From youth leagues to university teams, lacrosse is thriving in America. Recent reports by U.S. Lacrosse, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and National Federation of State High School Associations have found lacrosse to be America’s fastest-growing sport — among women, men, girls and boys alike.
“U.S. colleges are adding more and more women’s and men’s teams,” explains Allan Downey, an Indigenous historian and associate history professor at Canada’s McMaster University. “It’s becoming a sport that’s seen a significant amount of growth in the last three decades.”
But the sport is anything but new.
“Unfortunately, the indigenous roots of the sport have not been recognized as fully as they should,” says Downey, whose 2018 book, “The Creator’s Game,” examines the history of lacrosse in Indigenous communities.
Originally known as “stickball,” lacrosse was played with wooden sticks by the Haudenosaunee, an Iroquois tribe, as far back as 1100 A.D. in the area that is now known as the Canada-New York border. In Oneida lore, the practice predates even humans and was first played between birds and mammals. For many others, like the Ojibwe and Dakota people who inhabited present-day Minnesota, the game has served a practical purpose. A gift from the Creator, it is seen as a way to honor the divine, to heal sickness, as well as settle disputes between tribes.
As the modern game and the plastic sticks that it uses proliferates, lacrosse is increasingly being included in the growing movement to reclaim Indigenous culture. When Twin Cities Native Lacrosse came together almost a decade ago, the goal was similar: To reintroduce the traditional game across Minneapolis and St. Paul to keep the Indigenous roots of the increasingly popular sport alive and well.
“It’s impossible to separate the story of lacrosse from the history of Native people,” explains John Hunter, who started the sovereign lacrosse association with three other coaches in 2014.
After his parents’ and grandparents’ generations faced “direct and overt systems and policies designed to deny us our culture,” including residential schools where lacrosse was used to assimilate Indigenous youth, Hunter says his community’s efforts are urgent.
“We’re now in a time and a place where we have a little bit of space to cultivate back bits and pieces that weren’t lost, but had to go underground,” he says. “When we have even a small amount of space, we’re going to work to keep our culture alive because it’s who we are. We can’t not be who we are.”
Having played modern lacrosse in high school and captained his university team, Hunter, who is Winnebago and White Earth Ojibwe, had knowledge of both the modern and traditional games. What he lacked was a mentor.
That changed when he met Dan Ninham, a retired physical education teacher and Indigenous lacrosse expert, at a local festival. Ninham invited Hunter to play in a wooden stick tournament in Green Bay. For Hunter, there was no going back.
“I was kind of like, no one else is going to do this, so as long as I get support from some other people, I can do this,” Hunter said. “I went back home and wrote an application for a microgrant from the Tiwahe Foundation that allowed me to buy a dozen wooden sticks and a dozen plastic sticks.”
Next, Hunter assembled an advisory panel composed of members from several local tribes and selected Migizi, a local non-profit, to manage the money. “The advisory panel wasn’t for helping me raise money or finding a field,” he explained. “It was about helping me foster the right environment because it’s so deeply tied to culture.”
Hunter and the other founders spread the word of the organization and its games via social media, set up an email list, and went to local organizations like Minneapolis’s American Indian Center that had gyms or parks to ask for space.
Today, Indigenous lacrosse games are played in local parks and gyms across the Twin Cities thanks to TCNL. Players from ages four to 64 come together for intergenerational matches or break off into more similarly matched spars along age and gender lines. There are occasionally tournaments that look like more “traditional” competitions, but competing is far from the focus.
“The traditional game has a much deeper cultural and spiritual meaning to us,” says Nicholas DeShaw, a coach with TCNL. “We play for the Creator. The process is a gift to us, from the Creator to play for the Creator’s entertainment.”
This is what TCNL is chiefly concerned with fostering and preserving — the healing spirit and intention of the Indigenous game.
“You play with a good mind and a good heart,” DeShaw said of the values that are instilled in TCNL players, especially the youth, through their games. “You don’t let yourself get overtaken with anger or negative emotion… But you also play as hard as you can, with a lot of intention. Today, it’s beautiful to see people call for a game when someone is unwell. All that prayer and energy and effort you bring is used as an intention for that person’s betterment and it’s amazing.”
Experts on the sport’s history say initiatives like TCNL are a critical part of a larger movement, both within the sport of lacrosse and beyond.
Through groups like TCNL, Indigenous communities are “re-instilling the values and importance of the Indigenous game of lacrosse and using it as a vehicle to help introduce youth to things like their language, culture, and ceremonies, to reignite the fires of their governance systems,” Downey, the historian, says.
“What we’re witnessing is really significant, this resurgence of Indigenous lacrosse and Indigenous culture, language and ceremony using the game of lacrosse.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.