The game of stickball originated in the 17th century lands of the six Iroquois nations. Modern day Canada, Mid- Atlantic, the Great Lakes and the American South were filled with the social, athletic and religious sport that was known to “please the creator.” The game was played to train young boys for combat, for fun and as part of certain festivals. This function of violence and respect was claimed to have kept the Iroquois nations together.
The rituals of this sport reflected those of war. The number of players ranged from 100 to up to 10,000 men in some cases. . Rules for each game played were established the night before play. Although rules varied depending on the match, the cardinal rule was that no one may touch the ball with their hands. They would decorate their bodies and sticks with paint and charcoal to reflect the qualities they desired for the game they were about to play. The night before the game, sacrifices, feasts and rituals were performed by the community medicine man. The medicine man was also the game’s referee.
The day of the game, viewers would crowd around the score table to see what the players wagers were going to be. Each player was required to submit a wager in order to participate. Trinkets, horses, handkerchiefs and sometimes even wives and children would be submitted as stakes. Stakes were held so high because of the commitment to the game from the players. Lacrosse sticks were treasured equipment to their players. Resembling that of large wooden spoons with no netting and dear skin balls stuffed with fur, players were normally buried with their equipment to play in the afterlife.
The indigenous word used for this game was, Dehuntshigwa’es, meaning “little brother of war.” When the French came over and started integrating themselves with the natives, they called it, “La Crosse,” the generic term used by the French meaning any sport with a curved stick and a ball.
The first time Europeans came in contact with the game was in the 1630s. They spoke of the number of players, rules, field length and length of play, but no documentation of equipment or strategy of play was created until the 1700s. There were multiple forms of stick ball being played at this time period between multiple tribes. The game reflecting that of lacrosse, a two-stick stickball game and another game similar that involved throwing a ball and hitting a pole to score have all been documented during this time period.
Lacrosse regressed in play as Europeans began restricting Native American life. It was at first growing in popularity with the settlers- the violence and the gambling. The authorities of the settlers began worrying that it was cutting into worship time. That mixed with the introduction of lead sticks for “skull crushing,” lacrosse was banned completely by 1900. Since then, the non-native version of lacrosse has spread from Montreal down to the US and has become one of the fastest growing sports today.