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By Catherine Johnson
In May 2014, Lyle and Miles Thompson, members of the men’s lacrosse team at SUNY Albany, became the first co-winners and the first Native Americans to receive the prestigious Tewaaraton trophy, honoring the year’s best college lacrosse player. The ceremony took place at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Thompson brothers were born on an Indian reservation in upstate New York State and are members of the Onondaga Nation.
ProQuest Congressional offers insight into the historic origins of lacrosse as a Native American sport, including traditions specific to the Native American peoples of New York and numerous other places. The U.S. Serial Set contains 19th and 20th century documents which seek to preserve the memory of traditional Native American ball games.
The favorite national game of the Six Nations of New York was a ball game played with a racket, in which victory fell to the tribe or clan, rather than individual players. Two poles were set into each end of the ground, and the contest was for competing members to carry the ball through its own gate a designated number of times. Similar games were played throughout North America. The length of the field varied widely, with 30 yards being typical for the Mohawk Indians. The play began in the center and players were not allowed to touch the ball with hands or feet. The carved wooden rackets, made of flexible wood, are variously described as being somewhere between two feet and eight feet in length, with a netting at one end made out of woven deer hide thongs. The ball used with the racket was made either of wood or buckskin, stuffed with hair. Bets on the outcome were part of the game.
The object of the game appears to have been diversion and the winning of stakes, but many accounts also touch upon a deeper cultural meaning. Jesuit missionaries recorded instances of the playing of the ball game as a remedy for sickness, and many other accounts describe mystical rites and objects associated with the game. The ball game traditions of the East Cherokee people, for example, required that players not only train during ball game season, but also to subject themselves to strict taboos that forbade them from eating rabbit or frog or touching an infant, for fear that those actions would make them weak on the field. The player’s wife was not allowed to touch the ball stick on the evening before the game and, if she did so inadvertently, the stick was considered unfit for use. The penalty for a woman touching a stick could be severe; among some tribes the penalty was death.
Music and dance rituals were also associated with the game. Among the Cherokee, small pieces of bat wing were tied to the rattle used in the ball dance that was performed to ensure victory. The Cherokee uniform of the early 20th century consisted of short red- and blue-patterned trunks, and a feather charm worn on the head.
Lacrosse is just one example of a cultural icon that is thought of as “American,” but which actually originated in Native American traditions. Understanding the origin of the game promotes critical thinking about the role of games in society. Modern-day sports teams engage in behaviors involving training, costumes, and music that could be described as rituals. In college sports, the awarding of a trophy is a victory for individual players, but winning the game is a victory for the college or university and by association, the geographic location where the institution is located.
A careful study of historic congressional documents enriches our ability to understand the role of Native American games in the development of modern team sports, as well as the role of sports in general in today’s society.
Indians, Six Nations of New York: Cayugas, Mohawks (Saint Regis), Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, Tuscaroras, January 01, 1892
Annual report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1903: Report of Director, and paper on games of North American Indians, February 20, 1905
Illustrations from: Annual report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1903: Report of Director, and paper on games of North American Indians, February 20, 1905; pages 636 and 646