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Monday, April 29, 2013

LAX in the Stacks

Creek lacrosse players in Oklahoma fight for the ball by Eugene Heflin, 1938.
(NAA INV 01783800) SPC Se Creek BAE 3302 (V 2) 01783800,
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Spring is here again and in most parts of the country attention is focused on ballparks where the national pastime begins a new season. However, in other parts of the U.S., other  athletes are   pursuing their preferred sport – lacrosse. A couple years ago, we presented one of the earliest ethnographic descriptions of this  game as published by James Mooney in an 1890 issue of The American Anthropologist. In his article, Mooney described the game as it was played by the Cherokee Indians.

Two years after Mooney’s publication, John Napoleon Brinton (J.N.B.) Hewitt, a linguist and ethnologist who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology (the records of which are the foundation for the NAA’s collection), published his description of the Iroquois version of lacrosse also in The American Anthropologist (vol. 5, 1892, p. 189-191).  Born on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in New York State, Hewitt offered some insight into how the Iroquois played the game and the significance they placed on the contests.   The National Anthropological Archives (NAA) holds a letter from Hewitt that appears to be a draft of the article as well as an extract from a book by Hewitt that adds more information on lacrosse as it was played in Iroquois communities.

Seneca men playing lacrosse on the Allegheny Reservation in New York State. 
(NAA INV 00750301)SPC Ne Iroquois Gen/Unid BAE 4413 00750301,
NationalAnthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Original photo
(graphics: 2291) is copyrighted by the American Philosophical Society. 
Permission to publish is required.
In his study, Mooney highlighted the taboos and rites the Cherokee observed when preparing for their games in order to increase their chances for success. Hewitt also found strict pre-game preparations among the Iroquois who played lacrosse. Prior to the games, “players would go through a course of stringent fasting, bathing, and emetics, which [the]latter were infusions of the bark of the spotted alder and red willow” and also noted the Iroquois players would invariably carry “some charm or talisman to insure their victory. ” In a more recent publication, Thomas Vennum (1994: 36) indicates that Iroquois lacrosse players, in recognition of the greater powers held by medicine men, would seek out the support of the best among them. Predictably, however, a show of favoritism toward ones’ opponents by a medicine man with a reputation for greater powers almost always had a disheartening impact on players.

Passamaquoddy lacrosse stick
collected by Edward Palmer in
Pleasant Point, Maine and donated
in 1873.  (E11425-0) Department
of Anthropology, National
Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of the Wolftown lacrosse team of the Qualla Reservation in North
Carolina by James Mooney. (NAA INV 06217800) BAE GN 01041 06217800,
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Such ritual preparations and ferocity with which the Iroquois played the game suggest the importance that the participants and the community placed on lacrosse. Hewitt documented the abandon with which these contests were waged, noting that players were “permitted to trip, throw, push, hold, and run at full speed against any antagonist.” This resulted in “many hands and fingers crushed; arms, legs, bones, and noses broken; brows beaten down; joints dislocated, heads split; sometimes even a player is killed.” 
While players risked life and limb during a lacrosse game, they also could also win high praise for their performance. Hewitt explained that “it was a feat of great honor for a player to take the ball on his bat [stick], elude his pursuers and opponents, outplay the doorguard [goalie] and then carry the ball into the goal, and especially if he was able to walk into the goal.”

Those familiar with the modern game of lacrosse may be surprised to learn that Iroquois players could score by walking through the goal with the ball. The crease – a circle drawn around the goal which only the goalie may enter – prevents such play in the modern game. Other differences between the Iroquois game Hewitt described and the modern one include the size of the teams and timekeeping. The Iroquois did not the limit the size of the lacrosse teams so long as there were equal numbers on each team. There was also no time limit to the games. The first team to score an agreed upon number of points was deemed the winner.

Lacrosse stick probably used in woodlands surrounding the
western Great Lakes and added to Department of Anthropology’s
collection in 1867. (E2670-0) Department of Anthropology,
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
The photos on this page are a sample of the many in the NAA’s collection that depict lacrosse games and players. There are also images of several types of lacrosse sticks that are part of the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. They reflect the different versions of the game that various communities of Native Americans across the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada played as well as the evolution of the game over time (e.g. the use of protective equipment in later years). Check them out and enjoy the rich and proud tradition of a sport inherited from American Indian communities. To learn more about the various forms of lacrosse played by these communities, we recommend American Indian Lacrosse:  Little Brother of War by Senior Ethnomusicologist Emeritus at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Thomas Vennum, Jr.  (Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Adam Minakowski, Reference Archivist 
National Anthropological Archives

Laplako men taking medicine in preparation for a lacrosse game by John Reed Swanton, 1913.  Photo 165h, Photo Lot 76, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

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