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Our Undying Past

"The Little Brother of War"


Is lacrosse big in your area? It certainly is in mine. And summertime is the season for LAX camps, where kids suit up and work up a sweat developing their stick-handling skills.

The game they’re playing, as you probably know, is American Indian in origin – the original America’s Game (sorry, NFL). But aboriginal lacrosse was so much more than a sport. I didn’t really understand that until I read a book called A Friend Among the Senecas. Its author, David Swatzler, tells how American Indian lacrosse “had a profound spiritual and religious dimension difficult for European Americans to appreciate.”

A Friend Among the Senecas was one of the first scholarly works I consulted in my research for Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Eastern Indians and settlers that Sunbury Press is releasing next month. Swatzler’s book is a fascinating chronicle of a Quaker effort to domesticate a band of Seneca Indians – but what really stuck with me was his account of Iroquois lacrosse traditions.

At its highest level, the game was cosmic. The Iroquois believed lacrosse to be nothing less than a gift from the Creator, and so by playing it, Swatzler explains, they “pleased the Creator and disposed him toward curing or preventing illness, and sending clement weather.” To that end, when a famine or epidemic threatened, the Seneca shaman might order a game of ritual lacrosse to be played. The Hurons played to bring good weather to germinate their corn seeds. Similarly, the Cayuga warded off summer drought with a ritual game to honor the Seven Thunders that controlled the wind and rain. Seven elders played against seven young men. The goals were seven paces wide. Seven points brought victory.

“The Iroquois believed that the sound of thunder was produced by the sticks of the seven Thunder Spirits striking their lacrosse ball as they played the game inside the thunderheads,” Swatzler writes. “Streaks of lightning traced the path of their lacrosse ball through the sky as they batted it across the heavens.”

Each team’s shaman had a big role to play. Just as he’d do in war, the shaman might give his players certain amulets to wear, apply magic potions to the team’s ball, and beseech the surrounding animist spirits to help his team and village. To prepare themselves, the players performed ritual purification such as fasting and purging, and applied body paint and charms.

Most games pitted groups within villages, or were village-to-village affairs that were informal and spontaneous, with lots of sidelines wagering. But it was the big matches between nations that were the mind-blowing productions.

“Forty, sixty, sometimes a hundred or more ‘warriors’ took to the playing field, which was often four or five times longer that a modern football field, with the goals as far apart as a quarter of a mile,” Swatzler writes. “One game in 1797 at the Grand River Reservation in southeastern Ontario, between the Mohawk and Seneca nations, was played on a 100-acre field. Each side had a reserve of 600 players and fielded 60 of them at a time.”

Just about anything was allowed short of deliberately whacking someone with a stick. Each player went one-on-one against an assigned opponent--and they often dropped their sticks and went at it. When this happened, they “were ignored by the rest of the players, as the general melee rolled along the field, leaving in its wake scattered pairs of brawling players.”

On this competitive level, the Iroquois nations regarded lacrosse as “the little brother of war.” By allowing the rough-and-tumble, the game became a proving ground for strength and tenacity, an outlet for aggressiveness, and a way to work out grudges. In the end, it thus served “to preserve domestic tranquility within the village and the nation” and to keep group alliances durable.

In March, the general manager of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, Gewas Schindler, came to Philadelphia to help open the “Native American Voices” exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Schinder spoke about lacrosse legends, including the Haudenosaunee belief that lacrosse exists to draw the talents hidden within all people.

I attended that day, and viewed the museum’s display of handcrafted Iroquois lacrosse sticks. If you’re nearby, you might plan a visit as well – the exhibition is open until 2019. The sticks on display perhaps are survivors of some rugged “little wars.” They may have been prayed over, imbued with potions, even bled upon.

To me, they were mute reminders that the modern game is a tame version of the original. And while today’s play may be spirited, it’s also spiritually earthbound. Read More 

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Remembering The Fourth with a Forked Tongue


Ah, the Fourth of July – the grand occasion to display the American flag outside my front door, and to join the crowds at our neighborhood fireworks party. The grand day to celebrate what’s been called our nation’s birth certificate: The hallowed Declaration of Independence.

But wait. What’s that ugly sentence embedded midway through it? Tucked into Thomas Jefferson’s angry brief against King George, in a long litany of grievances, appears this charge:

"He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions."

Yes, our very founding document encodes the American Indians as “Savages” – capital S as if it were their proper name. Did you ever learn that in history class? You, like me, may have been clueless, but be assured that many Indians still know and resent the enshrined libel all too well. Just as, in their parallel history, they know George Washington not as the father of the country but as “Town Destroyer” because of his scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois. Just as they loathe Andrew Jackson for his brutal removal policies – and refuse to traffic in twenty-dollar bills because they bear his portrait. Just as they remember Jefferson for instigating those removal policies, and for sending Lewis and Clark west to chart the course of expansionism.

I am launching my blog to point out these troubled truths for two reasons: The nation’s birthday is upon us, and – a big personal and -- I have a new book coming out very soon that delves into Colonial-Indian history. Visions of Teaoga (being published by Sunbury Press) is a historical novel that recounts Washington’s 1779 destruction of the Seneca heartland, but also the earlier land grabs and encroachments across the Eastern woodlands. Told by a real-life Shawnee matriarch – a tragic figure known to history as Queen Esther – it tells how smaller “remnant bands” such as the Shawnees, Munsee Delawares, Conoys and Tutelos were hemmed in and deceived not only by the Europeans but by the mighty Iroquois Confederacy as well. The resulting Indian raids on settler homesteads – often land squatters – clearly could be vicious. Accounts of scalpings and other atrocities circulated widely, leading to brutal counterattacks. Settlers never forgot the natives’ violence but overlooked similar crimes committed by whites (one of Queen Esther’s many complaints). By July 1776, this cycle of attacks and reprisals had produced a race hatred on both sides that curdled into mutual desires for what we, today, would term ethnic cleansing.

That is the context in which Jefferson penned his propagandistic invective. He was correct in a sense. Most “Indian Savages” were tilting toward the British as the lesser of two evils. Where the Colonials had proven land-hungry and duplicitous, the Brits had at least tried to set up a demarcation line that set aside a huge territory as Indian land. When war came, many tribes across the East made alliances of convenience and fought alongside the Redcoats. Queen Esther and her people were swept up in the warfare, culminating for her in the tragic Bloody Rock incident.

Years earlier, in the 1750s, Esther's war-chief husband had tried to make nice with the settlers. In reluctantly ceding a slice of territory to New Jersey, he expressed the earlier outlook that land and its bounty could be shared. His eloquent plea, as recorded in Colonial records and repeated in Visions of Teaoga, was this: “We desire that if we should come into your province to see our old friends, and should have occasion for the bark of a tree to cover a cabin, or a little refreshment, that we should not be denied, but be treated as brethren! And that your people may not look on the wild beasts of the forests or the fish of the waters as their sole property, but that we may be admitted to an equal use of them.”

As history also records, this outlook failed. The British abandoned their Indian allies, the demarcation line was extinguished, and a wave of westward expansion began.

Jefferson had prevailed.  Read More 

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