The early versions of lacrosse matches played by Native American nations included 100 to 1,000 men or more using wooden sticks, sometimes with net baskets or pockets attached, and small, deer hide-wrapped balls. Deer sinew formed nets. Borderless fields could span miles, and games could last days.
“Lacrosse was an integral part of Native Americans’ culture,” says Joe Finn, archivist at the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum. “It was played to prepare them for war, and it was also a social event where tribes would get together for trade and sport. It was sometimes used to settle disputes."
Native American oral traditions cite the first lacrosse game played between birds and mammals. Some Native Americans believe the sport was a gift from the Creator to be used for enjoyment and as medicine.
Onondaga Nation member Neal Powless, a former professional player for the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team and a three-time collegiate All-American, says the sport is part of the Haudenosaunee creation story.
Powless points to one “rematriation” origin version in which a young woman and a chief, living in the Sky World, or a multiverse space, must marry to save their universe from destruction. But her attention is drawn to a lacrosse player who later dives through a hole torn in the multiverse to save her, and they mate before she lands on Earth.
"Lacrosse is part of that story of our creation, of our identity, of who we are," Powless says. "So, when we play the game, we always say that there’s a simultaneous game going on in Sky World and our ancestors are playing with us."
The Europeans' Influence on Lacrosse
In the 1600s in Quebec, French missionaries first witnessed Native Americans playing the game, according to Finn. "It was given the name ‘lacrosse’ because the missionaries thought that the sticks resembled the bishop’s cross carried during religious ceremonies," he says.
Early Native Americans played the game barefoot, with no equipment and a loose set of rules. European settlers established more stringent rules for the sport.
Lacrosse evolved in Canada, where it was named the national sport in 1859. In 1867, George Beers, a Montreal dentist, wrote the sport’s first rulebook. "He once took a team of white and First Nation lacrosse players to England and played before Queen Victoria," Finn says.
"The game ... very pretty to watch,” the queen wrote in in her diary following the match between Iroquois and Canadians, according to the National Lacrosse Museum and Hall of Fame. “It is played with a ball and there is much running."
Lacrosse As Medicine for Native Americans
Ceremonial medicine games are still played in Haudenosaunee communities to heal the sick, according to Powless. The Onodaga play an annual spring game with male participants of all ages.
“Players will show up with no pads, no equipment, just your wood stick,” he says, adding that teams are determined by clan, house or age. “And the ages are whoever can walk. You’re going to have 7-year-old kids running around with 80-year-old men on the same field.”
Each community has its own rules and variations, he adds, and games often are played without a timekeeper, penalties or referees.
“Lacrosse isn’t just a game, it’s a medicine, it heals,” Powless says. “You hear it time and time again how the spirit of the sport itself has healed people because they believe that it’s medicine that speaks to the spirit and the soul."
Lacrosse Today and Other Facts
Canadian John Flannery, who founded the U.S. National Amateur Lacrosse Association in 1879, established lacrosse in the United States when he was transferred to Brooklyn by his employer, Finn says.
Contemporary lacrosse, dubbed “the fastest game on two feet” in 1921 by a Baltimore Sun sportswriter, takes place on a field with players using sticks with netting attached at one end to catch, carry, pass and shoot a small, rubber ball into the opposing team's goal.
The first women's lacrosse game took place in Scotland in 1890, and the first American women’s team formed in 1926 at a Baltimore secondary school. Lacrosse was played at the Olympics in 1904 and 1908, and as an exhibition sport in 1928, 1936 and 1948. In 2021, the International Olympic Committee granted the sport full recognition, paving the way for a possible Olympics return in 2028.
Finn says the development of mass-produced lighter and easier-to-handle plastic and metal sticks in the late 1960s and early 1970s made the game faster and increased scoring.
But it’s the spirit of the game that remains most important to Powless. He references the Thompson brothers, standout professional lacrosse players and members of the Onondaga Nation.
“They will say we don’t play for the name on the back of our jersey or the name on the front," he says. "We play for Creator and that we will have a good game and the score will be whatever the score will be and we’re going to do our best."