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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 20, 2004 - Issue 109


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Lacrosse Gains Popularity on North Coast


"The game of Lacrosse has been a mainstay among the Haudenosaunee. The first purpose of the game is spiritual. It is a medicine game to be played upon request of any individual, clan, nation or the Confederacy itself. Iroquois Lacrosse is a holistic process that binds communities and the nations of the Haudenosaunee together. This is the reason that we say it was a gift to our people from the Creator."

Old tradition, new energy
Now that Ukiah has a lacrosse team, it may be accurate to say, "lacrosse has returned to Ukiah" because historians have found evidence that the sport was played by Native Americans in British Columbia and Northern California centuries ago. We know that the sport was played by North American Indians as early as the 15th century, on the East Coast and upper Middle West, making lacrosse this country's oldest indigenous sport.

American Indians played the game not only for recreation, but also to settle tribal disputes and to toughen warriors for fighting. Contests between as many as 1,000 men lasted as long as two or three days, beginning at sunup and ending at sundown each day. They used trees for goals and usually placed them 500 yards to a half-mile apart. Sometimes games ranged several miles across the countryside.

French Jesuit missionaries, in the 17th century, wrote home about a game they watched being played by the Huron Indians with sticks resembling a symbol carried by bishops called the "crosier" (la Crosse).

A sport steeped in myth
The origins of lacrosse are rooted in Indian legend. Oneidas and other Iroquois revered the game as entertainment and for physical conditioning. But, lacrosse also held deeper religious significance. The Oneida Story of Creation describes a Spirit World, which preceded our earth and hangs above it. A world where its inhabitants know only happiness some say, because they enjoyed lacrosse. Other tribes believed that the selection of team members as well as the outcomes of games were destined by the supernatural.

In some Iroquois communities, lacrosse is prescribed through a dream or by a fortuneteller as a curing ritual. Lacrosse is considered a rite sacred to the Thunders, "The Seven Honored Elders" who move across the sky from west to east cleansing the earth with winds and rains. It is interesting to note that in modern day lacrosse, games are not usually cancelled because of rain.

Territorial disputes between tribes were sometimes settled with a game of lacrosse, although not always amicably. A Creek versus Choctaw game in the 1700s to determine which tribe had rights to a beaver pond, turned into a violent battle when the Creeks were declared winners. Still, while the majority of the games ended peaceably, many of the rituals performed by the players were the same ones they practiced before departing on the warpath.

Fastest game on two feet
To explain the game in simple terms, lacrosse might be thought of as a combination of soccer, hockey and basketball. It is a grueling test of stamina that has been called the fastest game on two feet. There are 10 positions on a team: one goalie, three attack, three midfielders, and three defense. The object is to pass the ball downfield using a long-handled stick with a triangular netted pocket at the end, ultimately to score a goal, while preventing the opposing team from scoring. Indians used a small deerskin ball; modern teams use a hard rubber version.

Lacrosse is played on an open field with goals at both ends like many modern sports. Like basketball, the offensive players set picks and run patterned offenses and fast breaks, while the defenses are man-to-man or zone. It can be surmised that James Naismith, a lacrosse player, used the principles of the sport when he invented basketball.

Today lacrosse rivals football and soccer for popularity in high schools and colleges on the East Coast. As rough as it is, lacrosse has earned a reputation as a sport played by gentlemen of good character. The rules of lacrosse assure that players uphold a high level of sportsmanlike conduct. The sport is also gaining in popularity with girls whose variation of the game is actually closer to the original sport than the boys'.

The famous football coach, Pop Warner substituted lacrosse for baseball at his Indian School because, "Lacrosse is a developer of health and strength. It is a game that spectators rave over once they understand it," he said.

Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League, said in an interview that he would rather play lacrosse than football. In 1956, when Brown played for Syracuse University, he scored six goals for the North in the North-South Lacrosse game.

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