Reclaiming the Indigenous roots of lacrosse

For many Indigenous nations across North America, lacrosse is a sacred game. Historian Allan Downey says lacrosse provides a lens through which you can see hundreds of years of history and that the game plays a part in everything from residential schools to reclaiming identities in Indigenous cultures.
Alan Downey playing lacrosse for Mercyhurst University in 2007 (Alan Downey)

Allan Downey, an assistant professor of history at McGill University, says lacrosse touches all aspects of life in many Indigenous cultures and helps explain everything from how the world came to be to self-identity.

His new book 'The Creator's Game: Lacrosse, Identity, and Indigenous Nationhood' charts the history of lacrosse in Indigenous communities and how it's contributed to Indigenous identity formation, including his own.

(UBC Press)

"The game has actually been a central element of Indigenous cultures, identities and world views, in North America for centuries. Each nation had their name for it, their own name for it. Developed their own form of the game, their own stick types. And this is not to say every single Indigenous nation had it. But it was and is widespread across North America and what we know as Turtle Island," says Downey.

The title of the book is a reference to the Haudenosaunee belief that lacrosse was a gift from the Creator. Downey calls himself "incredibly lucky" to have dozens of Haudenosaunee elders, knowledge holders and community members sharing their insights with him while researching and writing the book.  


Downey is Dakelh, from Nak'azdli Whut'en. His community is based in central British Columbia but he was born and raised in Kitchener-Waterloo, where he started playing lacrosse at the age of 10.  

"I really gravitated as an urban Indigenous youth to the fact that I was playing an Indigenous game. This was empowering to me. To be able to play a game that I knew Indigenous people had invented. To know that I was participating in something that was supporting and even encouraging the growth of my identity."

But those positive feelings were sometimes tempered with first hand experience of racism.

"To my teammates, I was one of 'their' kind of Indians. And so I was actually playing the part of the noble savage. Many people have seen this in films. So I was the good Indian, at least to my teammates. And if we played an Indigenous team on the other side, they were in the performance and role of the savage Indian. And this came up a lot," says Downey.

Downey explores how lacrosse was appropriated by non-Indigenous peoples, including administrators of Canada's residential schools, who used it to try to assimilate Indigenous youth.

The attempt ultimately backfired, according to Downey, because Indigenous peoples re-claimed their ancestral game.

He tells the story of Andy Paull, a Squamish man from Vancouver, who learned lacrosse while in a residential school. But Downey says Paull connected to lacrosse as an Indigenous game, not "as a pursuit of Canadian nationalism, as was the intention ." Paull used the sport as an activist, forming teams with political messages, a process Downey suggests has been part and parcel to the history of lacrosse in Indigenous communities. Downey says these political associations eventually lead to the formation of the Iroquois Nationals, a team that competes on the international stage, representing the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.


Despite this reclaiming, Downey points to some glaring instances of racism in North American professional sports, including mascots and team names, as evidence there's still "a long way to go."

"These caricatures and these team names have a significant and detrimental impact on Indigenous youth and how they see themselves and they have a detrimental impact on Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations because it informs those things, even if we're not conscious of it.Generally there is no other group that this would be acceptable for. But why is it acceptable for Indigenous peoples?" says Downey.