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Monday, August 9, 2010

Ball Games

Perhaps you have heard of the struggles of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, as they attempted to travel to England last month to participate in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester. They were denied visas from the United Kingdom because they were traveling under tribal passports. Despite the grant of a one-time travel waiver by the U.S. State Department and the offer of expedited U. S. passports, which the team declined, the Iroquois Nationals team refused to travel under anything but their Iroquois Confederacy-issued passports and did not complete in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships.
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NAA INV 9386800

The modern sport of lacrosse originates from ball games played by indigenous groups throughout northeast North America. One of the earliest ethnographic descriptions of native ball games by an anthropologist was “The Cherokee Ball Play” by James Mooney, which appeared in The American Anthropologist in April 1890. In 1888 Mooney conducted field work with the Cherokee on the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina. Mooney described the adoption of the native game by French colonists explaining that “the French, whose light-hearted gaiety and ready adaptability so endeared them to the hearts of their wild allies, were quick to take up the Indian ball game as relief from the dreary monotony of long weeks in the garrison or lonely days in the forest. It became a favorite pastime, and still survives among the creoles of Louisiana under the name of Raquette, while in the more invigorating atmosphere of the north it assumed a new life, and, with the cruder features eliminated, became the famous Canadian national game of La Crosse.”

The ball game among the Cherokee involved many taboos and rites among players to insure success for their team. For example, Mooney explains that prior to games, players avoid consuming the meat of rabbit, for its timidity, frogs, for it’s brittle bones, and fish known as hog-suckers, for its sluggishness. Further, the night before the game is played, each community holds an all night ball dance, in which both men and women participate to aid their team in victory. Ball players, according to Mooney are held in high esteem by the community, and “to be known as an expert player was a distinction hardly less coveted than fame as a warrior.” [James Mooney 1890 The Cherokee Ball Play. American Anthropologist 3(2) April. pp. 105 - 132]

Nacoista drawing of man and woman playing shinny ball game, ca. 1881-1891? NAA MS 166,931 [right] Ball Team Members, Holding Rackets 1913 by James Mooney. NAA INV 01767000

The National Anthropological Archives holds photographs of the ball game taken by Mooney among the Cherokee in 1888, as well as photographs of equipment and players showing native participation in lacrosse throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To see other collections the Smithsonian holds on the sport of lacrosse, click here.

-Jeremy Floyd, intern National Anthropological Archives

Leanda Gahegan, Reference Archivist
National Anthropological Archives


  1. This is great! I am so fascinated by the glimpse we have of the Cherokee pre-game rituals! They sounds a lot better than say, not changing your lucky socks. Well done Jeremy and NAA for insightful and enjoyable posts!