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Lacrosse: One of North America’s oldest team sports

The sport was invented by Native American nations that played the game for social, political, and ceremonial purposes.

Oil-on-canvas painting of a lacrosse game among a group of Dakota by Seth Eastman, 1851.
Oil-on-canvas painting of a lacrosse game among a group of Dakota by Seth Eastman, 1851.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

To begin a lacrosse game, players divide into two teams. Each side works together to score points by moving a ball against or over the opponents’ goal. Players may not touch or carry the ball with their hands; instead, they use wooden sticks made of ash or hickory to carry and throw the ball. The ball is often made of solid wood or stuffed hide.

The team that has scored the most points at the end of the game wins. Technical rules, however, are generally avoided. Instead, both teams agree to basic guidelines about the number of players per team, the length of the field, the amount of physical contact between players, and the style and shape of the goal.

The purpose and style of play of Native lacrosse have changed little over the past 400 years. The “Creator’s game,” as it is sometimes known, is played for fun, celebration and socializing as well as healing. Ceremonial games are played to restore balance to individual players and their communities and express respect for the connection between humans and plants, animals and earth.

OjibweDakota; Ho-Chunk; Sauk and Meskwaki; and other nations played lacrosse in the lands around the upper Mississippi River basin well before European explorers arrived. One of the earliest documented games was in 1753, when the Sisseton Dakota played against the Sauk and Meskwaki at Fort Vaudreuil (a French trading post in present-day Wisconsin).

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European and early American observers of the game were amazed by the skill and excitement of what they saw. Missionaries and government officials observed games of 80 to 100 players per team played on expansive fields with individual games lasting up to several days. While traveling through the Upper Mississippi River basin in the 1820s, Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami acquired a lacrosse stick; it is the oldest extant stick of its kind. Later, in the 1830s and 1840s, painters George Catlin and Seth Eastman created famous images of historical games and players.

Locations of historic ball fields are documented across the state, with some a mile or longer in length. Minnesota has two lakes and one town named Ball Club, and also shares a border with the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which was a French translation of the Dakota name for a place where the sport was often played. The Ojibwe word for lacrosse is baaga’adowewin, which means to strike something (repeatedly). The corresponding Dakota word, takapsicapi, translates to making a ball bounce or jump.

The Indigenous nations of the upper Mississippi basin were part of a larger group of lacrosse-playing Nations from the Great Lakes, which used a similar style of lacrosse stick. These nations, while very different in language and customs, all played lacrosse using a stick with minimal netting and one end completely bent into a hoop. The single-hoop-style distinguishes Ojibwe and Dakota sticks from those of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) style or the double-stick style of the Nations from the southeast, such as the Muscogee Creek.

Non-Native lacrosse is much different from the original Dakota and Ojibwe game in both form and function. Modern-era lacrosse uses Iroquois-style sticks and was standardized in Montreal. The first rule book of the modern-era game, published in 1867 by William George Beers, forbade Native Americans from participating in the sport alongside whites.

For a short time in the early 20th century, Minnesota was home to the top professional lacrosse teams in the United States. These Minnesota teams were mostly made up of non-Native American players who had experience playing in well-established leagues in Canada and the eastern United States. In the twenty-first century, Minnesota has become a leader for growth of the popularity of the modern-era game.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.