University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

“When the Sap Starts Running in the Spring, the Blood Starts Running in Our Men”

April 25, 2014

Probably one of the fastest growing games in the world, it seems that everyone wants to play lacrosse. The Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee will field a team at the World Outdoor Championship Games to be played this summer in Denver (July 9-19). In 2015 they will host 16-18 countries competing in the Indoor Box Lacrosse League on their home turf near Syracuse, New York. Their boys will be on the field with their flag, their anthem, and their colors against USA, Canada, and England, all those good old boys they have known for 500 years.

Oren Lyons at the Penn Museum in April 2014.
Oren Lyons at the Penn Museum in April 2014.

Oren Lyons, the Honorary Chairman of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, and world renowned advocate for Native American and indigenous peoples around the globe, presented the 2014 Annual Elizabeth Watts and Howard C. Petersen Lecture at the Penn Museum last week as the inaugural guest speaker for our new exhibition – Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now. He explained that there are two kinds of lacrosse – games for fun, and games for healing, both called Deyhontsigwa’ehs (translated roughly from the Iroquois language as “we bump hips”). He spoke eloquently about the less familiar, medicine game and its sacred role in the community today.

Oren Lyons spoke to the Penn men's lacrosse team and Coach Mike Murphy on Franklin Field.
Mr. Lyons spoke to the Penn lacrosse team on Franklin Field before his lecture at the Penn Museum.

In the Spring we have a ceremony. We open it when the sap begins to move in the maple, generally in February. Maple is the leading tree of our cosmology. When that sap starts to move, the blood starts to move in our men, and they are getting ready for the game. The game is open now. When the sap finishes running we will close that ceremony.”

Holding a 170 year old Cayuga lacrosse stick in Penn Museum’s collection, he offered…“So this stick was made for somebody. I have no idea who, but somebody was not well and they called for a game. When that happens, when you call for a game, immediately it will go to a leader and an elder who will call in a speaker who will announce that we have a game. The word will go out to the players, and the community goes into full action. The women have a great deal to do with this game – they handle the feast side of it. If you are having a game for someone it will be a feast and a spiritual event. Everything has to be made that day including the ball. So you put the word out. We usually play 3, the first to 3 goals wins, and that’s the old style. No referees, no whistles, no nothing. You play fair, and you play hard. The harder you play the better it is for the person you are playing for. You represent the spiritual side of things. Everyone who picks up a stick is moving into a spiritual arena – our people love that medicine game. We played about 18 games last year at Onondaga.”

Cayuga medicine stick, ca. 1840, Six Nations, Ontario.
Cayuga medicine stick, ca. 1840, Six Nations, Ontario. The stick is carved of hickory and laced with rawhide. Penn Museum 53-1-17.

Cayuga wooden stick handle showing clasped hands.
Cayuga medicine stick handle showing clasped hands and ball.

This stick here, I saw sometime back around 1998 when we were looking at your Museum and at what you had in your collections and I saw this. It’s from 1840, not that old, but I saw it was a medicine stick – made for somebody who called for a game. I know because it has a ball here at this end, and I looked at the handshake, and I knew it was made for somebody. And if you look at it, it looks a little different that those used today. This was designed for big fields. I made a stick like this just to see what it was for, and I found out you could throw 150-200 yards with this – it was designed for lonnnng fields. Today the fields are short and sticks are short, designed for short passes…So this was made for somebody. I have no idea who, but somebody was not well and they called for a game…Before the game they build a fire and speak on behalf of the person it is for and all the players lay their stick on the fire and he will talk about why this game and why this tree is involved, why this lacing which represents all the animals in this world, how they serve the people and their duties. This is about the responsibility we have for this earth. Because this is representing the spiritual side. When the game is over the ball is the medicine – you don’t know where it’s going. You do your best to get it in the net or the goal. But the ball is the medicine and it is made that day from the leather of the deer. When the game is over, the ball is given to the person and they become part now of the society. They have a responsibility for the next person that is coming, the next person who asks.

So that’s what this stick was for. I don’t know the person it was for, but at one time it served a very strong purpose for an individual.”

Listen to Mr. Lyons’ entire lecture here

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