacrosse, also known as boxla, was popularized in the 1930s. With hockey's popularity soaring at the time, promoters wanted to keep their arenas full of fans during the summer off-season. Thus, the marriage of Canada's two most popular sports — hockey and field lacrosse — into box lacrosse.

• Pierre Trudeau and Lester B. Pearson played lacrosse during their youth. Star athletes from other sports who played lacrosse include NHL legends Wayne Gretzky, Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Lionel Conacher and Conn Smythe, NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, and Jim Thorpe — considered one of the greatest all-around athletes of the 20th century.




Lacrosse: A History of Canada's Game more