LACROSSE ‘A GIFT FOR PEOPLE OF CANADA’
by Mike Mitchell, Director, North American Indian Travelling College
One of the greatest contributions of our Native people in Canada is that of the game of Lacrosse, which in turn has been shared with the world.
At the time of European settlement in Canada it was discovered that all nations and tribes across the country played Lacrosse in one fashion or another and they all had names for their sport.
The two largest linguistic families in Canada both had names for Lacrosse; the Algonquin referred to it as “Baggataway” and the Iroquois Nation referred to it as “Tewaarathon”.
To the early French settlers, the stick reminded them somewhat of a Bishop’s crozier or staff. The French word for crozier is “crosse” and soon they started calling the game “La Crosse”, which is the name everyone is familiar with now.
Originally, Lacrosse, when played only by the Native people, had a spiritual significance in the Indian’s way of life. Lacrosse was a game to be played for their Creator, for the Native people to show their gratitude to the Great Spirit for living a full life, one that allowed them to live in harmony with nature and at peace with themselves.
Lacrosse was also played for honoured members within the Indian nation, and a game would be played to acknowledge to the Great Spirit that they were grateful that an elder or medicine person with great knowledge of many things existed in their midst.
In early days, contrary to popular belief, a Lacrosse game would be played to settle a dispute between two tribes. In times of differences between Indian nations, the leaders and elders would arrange a Lacrosse game and the winner of that game would be considered the one with the correct viewpoint, sanctioned by the Great Spirit.
Lacrosse was very much a part of the culture of the Indian people, as well as a spiritual link with their Creator. Once settlers began to establish themselves in Canada, they took a great liking to Lacrosse and it wasn’t long before almost every small community in Canada boasted of a Lacrosse team. During that time, rules were established for the number of players on each side and the playing area to be covered.
Today, Lacrosse has evolved from a spiritual game of our Native people to the exciting, thriving sport played in every province in Canada.
It is commonly referred to as the “fastest sport on two feet” and rightfully so. In addition Lacrosse is one of very few sports in this country that can boast of originating from the land proudly called Canada.
No one can question the origin of this sport. Jean de Brebeuf recorded observations of a Lacrosse game in 1683 in what is now Southern Ontario, Canada. The legacy of the original North Americans to the European settlers, Lacrosse remains one of the few aspects of Native culture which has survived and prospered under the settlers’ tutelage. Pre-dating recorded history, the sport has roots which are long and deep in North American society in general and the life and culture of the Natives of Ontario and Quebec.
“Many centuries before the white man set foot on the North American continent, our Native people were given the gift of lacrosse from the Creator. Although there was a great variation in the kind of stick used and the kind of game played, the philosophy, the spirit and the relation of lacrosse and the Creator was one; each tribal group held lacrosse in very high esteem.”
Tewaarathon, Akwesasne’s Story of Our Indian National Game, North American Indian Travelling College, 1978It was in the early 1800s that the Montreal townspeople became interested in this activity of the Mohawk tribes. In the 1840s the first games of Lacrosse were played between the townsfolk and the Natives. The action and skill of the game soon won the hearts of the locals, and though it was many years before any significant wins were logged against the Natives, the game of Lacrosse was quickly winning the loyalty and interest of the newest North Americans.
By the late 1850s and early 1860s Lacrosse had its foothold in the sporting society of the time and the first non-native Lacrosse clubs were being formed. This quickly led to the formation of inter-city rivalries and challenges, and the competitive base of the sport of Lacrosse was born.
The role of the Montreal athletes and organizers in creating a structured sport which captured the imagination of a young nation cannot be ignored. Those visionaries took the Native game with all its beauty, skill and dedication of spirit and molded it into a competitive sport which won the hearts and minds of the early Canadians.
Lacrosse was first declared the National Game of Canada in 1859. Although the original government records have never been located, hundreds of references cite this event, from renowned encyclopediae, books on Canada’s history, government communications and educational textbooks to newspaper and other media accounts dating back in history.
One such reference occurs in Scribner’s Monthly, Volume 14, May-October 1877. “The game of Lacrosse, which was adopted as the national game of Canada on the 1st of July, 1859, the first Dominion Day…
“The game of Lacrosse was granted this status in the 1800s, not merely because of its popularity or economics, but because it has made significant and lasting contributions to the history and development of this nation, its people, and the sport community. Indeed, Lacrosse is known as Canada’s National Game throughout the world.
The birth of a nation is soon followed by a need for the populace to establish their identity and proclaim themselves to the rest of the world. Peter Lindsay stated in his paper to the Symposium on the History of Sport in Canada (1972) that nationalism can be seen to manifest itself in predictable characteristic ways such as the attempt to focus attention and promote positive identity. George Beers, a staunch Canadian patriot, embodied this reality in his words and deeds as a leader of sport and science in this country.
Beers clearly understood and accepted the role of sport in integrating the disparate aspects of the new Canadian society, and his love of the new country demanded that the symbolic sport through which this nationalism be channeled would be wholly and uniquely Canadian. He wrote in 1869: “If the Republic of Greece was indebted to the Olympic Games; if England has cause to bless the name of cricket, so may Canada be proud of Lacrosse. It has raised a young manhood throughout the Dominion to active, healthy exercise; it has originated a popular feeling in favour of physical exercise, and has, perhaps, done more than anything else to invoke a sentiment of patriotism among young men in Canada; and if this sentiment is desireable abroad, surely it is at home.”The acceptance of this principle by Beers’ peers in the sporting community was reflected in the motto of the first national sport governing body which proclaimed “OUR COUNTRY – OUR GAME”.
So too did the press of the era willingly accept and promote this principle as they proudly proclaimed for one and all to read that Lacrosse was our “National Game”. Lacrosse is deeply entrenched in Canada’s history, tradition, and culture.
As our nation spread from coast to coast, Lacrosse played an essential role in bringing those far flung regions together. Douglas Fisher, in his article entitled Sport as Culture, looked at the ways in which sport united this country. In 1885 the federal government rushed troops, via the newly completed railway, to put down the Riel rebellion. That same year a Lacrosse team from New Westminster used the very same steel road to travel across the nation to challenge a Toronto team for the National Championship. While political realities tore the country apart, Lacrosse was bringing the regions of the country closer together.
The sport of Lacrosse is an intrinsic part of Canadian culture, tradition and heritage. The recognition of Lacrosse as the National Game for Canada in 1859 is a positive statement of the contributions of the sport to this nation’s development. The passing of Bill C-212 by the Government of Canada attests to the enduring nature of the Sport of Lacrosse – Canada’s oldest sport.
And, we owe it all to the people of the First Nations – and the Creator.
Published with the permission of Canadian Lacrosse Association