Political Organization in North America as Reflected in Athletic Competition

By: Marshall Joseph Becker

Originally Published in 1985

View PDF


The increasing popularity of lacrosse on college playing fields and in other schools and clubs throughout North Amer­ica reflects the renewed interest in a vigorous sport which is native to this continent. A review of the ori­gins of this fast moving competition offers us some insight into the lives of the people who introduced the sport to the European immigrants. Just as interesting is what this information reveals about those native peoples who did not play lacrosse, or any other sport of this kind.

Origins and Early Descriptions

Lacrosse or bagataway (from Ojibwa pagaadowecin) a complex team sport first noted by Europeans in 1662, may have evolved with the formation of the league of the Iro­quois (Five Nations) in the late 1500s. The Five Nations people (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes) have from that time until fairly recently been the best known players of this game. Originally, lacrosse was played with a stick with a bent or hooked end (see Fig. 2a, right), which the Europeans thought resembled a shepherd’s crook or a bishop’s cro­zier. The latter analogy led to the sport being named “la crosse” by the French.

Although the sport may have been over 100 years old before Nicholas Perrot wrote his first im­portant description in 1662 (see Perrot 1911). we have no direct ev­idence of its existence prior to that date. Perrot provided several de­scriptions of the game during the period from 1662 to 1669. and Wulff (1977:16) notes that an Abbe Fer­land and later a Monsieur La Honton (17031 provided comple­mentary descriptions of these con­tests (see Converse 1908:145).

The Game: Then and Now

The stick or crosse used to play bagataway, according to the earliest descriptions, was generally of heavy hickory, with tight or taut webbing. The rawhide laces of this network may have helped to form or main­tain the bend in the stick. This ten­sion in the webbing (which was greater than that of the modern crosse) meant that a player could hit the ball, as in tennis, or use the crosse to stop the ball before picking it up again with the webbed end. The wooden ball formerly used in play was noted as being shaped more like a turkey’s egg than round.

Playing, field size was agreed upon by the competing teams in these early contests. The first ac­counts mention sizes ranging from 500 to 600 paces up to 1.5 miles (2.5 km.) in length. The two teams were equal in size, but team size could vary with the number of players available. Teams as large as 1,000 were reported and, if accurate, must reflect the size of the adult male population of an entire Five Nations village, although some early ac­counts suggest that women often were included on these teams.

In these early competitions the number of goals needed to win a game also seems to have varied, being decided by the teams before play. This decision often resulted in the game continuing for days until the needed number of goals had been reached by one team. In these cases play would be ended at dark, but would begin anew the following morning. The concept of limited pe­riods of play appears to have been put into practice only in the early 19th century.

The playing season for the orig­inal game began in the spring and lasted until harvest time, corre­sponding with the period when most of the members of these tribes would have been resident within or nearby their fortified villages. Quite probably the winter season, when the hunting of’ deer and other game was critical, was also the period of conducting raids against people with whom these athletes did not play bagataway.

By 1800 a number ofchanges had taken place, leading the sport to­ ward its modern form. The number of players dropped from the hundreds down to as few as dozen on each team. although larger numbers were still participating in inter-village competitions. The size of the playing field decreased. and all the equipment began to approach its present form. Crosses of lighter wood generally were preferred to the heavy hickory stick.

“Rule-book Lacrosse”

Beginning about 1840, European immigrants became addicted to la­crosse, and it is now the national summer sport in Canada. Rule books were printed and by 1880 every piece of equipment was em mercially available (McNaught Lacrosse Emporium on West King Street in Toronto offered good sticks at under $1.00 each but single-netted, real “Gibson” Grand River Sticks sold for up to $1.75.) Since the 1880s, international competitions have been held, and lacrosse was an early addition during the development of the modern Olympic games.

The present-day crosse is a short hickory shaft about 3 to 4 feet long (1-1.3 in.), with one end perma­nently bent after steaming or soaking the wood. The crosse may be of any length, but cannot exceed 1 foot (30.5 cm.) in width. A thong is run from the tip of the bent end to a point on the shaft 2 or 3 feet (60 to 90 cm.) from the base. Attached to this roughly triangular area is a loose webbing of rawhide or gut, with the mesh woven close enough not to entrap the ball. The mesh on a modern Crosse cannot form a pocket so deep as to make it difficult for an opponent to dislodge the ball. A recent introduction is the molded-head stick, with a plastic head at­tached to a metal shaft (see Fig. 4). The ball must be of sponge rubber, 5 to 5 1/4 ounces in weight (ca. 150 g.) and 7 3/4 to 8 inches (9.70 to 10.30 cm.) in diameter.

Ten players from each team. Playing fields now vary from 60 to 70 yards (55- 64 m.) in width. and are generally 110 yards (100 in.) in length. The two goals face each other at 80 yards (73 in.) apart. The object of the modern game is to score as often as possible during the playing time. Each game is divided into four periods of 15 minutes each. Speed characterizes the action. While protection from rough action is essential, padding and defensive equipment are held to a minimum to allow the most speed and agility during play.

In many respects the lacrosse played today by women is more similar to the original game as played by Native Americans. The women’s game began around 1900 in England and was brought to America by women sports instruc­tors soon after. By 1912 Sargent Col­lege in Boston and Sweet Briar in Virginia had active teams. Whereas men play four quarters and have nu­merous substitutions as well as clearly bounded fields, the women play for two periods with no substi­tutions (except for serious injury), and have an unbounded playing field. This “open” game has few rules, continuous flow, and players often take the ball wide or deep to achieve tactical advantage. The main variation from the original sport (and men’s lacrosse) is that in women’s lacrosse, players are not al­lowed body contact, nor can they use their sticks against the bodies of their opponents.

Traditional Lacrosse Today

Those who know lacrosse as a game seldom understand how inte­gral it is to each of the cultures of the Six Nations (the Five Nations plus the Tuscarora tribe) and to others who participate in the com­petition or ritual. Lacrosse plays a major role in the life of these people to this day, in addition to being one of the “healing sports.” The person to be healed does not compete, but a game held in his/her honor brings vitality back to the spirit turd heals the body. Sympathetic magic may be the label given by anthropolo­gists, but the results can provide the gift of life to an ill person. Not only is individual prowess demonstrated in these modern matches. but cul­tural identity is reaffirmed. “With­out lacrosse,” says Oren R. Lyons (Jo-Ag-Qi is-Ho. Onondaga Nation ), “the Six Nations would have with­ered and dried and blown away” (personal communication, 1985).

This year Lyons reports that an Iroquois Nation lacrosse team has been formed to participate in inter­national competitions. since the most vigorous players of lacrosse may well be the, members of the Six Nations (see Eyman 1964). When these teams compete, the action “leaves blood on the floor.”

Functions in Antiquity

Various authors (Converse 1908 Speck 1945, 1949) have described the political and social purposes served by the lacrosse competitions which were held between members of the Five Nations, as well as with other nearby cultures. (The Five Nations occupied territory in what is now south central New York State.) Speck also mentions the me­dicinal (curative) aspects of this “ritual” sport (1949:117-119), and Wallace points out that prior to the death of the Seneca prophet Hand­some Lake, his people held “a game of lacrosse in his honor” (1972:319). This seems to have been an attempt to deal with his depressed mental state rather than his physical health.

Among many people of the eastern Woodland tribes, a single object, such as a smoking pipe, can have a number of conceptual transformations. The lacrosse stick ap­pears to have been referred to as a “ball club” or as a “netted ball club” (Curtin 1921:379; Wulff 1977:20­21). This may relate to the wooden ball-headed war clubs also used among the cultures of this area Fig. 5). In these clubs the ball, which is positioned at right angles to the shaft like the crook of a lacrosse stick. is generally carved with a lace to represent a head (Becker 1980). Conceptually the ban/head flies off the handle to strike the enemy. In addition, in Seneca folklore the use of human heads as lacrosse balls must be connected to the idea of a “flying head” and heads in general as part of the game. This suggests a transformation in the minds of the Seneca from the idea of a ball-headed (“war”) club to a lacrosse stick (see Fig. 3a), and explains much of the symbolism that Wulff has suggested as relating lacrosse to warfare (1977:21).

Insights into Native American Political Organization

Studies of the Lenape of south­eastern Pennsylvania. their neigh­bors across the Delaware River in New Jersey, and the Munsee of the Upper Delaware River drainage re­veal no evidence of their participa­tion in lacrosse or any such related team sport. The few pastimes noted in the ethnographic literature as re­lating to these people only refer to highly individualized competitions (two people). or to group activities quite distinct from team sports such as lacrosse.

Lacrosse appears to have been played only by members of cultures where village clusters existed, and where population densities ex­ceeded those of the foraging Lenape. The political interrelation­ships among the Five Nations,

where the sport has always been best known. as well as among the various members of the Huron-Neutral league, were strengthened or reaffirmed through their athletic competition (Wulff 1977). The hard fought pones themselves served as a ‘peaceful’ means by whicb mem­bers of the individual teams. whether kin groups or nations. could vent their personal or group hostilities against their athletic ‘Toes. while maintaining their po­litical alliances. These violent com­petitions. in which broken bones were common and death not at all infrequent (Converse 1908:145­1461. provided a structured and for­malized pattern of aggression which held the potential for damage to a minimum. The solidarity built up among the competitors helped to create a larger group or unit that acted as a single political force. To­gether. they could withstand assault from without or launch raids into the territories of people not in their “league.” hi an athletic as well as political sense. A variation of this form of political affiliation and inter­action also must have existed among the proto-states and states of Meso­america (see Jones’s article in this issue). serving to cement alliances and facilitate interactions.

Not surprisingly the Seneca. the westernmost of the Five Nations, seem to have been the most active of the people involved in early la­crosse competition, for they were the “keepers of the western door. From this position they met the threat of peoples from the northwest and southwest and led the attacks on their many foes, such as the Sus­quehannock. At home their physical and strategic skills were honed with the game of lacrosse.

The smaller groups of Lenape, Munsee. and people like them could not compete in these athletic or military actiyities except in a lim­ited way (Becker 1983). With sparse populations, peoples such as the Lenape were concerned with searching for the basic resources needed for survival and with ways to accommodate their more pow­erful neighbors. Working as individ­uals linked to others only by kin­ship, the Lenape made their way in the world without the complex sporting activities needed by and characteristic of people such as those united into the Five Nations Confederacy.

Team competition is one of the leg­acies of these Native Americans least often noted in reviewing our heritage. From lacrosse to pokla­pok in Central America, the larger indigenous American societies real firm their identity by fielding teams to compete against people from an­other cultural group. Ancient Greek athletic events generally were indi­vidual competitions, while ancient American sports quite often were team activities.

Cite This Article

Becker, Marshall Joseph. "Lacrosse." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 2 (August, 1985): -. Accessed July 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to