Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada/Chapter 2

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In the early history of all countries we find their recreations to have been of a rude and barbarous nature. Such were those of Greece when Homer wrote; such were those of Britain when Cæsar landed; and such were the amusements of the North American Indians when first witnessed by the early French and English travellers.

The character of the game of Lacrosse, as originally played, made it midway between a sport and a deadly combat, because of its serious results to limb and life. It was a game which King James would, no doubt, have anathematized as being "meeter for laming than making able the users thereof;" and more emphatic would have been this edict had he played it; for not even the divinity that hedges kings would have saved his royal shins from many a sore and unceremonious whack.

Never was there ancient or modern field sport that so effectually tried the endurance and agility, and every physical instinct as the original game of Lacrosse. The gladiatorial games of the Romans, and the bull fights of Spain, were severe tests of stamina and skill; but neither the praises of Cicero nor the approval of Pliny can prevent the banishment of amusements deliberately designed for the shedding of blood, and the death of, at least, one of the combatants.

It may not be possible for one who has never handled a Crosse—even though he has witnessed many of the exciting matches of the present day, to conceive of the intensity and vehemence of the old game; but to a player who has tried his mettle against Indian wind and endurance, and experienced the exertion required in the present modified game, it is easier to estimate correctly the magnificent physical condition of the aborigine a century ago, and the unparalleled union of strength, agility and wind developed by, and necessary for, the primitive Lacrosse. It was not played as a superstitious rite in honor of the Great Spirit; it had none of the religious element of the Grecian games. It was instituted as a pure amusement, and as one of the means of quickening and strengthening the body, and accustoming the young warriors to close combat. It was emphatically a sport, and brought out the very finest physical attributes of the finest made men in the world,—the impetuosity and vigor of a wild nature let loose; and compelled its votaries, in its intense exercise, to stretch every power to the greatest extreme.

The hunters and warriors looked and longed for the grand anniversaries, when through dense forests, and in bark canoes, hundreds would return from the chase and the war-path to be present at the Lacrosse tournaments. Among some tribes, ball-play was, as Basil Hall tells us, "the chief object of their lives," so absorbed were they in its excitement; and in every tribe it developed an amount of splendid physical energy sufficient to have made their race masters of this continent for ever, had mind not been so entirely subservient to body, nor destiny so inevitably pointed against them.

All the education of an Indian from the cradle to manhood tended to physical development and inurement; and however much we may pity the strapped papoose, it is in a better place for a symmetrical body and a straight spine, than the pale-face hopeful, rocked and knocked about in the modern cradle, or the Spartan child cradled on a shield. It was the perfection of the Indian's physical nature which made his conquest so difficult. With every instinct keen as an eagle's eye, with every muscle, nerve and fibre strung to its perfect capacity; with his wonderful vitality, energy and unity, he was more than a match for the white man and superior weapons, until "firewater" undermined his manliness, and treachery stole away his advantages. Whiskey was a cunning ambassador, more effectual than "villainous saltpetre." What was the stoicism of the Indian but his physical training; what was his pride and individuality but the blood of his race and the education of his boyhood? The great brain of a young man was only fit for scalping if it had not a body able to wield the tomahawk; the chieftains and leaders were honoured in proportion to the number of scalps within their wigwams. Such were the characteristics of the men who played the old game of Lacrosse.

The descriptions given of the game by different travellers vary in some respects, as they happened to have seen it played at different periods, and among the various tribes; but all unite in ascribing to it the hereditary wild beauty and variety which it has always retained.

There was some dissimilarity among the different tribes in the shape of the stick used, the size and composition of the ball, the kind of goal, &c., but the general character of the game was the same.

The Crosse.—As far back as we can trace we find the original Crosse to have been of a very different shape to that used at present. That of the Choctaws, Chippeways, Cherokees and Creeks was about three feet long, bent into an oblong hoop at one end large enough to hold the ball. That of the Sacs, Sioux, Objiways, Dacotahs, Poutawatamies, and most other tribes was about the same length, but

Original lacrosse stick (The National Game of Canada).jpg

the hoop was round as seen in the above illustration. None of the original sticks were over four feet long. The net-work of the oblong hoop was generally three inches long and two wide; that of the round hoop, twelve inches in circumference. The former was literally net-work, but the latter was simply two strings tied in the centre, and fastened in four places to the hoop; and both were sufficiently bagged to catch and preserve the ball. The net-work or strings were originally of wattup, the small roots of the spruce tree as used for sewing bark canoes;—afterwards they were made of deer-skin.

Among the Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, &c., each player carried two sticks, one in each hand. The ball was caught and carried between them. There was considerable difference in the play with one and with two sticks, and the former was by far the most expert, as it was the most difficult.

The manner of picking up with one stick was peculiar, and indeed, necessary, owing to its shape. As the ball lay on the ground, it was almost covered with the hoop, and by a peculiar twist of the wrist and arm from right to left, scooped up in one motion. The ball was thrown from it by a jerk, and could not be pitched as far as with the present stick, as it got but little impetus. The Indians dodged very little, except when the ball was caught or picked up in a crowd, and dodging was necessary. This seems the more remarkable when we consider the shape of the stick, and the peculiar facilities for dodging, afforded by the concavity of the netting and the smallness of the hoop which retained the ball.

On grand occasions, they ornamented the hoop and handle with small feathers or tufts of hair, and painted or dyed it various colors.

Several tribes still use the original stick. The above illustration is taken from one which Mr. Radiger, an old Montreal Club player, used in several matches with the half-breeds of the Garden River Indian Reserve, Sault River, about 15 miles from the entrance to Lake Superior. It is similar to the Objiway stick described by early travellers.

The Ball.—The original ball was about the size of a tennis ball, though differing among the tribes; and was first made of deer-skin or raw-hide, stuffed with hair and sewed with sinews. The Objiways and Poutawatamies at the mouth of the Detroit River used a heavy wooden one, generally a knot; while others improvised balls of the bark of the pine tree.

The Goals.—The earliest goal was any marked rock or tree that happened to be convenient; and it is still customary among the domesticated and wild tribes in America to ignore such a thing as "flag poles."

At grand matches, however, the Indians were more particular, and used for each goal a single pole or stake, eight feet high and two inches in diameter, or the two pole goal as at present. The distance from one goal to the other varied in proportion to the number of players, from five hundred yards to half a mile and more. The Poutawatamies, Sioux, Dacotahs, Cherokees, Sacs, Objiways, Iroquois, Algonquins, and nearly all tribes used the one pole. The four former merely required the ball to be thrown past the line of this stake; the Objiways, Iroquois, Algonquins, &c., required the pole to be struck with the ball. The former still maintain this law. The Algonquins, seen by Charlevoix, used one pole.

The Choctaws, seen by Catlin, used two stakes for each goal, twenty-five feet high, and six feet apart, with a pole or goal-line across the top. The Creeks in Alabama used two stakes, six feet high and six feet apart. Basil Hall (1828) says they were simply boughs.


Was the captain or presiding chief, under whose direction the goals were posted; and who, among several tribes, made a preliminary speech to the players before starting the game. Sometimes he was the best player and fleetest runner, and joined in the game, and like the chiefs in Homer, tried to signalize himself by personal acts of courage, forgeting altogether the management of his men.


Were generally the old medicine men of the tribe, whose decision was in all cases final.


The primitive Indian players usually appeared almost as naked as the Grecian athletæ, wearing only a tight breech cloth; and on grand occasions painted their faces and bodies, and decorated themselves with fantastic ornamental bead work, feathers &c., of various colors. They wore a curious kind of tail, projecting from the small of the back, made of white horse hair or dyed quills of the Canada porcupine, and a mane or neck of horse hair dyed various colors.

It was a rule of the Choctaws that no one should wear any dress save the breech cloth, and the aforesaid tail. The Poutawatamies always wore mocassins.


When great matches were on the tapis, village against village, or tribe against tribe, they were agreed upon and the players selected months ahead. For two weeks before the day of the match, the competitors were to fast from all excesses, eat little food, and harden themselves by every possible means for the exertion in anticipation; and the night preceding, they rather ignored the present theory of training, by a peculiar preparatory ceremony, which we will endeavour to describe

It was usual to select a moonlight night, and a grassy plot near the borders of a river or lake. Only those who were to play on the following day were permitted to join in the ceremony. A large fire of pitch pine wood was kindled; several musicians with Indian drums, and large gourds containing gravel, were seated to assist the players in keeping time in the dance. At a signal from the head chief, the intending competitors would begin what they called the training dance,—a succession of the most frantic movements and wriggling of the body and legs, contortions of the face, and screaming at the top of the voice, intended, like the military dances of the Greeks, to make the body active and strong, and to exhilirate the mind. It was also a sort of invocation to the Great Spirit for victory, and must have been of a character as terrible and expressive as the dances of the Furies. This dance was peculiarly attractive to the emotional Indian, who, like all barbarians, was a spontaneous dancer; sounds, however rude, intoxicating him with a passion for a spasmodic oscillation of the body. After performing for an hour or longer, the players, heated and perspiring, immediately plunged into the cold stream.

It was customary among some tribes to dance in a circle around a bonfire, with the crosses in hand; while others danced in their costume around the goals, rattling their sticks together and singing aloud to the Great Spirit. Each party danced for a quarter of an hour at a time around their respective goals or bonfires, and repeated it every half hour during the night, which compelled the players to lie awake until sunrise. The squaws of each side kept the goods which were invariably staked upon the result of the match; and at this dance they formed themselves in two straight rows between the two parties of players, and joined in the dance and song. Four of the most antediluvian medicine men who were to act as umpires on the following day, were seated at the joint where the game was to be started, solemnly smoking and praying to the Great Spirit for impartiality in judgment. Catlin gives a few excellent sketches of the original game as played by the Choctaws, and among them a very suggestive one of this preparatory dance.

In Capt. Basil Hall's "Travels in the United States in 1827-28," we find a new feature of this preparatory ceremony, introduced after the dance, among the Creeks of Alabama. The players met in a hut, round which ran a seat close to the wall; in the middle a fire was burning, at which the players squatted, nearly naked, tying cords tightly around one another's arms and thighs. They then splashed themselves with water, and each placing himself in a sloping position against a wooden pillar, went through the ceremony of "scarifying." This was done by expert operators, who using an instrument formed of the sharp teeth of the gar fish—two rows of about fifteen teeth tied to a corn cob, scraped the arms and legs of the players over a space of more than fifteen inches in length.

"Five separate scratchings were made on each man's leg below the knee, five on each thigh, and five on each arm, in all nearly thirty sets of cuts. As the instrument contained about thirty teeth, each Indian must in every case have had several hundred lines drawn on his skin. The blood flowed profusely, as long as the bandages were kept tight. This indeed, seemed to be one of their principal objects, as the Indians endeavoured to assist the bleeding by throwing their arms and legs about, holding them over, and sometimes placing them almost in the fire, for a second or two. It was altogether a hideous and frightful scene. For my own part I scarcely knew how to feel when I found myself amongst some dozens of naked savages, streaming with blood from top to toe, skipping and yelling round a fire, or talking at the top of their voices in a language of which I knew nothing, or laughing as merrily as if it were the best fun in the world to be cut to pieces. Not one of these lads uttered the slightest complaint during the operation; but when I watched their countenances closely, I observed that only two or three bore the discipline without shrinking or twisting their faces a little.

"I was told that these scarifications and bleedings render the men more limber and active, and bring them into proper condition to undergo the exertion of the ball-play on the following morning. I don't know how this may be with my friends the Creeks; but I suspect half a dozen of the cuts of which each of these young fellows received some hundreds, would have laid me up for a week!"'

On the next day and for hours previous to the appointed time for the match, a crowd of warriors, squaws and children assembled on the plain selected for the game, dressed in the gaudiest feathers and bead work, and squatted on the ground in little picturesque groups. One of the principal preliminaries was handing to the stake-holders the property hazarded upon the result of the game, and not only did every warrior bet, but the women carried it to excess, and even the children wagered their childish toys.

It was an affectation of the players to keep out of sight until everything was ready, and they usually were in the adjacent woods, busily painting and feathering in the most fantastic styles imaginable. The two parties who were to contend for the prize were divided, and posted in opposite parts of the woods, and during the process of festooning they indulged in wild whoops and cries.

The goals were now placed by the game director, and a stake set to mark the centre of the field where the ball was sometimes laid, according to custom. At a certain signal the two parties advanced leisurely from their covert, brandishing their sticks, shouting, making terrible contortions and grimaces and turning somersaults. It was customary among the lady loves of the Cherokees to run out on the field at this stage, and give beaded and other tokens of favoritism to their dusky gallants, which these savage lovers wore during the game as faithfully as the most chivalrous knight of the 12th century ever carried lady's glove in combat. Lanman, who witnessed this little episode of the game among the Cherokees of Qualla town, North Carolina, says: "This little movement struck me as particularly interesting, and I was greatly pleased with the bashfulness and yet complete confidence with which the Indian maidens manifested their preferences." What an incentive to first twelves if Canada's fair daughters would revive the fashion! How it would put one on one's mettle to be a crack player!

Where this custom was not in vogue, the players either danced, one party at a time, around their respective goals, as the night previous, and advanced to the middle of the field where they laid or sat down, yelling defiance at each other. At a signal from the game director they sprang to their feet and held their sticks over their heads, facing, and gradually approaching until they were within a yard of each other. Upon another signal they laid their sticks down at their feet, and the sides were counted. When the game was for mere pleasure, the men could choose the sides upon which they would play. The game director now delivered a long speech, urging the players to energy and fair-play; they then dispersed and every man took his own position. The old chiefs seated themselves on the ground with ten small sticks, with which they kept the score of games; pulling all out when they got to "eleven," and replacing one to count ten. Matches consisted sometimes of ten, twenty and one hundred games, and often lasted two or three days.


The game generally began at nine o'clock in the morning. The Indians had different ways of inaugurating it, and never seemed to have "faced" as at present. Sometimes the ball was laid on the ground in the centre of the field, and at a signal from the game director, a general rush was made towards it, amid a glorious clatter and scramble,—the best man at a hundred yards generally picking it up, and making off with it like a deer followed by the hounds. The most common way, however, was to throw it high into the air in the centre of the field, which altered the appearance of this part of the game, as the players reached the centre before the ball fell, and leaped at it en masse to catch or strike it away. Sometimes it was caught by one player between his two spooney sticks. Charlevoix says the Algonquins in Canada tried to keep the ball from touching the ground during the progress of the game, and that if a player missed a catch, the game was lost for his side unless he could send it to goal in one throw. It was never allowable to pick it up from the ground with the hand, but it was customary to use the hand in tapping or blocking it away from the body.

The wildness of the old game is graphically sketched by Catlin (who saw it played by 600, 800 and 1000 Choctaws and others, at a time), Basil Hall, Sir James Stewart, Lanman and others. The players would trip and throw each other, and sometimes as occasion offered, take flying leaps over the heads of stooping opponents, or dart between their extended legs. "In these struggles," says Catlin, "every mode is used that can be devised to oppose the progress of the foremost who is likely to get the ball, and these obstructions often meet desperate individual resistance, which terminate in violent scuffling, and sometimes fisticuffs!—when their sticks were dropped and the parties are unmolested while settling it between themselves, unless it be by a general stampede to which they are subject who are down, if the ball happens to pass in their direction." "There are times," he adds, "when the ball gets to the ground, when there is a confused mass of balls, sticks, shins and bloody noses." When the ball fell among the spectators, the players leaped into them like a whirlwind, with as little regard for their safety as their own, and there was a well known art among the spectators of saving oneself from much tumbling and contusion by embracing the nearest tree and holding on like grim death until the rush of players had passed. It seemed as if they were bent upon dislocating or breaking every bone of their bodies; they tumbled and dragged and did everything rough in pursuit of the little deer-skin ball. One remarkable feature of the old game was the magnificent leaps which the players indulged in, either for show or to grasp the ball in the air. "At one time," says Lanman, "the whole crowd of players would rush together in the most desperate and fearful manner, presenting, as they struggled for the ball, the appearance of a dozen gladiators, striving to overcome a monster serpent; and then again, as one man would secure the ball and start for the boundary of his opponent, the races which ensued were very beautiful and exciting."

Basil Hall's description of the old game, as played by the Creeks, is so well delineated that we cannot do better than give an extract from his travels:—

"One of the chiefs, having advanced to the centre of the area, cast the ball high in the air. As it fell, between twenty and thirty of the players rushed forward, and leaping several feet off the ground, tried to strike it. The multiplicity of blows, acting in different directions, had the effect of bringing the ball to the ground, where a fine scramble took place, and a glorious clatter of sticks mingled with the cries of the savages. At length, an Indian, more expert than the others, contrived to nip the ball between the ends of his two sticks, and having managed to fork it out, ran off with it like a deer, with his arms raised over his head, pursued by a whole party engaged, in the first struggle. The fortunate youth was, of course, intercepted in his progress twenty different times by his antagonists, who shot like hawks across his flight from all parts of the field, to knock the prize out of his grasp, or to trip him up—in short by any means to prevent his throwing it through the opening between the boughs at the end of the play-ground. Whenever this grand purpose of the game was accomplished, the successful party announced their right to count one by a fierce yell of triumph, which seemed to pierce the very depths of the wilderness. It was sometimes highly amusing to see the way in which the Indian, who got hold of the ball, contrived to elude his pursuers. It was not to be supposed he was allowed to proceed straight to the goal or wicket, or even to get near it; but on the contrary, he was obliged in most cases to make a circuit of many hundred yards amongst the trees, with thirty or forty swift-footed fellows stretching after or athwart him, with their fantastic tiger's tails streaming behind them, and he, in like manner, at full speed, and holding his stick as high over his head as possible, sometimes ducking to avoid a blow, or leaping to escape a trip, sometimes doubling like a hare, and sometimes tumbling at full length or breaking his shins on a fallen tree, but seldom losing hold of his treasure without a severe struggle. These parts of the game were exciting in the highest degree, and it almost made the spectators breathless to look at them."

Catlin would ride 30 miles on horseback to witness a game, and he says he has almost dropped from his horse's back with irresistible laughter at the succession of droll tricks and kicks and scuffles which ensue in the almost superhuman struggles for the ball. Carver saw it played by Indians, whom he says played with such vehemence that broken bones were no rarity, "but not withstanding, there never appears to be any spite, or wanton exertions of strength to affect them; nor do disputes ever happen between the parties."

A few concluding extracts will prove the same remarkable interest in the old as in the present game. Catlin, writing of a match he saw, says: "I pronounce such a scene, with its hundreds of nature's most beautiful models denuded, and painted various colors, running and leaping in the air in all of the most enlivening and varied forms, in desperate struggles for the ball, a school for painter or sculptor equal to any of those which ever inspired the hand of an artist in the Olympian games or Roman forum."

Lanman, among the Sioux, says: "The Olympic beauty of this game is beyond all praise. It calls into active exercise every muscle of the human frame, and brings into bold relief the supple and athletic forms of the best built people in the world. At one time a figure will rivet your attention, similar to the Apollo Belvidere, and another, you will actually be startled by the surpassing eloquence of a Mercury." The game was played in the United States occasionally some years ago by several of the most numerous tribes, who used the original stick and generally the one pole goal, but a combination of circumstances has almost obliterated it as an Indian recreation in that free Republic where Indians and negroes have not exactly paradisiacal times. Mr. Radiger tells me he has both seen it played and participated in the game with the Objiway half-breeds of the Garden River Indian Reserve, Sault River. They use the original round hoop stick, and use only one. Their goal is a single pole, eight feet high and two inches in diameter, and must be struck to decide the game. They begin the game after the primitive manner, of placing the stick on the ground in front of them, and the ball is thrown up in the air. "They do very little dodging," writes our friend, "except when they get near to the goal, when they do wriggle considerably." The Lac La Pluie Indians, 225 miles west of Lake Superior, occasionally hold their grand fetes and medicine ceremonies near Fort Francis, at which 6,000 natives assemble. In the report on the Exploration of the country between Lake Superior and the Red River settlement, it is stated, that the Indians "do not scruple to jump over the fences and run through the ground crops if their ball in the game of ––––– is driven in that direction." The blank may be interpreted "Lacrosse." The game is also played at the different establishments of the Hudson Bay Company in Rupert's Land, &c, by the savage tribes of Lower Winnipeg. Several hundreds played before Fort Garry, the capital of the Red River country, a couple of years ago. The Rocky Mountain Indians still play and use the original stick.

On the Saskatchewan, the Prairie, Crees, Blackfeet and Assinniboines still celebrate their returns from the buffalo hunt by grand contests of the original game.

When Charlevoix and his party were ascending the St. Lawrence at some point between Quebec and Three Rivers, they saw the game, which Charlevoix calls "le jeu de la crosse," played by the Algonquins, who used the present stick.

The Hurons at Loretto, below Quebec, played extensively about fifty years ago, using the present stick and a ball of worsted, covered with deer-skin. Their goals were lines drawn at both ends of the field, and game was decided by throwing across either line. The sport was very rough and tumble. Latterly this remnant of the great Huron tribe have entirely neglected their glorious pastime.