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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.

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