3. The Mists of Time


The problems that history and anthropology present to our enquiry are compounded in mythology which, with the usual problems of narrative, introduce another set of problems more fundamental to the former disciplines.  One of the main problems with mythology is the definition of what constitutes a myth and while there might boundaries in any definition, those boundaries are often blurred.

William Bascom defines a myth as “prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past.  They are accepted on faith…”  When we review the indigenous myths pertaining to lacrosse, we will see that this definition is somewhat tentative, but that is more about our relationship to the narrative, ‘we’ being the collectors of the myth as opposed to the ‘they’ who are the tellers of the myth.

Other things to consider when defining a myth for our purpose, is the general application of the word.  Nowadays it is common to hear the word ‘myth’ used in a pejorative sense, especially towards the accounting of recent historical events such as the rationale for a war or the reasons given for an economic downturn.  The key thing to focus on, for our purposes, is that a myth refers to a events and places in a remote period in the past and has a sacred nature to it.  The second aspect of myth to note is that the characters in a mythical story tend not to be human or are not identified as definitely and only human.  Myths concern gods and creatures which may resemble humans in some forms, but have special attributes or powers beyond the capability of humans.  Myths have a supernatural feel to them.

If we accept Bascom’s definition of myth as we have above, this leaves us with other types of stories that may be present in the compendium of narratives associated with a culture.  Beyond myth there are legends, which Bascom defines as factual stories of the recent past which pertain to human characters and may be secular or sacred stories.  Then there are folktales or fables considered fictional accounts from any time and any place, may include human and non-hum characters and have a secular nature to them.  Remember that the factual or fictional aspect of the story is determined by the tellers, not the collectors.  This is an important rule of thumb to remember because when we review myths of other cultures, our inclination is that if they are unbelievable to us we might consider them all folktales while the people that tell them may have unquestionable faith in the truth .

When we examine some indigenous stories – especially those pertaining to lacrosse – we will be presented with the problem of definition.  Can the story be defined hard and fast as a myth or is it a mere legend?  Do the original story tellers believe the story they were telling was true or was it a fable to them?  We will see that many stories we encounter have those boundary lines of definition blurred or obscured by information that is simply no longer available to us in modern times. 

Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether the story should be defined as a myth or a legend; some might be defined as outright folktale. We will see that in many stories, the characters are humans, as actual people, but have mythical attributes to them.  In a few other cases, as is common with indigenous stories, the characters are animals or some other natural feature or their symbolic stand-ins.  Since it is practically impossible for us to determine whether the historic story teller believed the content or that the content was believe by the prehistoric indigenous folk in the time before the actual collection of the myth, the easiest attitude is to treat the stories we will examine as myths and assign a level of indigenous believability to the them.   While there may be sound objections to this attitude, there may be benefits to be gained by taking this perspective.


The study of myths is a tricky proposition especially in the methods we use to study them.  Like anthropology, we can examine myths as if they were cultural material and, like anthropology, our determination of the meaning of a particular myth or set of myths rests on our philosophical underpinnings.   This means that myths can be examined in a comparative way, compared against the myths of other cultures, to determine if there are any relationships between the two myths or cultures that produced them; or we can examine them in a particularist way noting that each myth has its primary origin within the culture group that created them and the only reliable information we can gather about a myth must be formed in this light.

Comparative mythology is susceptible to the same problems as comparative anthropology, which is practically inescapable in examining myth since we need to determine meaning from our own frames of reference.   However, the more universal the criteria in which the myth is being compared to, the more acceptable the conclusion we can make.  The universal criteria includes linguistic aspects – how words, phrases and language forms in myths are similar to the same in myths from other cultures; structural – the actual composition of the myth as a narrative or how the content is organized; or psychological which refers to the comparison of ideas, symbols, motifs and patterns of myths.

Particularism in mythology states that any comparative analysis of myths is bound to raise more problems than solutions, more questions than answers and the particularists have a point.  A good example is illustrated in how indigenous myths were collected – usually in oral form from an indigenous story teller which required translation.  While the collector might have ended up with a quaint story, what detail was approximated or omitted by the translator?  This leads us back to the problem of the emic versus the etic that was discussed earlier.   Even if the collector was intimately familiar with the language and culture of the story teller, can we be sure that the key symbols and motifs were accurately reflected in the final product enough to derive the same meaning to us, that is apparent to the story teller or the members of the particular culture?

The stumbling block that particularism presents is serious for the certainty of any conclusions that may be derived from the analysis of any myths except, perhaps, our own.  Particularism forces us to recognize the gaps in our knowledge and not to rely on a single method to determine insight or declare a truth.  This means that while we can use comparative mythology as one method to determine the meaning of a myth, such conclusions ought to be apparent in, or acceptable to, the related material from other disciplines which may include the fields of science, history, art or literature.

Our perspective of the indigenous myths we will examine must be an etic perspective,  we are on the outside and moreso since the material we are about to examine is written in our own language over 100 years ago, using contemporary grammar and framed by references of the day.   We often may encounter material we have to decipher using our own, modern perspective.  The natural inclination for this etic view is to read the stories with a measure of disbelief.  Even if we apply the suspension of belief to allow ourselves to be immersed in the content of the stories to determine some insight or another, we still must suspend that belief and this means the myths, to us, are fictional.  However, to the native storyteller and audience, the content of the myth, was truthful to one degree or another.  A myth may illustrate a particular moral or ethical understanding for the indigenous audience and could be ‘true’ even though the events appear, even to them, as somewhat speculative.

Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko prescribes four main descriptive criteria for a myth: form, content, function and context.  While we have taken a brief look at the first two criteria, the latter two try, in part, to answer the questions why the myth was created and re-told, often for hundreds or thousands of years, and what was the impetus for the creation of the myth in the first place and how has that impetus changed over the lifetime of the myth?  When we examine a myth and wonder why the indigenous story teller and audience believed in such content, we have to wonder what function the myth had in that culture.

Honko suggests that the study myth starts with four broad approaches to investigation: psychological, sociological, historical and structural.  These approaches can be further divided into twelve categories of study that scholars use to determine the context and function of a myth:  as a cognitive source or source of explanation of enigmatic phenomena; as a source of symbolic expression; as a projection of the subconscious; as a source for a world view or adaption to life; as a charter of behaviour; as a source of legitimation of social institutions; as a marker of social relevance to a culture; as a mirror of cultural or social structure; because of a historical event or situation; as a means for religious communication; as a religious genre; and as a medium for structure.  Honko notes that since myths are multidimensional, there will be overlap within these categories and several categories can explain a particular myth.

A detailed explanation of mythology or even a detailed examination of a particular myth could fill volumes with analytical data. For our purposes, this may not be necessary since we will focus on looking for clues to certain aspects of the origins of lacrosse which only need touch a few of Honko’s categories.  While this might seem insufficient in comparison with a highly detailed analysis of the myth, the confidence is placed in making a general conclusion about these aspects which can be supported by other, non-mythological, evidence.

Mythological Time

As we can see from the definition of a myth, time, in part, plays a significant role in determining the difference between a myth and a legend.  Myths are said to have occurred in the remote, primordial past, while legends are said to have occurred in the more recent past.   Barbara Mann, in her examination of the Iroquoian heroine Jigonsaseh, proposes that Iroquoian myths could be  divided into time periods or epochs, based on the content of the myths:

“The Sky Epoch describes the origins of the Haudenosaunee, who are descended from the Sky People through Sky Woman and her daughter, the Lynx. The League Epoch is that of the co-founding of the Haudenosaunee League by Hiawatha, Jigonsaseh, and the Peacemaker. The third Epoch, that of Handsome Lake, is the dire story of the European invasion with its attendant warfare, disease, and massive cultural destruction. The first two Epochs are pre-contact; the third is post-contact.”

Mann uses the concept of mythical epochs to illustrate how the Iroquoian storytellers recycled mythical metaphors from one epoch to another, to show how these familiar and intimate mythological elements were re-used by subsequent myth makers preserving the original metaphor and its familiar context, but also extending its meaning in later stories.  (This could be contrasted with the concept of ‘extending the rafters,’ a metaphorical reference to the building of an extension to a  traditional Iroquoian longhouse to accommodate more people, but could also meaning the Iroquois adding communities to their confederation).

Dividing time into periods based on the content of myths is not a new concept.  As we see from the very definition, the myth refers to a ‘remote’ time.  How then can we distinguish what is remote and what is recent?  This is where the identity and composition of the characters come into play.  Mythical characters, according to William Bascom, are not human beings as we know humanity.    They could be gods, animals or creatures of one type .  They may have human-like attributes, but they are decidedly non-human.  This includes the legendary hero who may be portrayed as a human being – one of us – but possesses remarkable and supernatural powers that distinguishes her/him from the rest of us.

Within each epoch further time periods can be roughly aligned with ‘cycles’ which are a set of stories pertaining to an important event within the epoch.  In Mann’s essay, the earliest time period is the “Sky Cycle” which is denoted by the fall to Earth of the ‘Sky Woman’ who begins the creation of ‘Turtle Island’ (present day North America).  The second time period is the ‘Lynx Cycle’ in which Sky Woman bears a daughter and they wander Turtle Island sowing plants and naming the animals.  The third time period, the ‘Twins Cycle,’ is when the daughter of Sky Woman dies in childbirth bearing twins.   This should illustrate how a body of myths can be broken down into time periods that follow a familiar, linear, form of logic even though the myths themselves do not follow any linear pattern.

There are reasons I use Mann’s ‘The Lynx in Time’ as an example.   To begin with, Mann informs us of the epochal time periods in Iroquoian myth, the Iroquoian being one of the chief lacrosse playing people; second, Mann illustrates the concept of the twins – important aspects to Iroquoian cosmology – but found as a cosmological concept in many people throughout prehistoric North America; finally, Mann raises metaphors being re-cycled throughout the body of mythical cycle or epoch.  These concepts will become important considerations when we examine some of the indigenous myths pertaining to the origin of lacrosse.

For our purposes, I propose that the indigenous mythological time be divided into five epochs, in a linear fashion, starting from the earliest times and ending in the historical period.  The rationale for this is to give us a sense of progression of time which may roughly correspond with any time lines as determined in archaeology or history.  These epochs will seem arbitrary but they will help us sort the myths from the groupings for comparative purposes.  As you will see, some mythical timing will overlap with others and no mythical time is as cut and dried as it seems when considered on its own.

Primordial Epoch – the earliest known memory, prior to or immediately following, the creation of the world.   The primary inhabitants of this epoch are natural beings – animals or natural phenomena such as the wind, who are animated to the degree they can speak and socially interact with one another.  The world may comprise nothingness, water or some combination, or layering, of water/land and sky.  One of the main events of this epoch is the intercalation of a supernatural being or ‘creator being’ into the environment.  In many myths dealing with this epoch, the understanding is that prior to the creator being, an environment of one form , inhabited by other beings or not, existed.

Creation Epoch – the time where the creator being roams the land, creates natural phenomena such as rivers and lakes and other land features, creates and/or names the animals, communicates and socially interacts with some forms of natural phenomena such as the animals, thunder, lightning, the wind, etc.

Progeny Epoch – this epoch deals with the children of the creator being(s) and concerns their adventures and interaction in the world.  Throughout the Americas, this period is noted by twins, or beings that are twinned to one another, and has the distinction of creating dichotomous features with natural, intellectual or spiritual phenomena.  The emergence of a trickster may be apparent. 

Human beings, ‘the people,’ may have arrive in the Creation or Progeny Epochs, but they have infant like qualities and abilities.  Their role in the myths are often ancillary and little regarded.  They may be direct descendants of the creator beings.

Hero Epoch this period is marked for the cultural hero stories or those concerned with ‘the people’ and their trials and tribulations as they learn to survive in the world. The people have settled into living patterns and cultural distinctions come into focus.

Legendary Epoch – the final epoch before history is noted for the fading of the cultural hero in favour of humans who express virtue of natural ability and aid their culture group .  This is the time of witchcraft, war, famine and great, but wholly human, deeds.  Some events in this period can be traced into modern memory or historical times.

If we look at the total mythical catalogue of any indigenous culture group, the stories will likely fall roughly in one epoch , often somewhere in the middle, or they may even skip one epoch.  This could have more to do with the collection of the myths or their lack of availability in historical times.  Often one will see similar stories within several culture groups which may be due to diffusion process, acculturation, or borrowing; there may be similar symbols or motifs such as the phenomena of twins or the concept of an axis mundi.  However, the main reason we are delineating mythical time is to show the antiquity of the origin of lacrosse ascribed by the indigenous storytellers.  The people themselves saw the game as very ancient as noted by where the game came from, who played the game and when.  In addition, if some were created as a mnemonic device, we might determine the thing or event in which they wished to remember.

The Ball Game of the Birds and Animals

James Mooney was an outstanding American ethnographer who worked for the American Bureau of Ethnology from 1885 until his death in 1921.  “At the time of his death he was recognized as the leading authority on the Cherokee and Kiowa Indians, as well as a foremost authority upon the Indians of the entire Plains area, while no one was probably as well read on the earlier history of the tribes north of Mexico taken as a whole.”  Mooney had written extensively during his time spent with the Cherokee where he recorded dozens of Cherokee myths and stories and document the Cherokee lacrosse game.  His observations are frequently cited still over 120 years after they were written.

One of the stories that Mooney recorded concerned a ball game between the winged and four legged animals – one of the many Cherokee stories that referred to the ball game .  While taking this story down, Mooney took liberty in arranging the story to suit his readership, but the story is likely accurately recorded from the point of view of the teller, at least in intent. 

While the game itself is identified as “ballplay” and not specifically as lacrosse, Mooney identifies the game with the Cherokee version of lacrosse through other anthropological evidence he collected while he stayed among them.  For our purposes, unless specifically identified as some other form of ball game, such as football, shinny or double ball, our understanding of “ballplay,” ‘ball game’ or ‘game of ball’ will refer to lacrosse in one form .  The rationale is that the ethnographers identified the lacrosse type games simply as ‘ball play’ while specifically identifying the other games by association with games they were already familiar with.  In other cases the ethnographer will identify the game as “lacrosse” even though we cannot be sure that the game the informant was discussing was lacrosse.

This version of “The Ball Game of the Birds and Animals” is from Nineteenth  Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 1, from 1897-98:

Once the animals challenged the birds to a great ballplay, and the birds accepted. The leaders made the arrangements and fixed the day, and when the time came both parties met at the place for the ball dance, the animals on a smooth grassy bottom near the river and the birds in the treetops over by the ridge. The captain of the animals was the Bear, who was so strong and heavy that he could pull down anyone who got in his way. All along the road to the ball ground he was tossing up great logs to show his strength and boasting of what he would do to the birds when the game began. The Terrapin, too—not the little one we have now, but the great original Terrapin— was with the animals. His shell was so hard that the heaviest blows could not hurt him, and he kept rising up on his hind legs and drop ping heavily again to the ground, bragging that this was the way he would crush any bird that tried to take the ball from him. Then there was the Deer, who could outrun every other animal. Altogether it was a fine company.

The birds had the Eagle for their captain, with the Hawk and the great Tla’nuwa, all swift and strong of flight, but still they were a little afraid of the animals. The dance was over and they were all pruning their feathers up in the trees and waiting for the captain to give the word when here came two little things hardly larger than field mice climbing up the tree in which sat perched the bird captain. At last they reached the top, and creeping along the limb to where the Eagle captain sat they asked to be allowed to join in the game. The captain looked at them, and seeing that they were four-footed, he asked why they did not go to the animals, where they belonged. The little things said that they had, but the animals had made fun of them and driven them off because they were so small. Then the bird captain pitied them and wanted to take them.

But how could they join the birds when they had no wings? The Eagle, the Hawk, and the others consulted, and at last it was decided to think of something that might do, until someone happened to remember the drum they had used in the dance. The head was of ground-hog skin and maybe they could cut off a corner and make wings of it. So they took two pieces of leather from the drumhead and cut them into shape for wings, and stretched them with cane splints and fastened them on to the forelegs of one of the small animals, and in this way came Tla’melia, the Bat. They threw the ball to him and told him to catch it, and by the way he dodged and circled about, keeping the ball always in the air and never letting it fall to the ground, the birds soon saw that he would be one of their best men.

Now they wanted to fix the other little animal, but they had used up all their leather to make wings for the Bat, and there was no time to send for more. Somebody said that they might do it by stretching his skin, so two large birds took hold from opposite sides with their strong bills, and by pulling at his fur for several minutes they managed to stretch the skin on each side between the fore and hind feet, until they had Tewa, the Flying Squirrel. To try him the bird captain threw up the ball, when the Flying Squirrel sprang off the limb after it, caught it in his teeth and carried it through the air to another tree nearly across the bottom.

When they were all ready the signal was given and the game began, but almost at the first toss the Flying Squirrel caught the ball and carried it up a tree, from which he threw it to the birds, who kept it in the air for some time until it dropped. The Bear rushed to get it, but the Martin darted after it and threw it to the Bat, who was flying near the ground, and by his dodging and doubling kept it out of the way of even the Deer, until he finally threw it in between the posts and won the game for the birds.

The Bear and the Terrapin, who had boasted so of what they would do, never got a chance even to touch the ball. For saving the ball when it dropped, the birds afterwards gave the Martin a gourd in which to build his nest, and he still has it.

In Mooney’s version we see that the game itself appears to be a backdrop for a moral lesson and a story about how the bat and flying squirrel came to be along with why the martin uses a gourd for its nest.  Despite the details of play, the focus is not on the game or an explanation of where the game came from.  However, since we notice that the animals are communicating and socially interacting with one another and have formed rough social hierarchies, we can conclude that the timing of this game is in the remote past and the animals already know how to play the ball game. 

The timing for this story would appear to take place in one of the earlier epochs, at least from the Cherokee perspective.  In the Cherokee story of “How the World was Made” we are informed that the “earth is a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging, down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock…When all was water, the animals were above in Galun’lati, beyond the arch, but it was very much crowded, and they were wanting more room.”  We also learn that people “came after the animals and plants.”

One of the questions we can ask of this story is one of type – does it qualify as a myth or a mere fable?  Does the teller or his audience truly believe that the animals played a game of lacrosse?  While we can say that the moral imperative of the story might be true, what about the actual events?

In his monumental work, ‘The Scared Formulas of the Cherokees’ Mooney informs us that the early Cherokee believed that the origin of disease and medicine was directed by the animals towards the people as retribution for harm done to them.  As the animals conspired and created disease and death, the plants, who were still friendly with the people,  decided to “defeat the evil designs” of the animals and “furnish the antidote to counteract the evil wrought by the revengeful animals.”  Further to this, Mooney explains that the “religion of the Cherokees, like that of most of our North American tribes, is zootheism or animal worship, with the survival of that earlier stage designated by Powell as hecastotheism, or the worship of all things tangible, and the beginnings of a higher system in which the elements and the great powers of nature are deified. Their pantheon includes gods in the heaven above, on the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth, but of these the animal gods constitute by far the most numerous class, although the elemental gods are more important.”

While we can appreciate the supernatural powers assigned to the animals in myths, the Cherokee – or at least those suitably informed – saw these powers and abilities as perfectly natural usually.  So for the Cherokee, a tale in which representative animals may have played a lacrosse game, could have been entirely believable.

With most, if not all, indigenous culture groups in North America, we see a form of “zootheism” to one degree or another.  This does not mean that animals had the same abilities as “gods” as we understand them in the classical Western sense, but possessed observable abilities that existed outside of those of the observer.  The deer was swift, the turtle could withstand blows, the bear was big and strong, the bat was crafty in flight, and so on.  The observable traits of the creatures culminated in a knowledge base called upon as a psychological charm for the caller. 

When the ‘spirit’ of the deer was invoked, the invocation was not  towards any specific deer deity, but referred to the nature of the creature and that special ability.  A Cherokee ball player wishing to be a fast runner didn’t invoke the’ thing’ of the deer, they invoked the ‘act’ of the deer,  to be a fast runner.  In honouring that affinity towards the observable ability of the creature, what might appear to us as a prayer towards a deer god, was likely an honour of all the deer as embodied through their nature.  Note that in Cherokee story above, the moral of the story is focused on the ability where the animals appear to be symbolic representations of their  abilities, an embodiment so to speak.  Notice there aren’t eagles or bears participating in the ball game, but “the Eagle” and “the Bear” involved in a contest of the natures of the winged animals versus the four footed animals.  These animal traits would be so closely associated with the skills required to play lacrosse is an important point in which we will come back to shortly.

There is a similar Creek story, called “The Story of the Bat” from John Swanton’s 1929 work, “Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians.”  Swanton attributes this tale to the earlier unpublished manuscript “Myths of the Creeks” from 1887, by William Orrie Tuggle.  This version is sometimes cited as an earlier version of the myth compared to Mooney’s Cherokee version.

The birds challenged the four-footed animals to a great ball play. It was agreed that all creatures which had teeth should be on one side and all those which had feathers should go on the other side with the birds.

The day was fixed and all the arrangements were made; the ground was prepared, the poles erected, and the balls conjured by the medicine men.

When the animals came, all that had teeth went on one side and the birds on the other. At last the Bat came. He went with the animals having teeth, but they said:

“No, you have wings, you must go with the birds.”

He went to the birds and they said: “No, you have teeth, you must go with the animals.” So they drove him away, saying “You are so little you could do no good.”

He went to the animals and begged that they would permit him to play with them. They finally said, “You are too small to help us, but as you have teeth we will let you remain on our side.”

The play began and it soon appeared that the birds were winning, as they could catch the ball in the air, where the four-footed animals could not reach it. The Crane was the best player. The animals were in despair, as none of them could fly. The little Bat now flew into the air and caught the ball as the Crane was flapping slowly along. Again and again the Bat caught the ball, and he won the game for the four-footed animals.

They agreed that though he was so small he should always be classed with the animals having teeth.

The Creek version has an opposite outcome of the Cherokee versionbecause the lowly bat helped the animals win the game.  What is noteworthy is that in this tale, the bat take its place within the Creek taxonomy for animals whereas in the Cherokee version, the taxonomic purpose is missing in favour of a moral to the story.  Also note that in the Creek version “medicine men” are consulted to conjure the game balls, however one is not certain whether these were “medicine men” of animal or human form.  Either way, again, the timeline for this story appears to be in the remote past, with the animals socially interacting and perhaps also socially interacting with humans.

This is all conjecture based upon a stories written down over 100 years ago from indigenous informants with likely experienced culture shock and cultural upheaval in their time.  However, we note this phenomena of animals involved in lacrosse in other myths from various cultures in the eastern portion of North America.

“The Grouse used to have a fine voice and a good halloo in the ballplay. All the animals and birds used to play ball in those days and were just as proud of a loud halloo as the ball players of today.”

In the Creek story about ‘How the Alligator’s Nose Was Broken’

“At last the ball was tossed into the air and the game began. The Alligator caught the ball as it came down and, grasping it in his teeth, ran toward the poles. The birds in vain attempted to snatch it from him and at last gave it up in utter despair.”

In the Ho-Chunk tale of ‘Redhorn Contests the Giants:’

“Human-head-earrings left this place and went on to another place where the people were tormented by a race of low built bears called Mandaswisjf who played lacrosse on the ice with the people betting their lives and killing the losers. The bears were always accompanied by their females who were so swift that the young men could not get away from them.  Old Turtle was the one who played in the center, throwing the ball for the game to start.”

In another Ho-Chunk tale called, ‘Spear Shaft and Lacrosse:’

“The ball was a black stone greased and painted red. Then Turtle said, “This is too extreme! With this stone we will kill one another if anyone is hit with it. It is better to use a regular ball, and if we hit anyone, that would just be fun.” But the Giants would have none of that, so they were obliged to make do with the stone ball. The old man who was to toss the ball up was a great one. He was there with the one who had the ornamental headpiece. Even so, the Giants gained control of the ball, so the old man yelled, “Hit the coyote on the head with the stone ball!” Then the man with the ornamental headpiece threw the ball and struck the coyote on the head. The Giants yelled, “The son-in-law is killed! That’s a foul!” Turtle said indignantly, “Hey, you said, ‘you didn’t do right,’ but thus it would be, so I forbade the use of this and told you to use a regular ball; so it’s your fault — and besides he should have looked out for himself. And even me, I was nearly hit several times!” They resumed, and this time the mink’s head was broken.”

We notice that lacrosse is a vehicle of explanation for animal traits and moral stories while the game itself, though not inconsequential, is not the focus of the story.  It is a setting in which the characters act, the container from which the trait or moral is expressed.  In the stories above, and elsewhere the game appears in indigenous myth, we learn that, mostly, lacrosse has been highly integrated into the cultures from which the stories come.  Lacrosse is old hat, everyone knows what it is, even the animals. 

If lacrosse appears as a motif in the animal tales of a given indigenous culture, another important motif we might realize is that the animals can teach us lessons about one thing .  This concept is prevalent through the bulk of animal-based indigenous lore although Mooney says, “…the shorter animal myths, which have lost whatever sacred character they may once have had, and are told now merely as humorous explanations of certain animal peculiarities.”  While Mooney is satisfied to settle on the stories as “humorous explanations” did they serve another purpose for the storytellers and, ultimately, the audience?

As hinted in two the examples above, the antiquity of lacrosse is also expressed on a stage that included other characters including creator beings, cultural heroes, tricksters, manitous, giants, shape shifters and so on.  These characters would roughly equate to the ‘Progeny Epoch’ when humankind was in its infancy and was still learning lessons from the supernatural world.  This is illustrated in one such Passamaquoddy story collected by Charles Leland in which a young man is adopted for a time by the Thunderers.  The story starts with the notice that is “is truly an old Indian story of old time.”  We learn that the adopted young man observes the “great amusement” of the Thunderers is to “play ball across the sky.”

The Passamaquoddy or Peskotomuhkat are part of an Eastern Algonquin group of cultures known as the Wabenaki who live primarily in the north-eastern coastal region of North America.  The mythology of the Wabenaki is dominated by a cultural hero named ‘Glooscap’ who wanders their territory performing many amazing feats of strength and guile.  The stories may vary from community to community, as does the spelling of his name, but his origins are supernatural and his efforts are directed towards the protection and salvation of the characters in his stories, including the people.  In one such Mi’kmaq story, Glooscap changes one of his “uncles” into a tortoise after the latter got stuck on a lodge pole during a ball game.  While we cannot be certain that the ball game being played is lacrosse, the description of the play reminds us of lacrosse:

Having seized the ball, he was running for life to the post, all the rest after him to seize him, when, dodging right and left to avoid his pursuers, he was driven straight up to his own lodge, with pursuers to the right of him, pursuers to the left of him, and pursuers in the rear. There was nothing left him to do, in order to escape, but to spring sheer over the lodge. This he attempted, but he missed his aim, and was held dangling across the ridge-pole, just over the chimney-hole. Glooscap arose quietly, piled on the fir-boughs, raised a great smoke, which nearly stifled the Tortoise, and so stained his coat that the marks have never been obliterated.

While this could be any ball game, good reason suspects that the game being referred to was lacrosse.   Why this is so, we will review later.  For now, lacrosse – as far as the Wabenaki  people are concerned – is a very ancient game.

Glooscap is an interesting character of a type known as a ‘transformer’ who can change himself, others or his surroundings for various purposes.   Transformer type characters abound in indigenous mythology and have rough correspondences with mythical characters in different culture groups.  

The Menominee are part of a larger culture group often referred to as ‘Anishnabe,’ who speak related forms of the Algonquin language.   The Anishnabek people occupy a very large portion of the north-central  part of North America and from them we hear tales of their primary transformer character, Manubus, a similar character to Glooscap. 

In one tale Manubus is witness to a game between the “beings above,” represented by the thunders and “all the fowls of the air,” and the “beings below” who were represented by “the great white underground bear” who “called upon the fishes, the snakes, the otters, the deer and all the beast of the field.”  The goals of this game were to be at Detroit and Chicago. During the game Manubus, out of revenge, shot two arrows at the “underworld gods” who were watching the game.  While avoiding the arrows the underground beings fell into Lake Michigan causing a deluge.  In another tale, “How the Turkey Buzzard Got His Scabby Neck” the Chippewa equivalent to Manubus, Wenebojo, plays is invited to play in a game of lacrosse by the local villagers.

We notice that lacrosse is played by a wide range of characters in early mythical times either preceding humankind or contemporary with them during their early, formative years.  We also notice that lacrosse itself is not the focus of the story, but a vehicle for some other cultural message ranging from morals to how animals came to be.   There doesn’t appear to be any definitive stories regarding the actual origin of lacrosse other than those suggestive of it being invented long before people, in their modern, contemporary form, arrived in North America.

Another aspect of the same legends we see where lacrosse is mentioned, is that the bow and arrow make a similar appearance.  The bow and arrow technology performs the same backdrop function as lacrosse does.   Both lacrosse and the bow and arrow are familiar symbols for the story tellers and audiences and sometimes appear in the same tale.  In the Seneca story of Wolf-Marked:

Nobody paid any attention to the children.  After a time talking was heard, then a voice said, “Father, we want a club and a ball to play with.”  Wolf-Marked threw in a ball and a club. Some days  passed, then one of the boys called out, “Father, we are  tired of the club and ball, we want a bow and arrows.”  He gave them a bow and made them red willow arrows.

In the Iowa story, “The Scalped Man”

” I am the one who sent for you, ” said the old man to the boy, ” and I have your brother’s sacred arrow safe, for I’ve kept it for you. The people who live across this river have my scalp, and on warm sunny  days they tie it to a pole and take it out and dance around it. Now I want you to go and get it for me. About this time of day the chief’s son goes out to shoot birds along the river. When he gets home he tells his father he has a headache, and then they put the scalp on him and play ball. The chief himself always tosses up the ball for the youths. “

In the Cherokee story of “Kana’ti and Selu” The Origin of Game and Corn

When the Wolf chief asked him his business, he said: “I have two bad boys at home, and I want you to go in seven days from now and play ball against them.” Although Kana’ti spoke as though he wanted them to play a game of ball, the Wolves knew that he meant for them to go and kill the two boys. They promised to go. Then the bird’s down blew off from Kana’ti’s shoulder, and the smoke carried it up through the hole in the roof of the townhouse. When it came down on the ground outside, the Wild Boy took his right shape again and went home and told his brother all that he had heard in the townhouse. But when Kana’ti left the Wolf people, he did not return home, but went on farther.

The boys then began to get ready for the Wolves, and the Wild Boy—the magician—told his brother what to do. They ran around the house in a wide circle until they had made a trail all around it excepting on the side from which the Wolves would come, where they left a small open space. Then they made four large bundles of arrows t and placed them at four different points on the outside of the circle, after which they hid themselves in the woods and waited for the Wolves.

In the latter story, the mythological time is early and describes events that lead to bow and arrow hunting and maize agriculture.  The two boys eventually become Thunderers and teach the people how to hunt and for corn.   The previous two stories associate the bow and arrow with implements of amusement and vengeance respectively, but interwoven with both tales is the often familiar ball game.

In many of the indigenous myths that include lacrosse, the outcome of the game will include death, often as the requirement of a wager, often the loser is beheaded or otherwise destroyed.  Wagering on lacrosse games was a well-known phenomenon is historical times and it should come to no surprise this aspect of the game is expressed in the indigenous myths about it.  In some , especially the versions of games against Giants, a fearful enemy is vanquished; in other tales some fearful animal creature is killed. 

This affinity of lacrosse, defeat and death has perpetuated that lacrosse was a stand in for combat or substitute for war.  However, the problem with this view is that it is not unusual for those defeated in the game to willingly surrender themselves to the agreed upon fate of death.  In legendary or historical indigenous stories of war, it is unusual to have an enemy be so accepting of their fate and often the stories tell of the defeated enemy running away or scattering into the forests.  So why are those defeated in a lacrosse game so willing to have their heads cut off or their numbers reduced.  In the Red Horn cycle of stories the Giants spend days losing contests against the heroes until they are wiped out.

Thomas Vennum supports this war-like view of lacrosse clearly.  Citing a Cherokee word for lacrosse, meaning “little brother of war” or suggesting that the Ojibway lacrosse stick and ball greatly resembles the typical Ojibway war club, not surprisingly, Vennum made this connection.  But he wasn’t the first since many early historians likened the game to combat.  There are stories about lacrosse being used to settle disputes that could otherwise lead to violent conflict and then the legend of the infamous lacrosse game puts on by the war chief Pontiac at Fort Michilimackinac in 1793 that resulted in the slaughter of the British inhabitants of the fort.  Using lacrosse as an analogy for war seems to be a reasonable fit at first glance.

At second glance we find the indigenous inhabitants themselves describing the game in much different terms – as a past time, an amusement, games that children play.  When we encounter the mythical beings playing the game for high stakes, we notice a different pattern to their stories that might lead us to different conclusions even though there are few stories that claim to inform us of the very origins of the game.

One constant motif of the indigenous lacrosse myths is the participation of animals or animal symbolic creatures.  In two stories at least – from the Cherokee and Menominee – the animals were involved in great ball games with one another in primordial times.  Two things are suggested here: one – that lacrosse is associated with animals and the animal world; and two – the knowledge of lacrosse existed in primordial times, before the time of the characters in the stories themselves.  Both these associations need a closer inspection.

The natural world was imperative to the ancient indigenous people of North America, as reflected in their myths and customs and animistic nature of their religious and spiritual beliefs, at least in the form as we understand it.   Often this animistic world came into conflict with the civilized world, the world of villages, towns and agriculture communities; such conflicts were resolved through mythical cycles of the transformation from one period to another.  Barbara Mann supports this in the her paper, ‘The Lynx in Time’ where she describes the Jigonsaseh mythical cycle as a record of the time of the conflict between rise of the agriculturalist in Iroquoian society and the ensuing conflict with the old ways of the forest, of the hunter gatherer.  What is key here is that Mann detects the use of familiar metaphors to explain these events to the audience and by using these metaphors, the past is connected with contemporary times in a comprehendible way.

No doubt that if it is possible for Mann to detect this form of historical narrative in so-called ‘primitive’ myths, that other indigenous myth cycles can be seen in the same light or as having similar value.  However, with the body of indigenous myth in its fractured and incomplete form, this is a difficult proposition and wholly unreliable on its own.  What is required is collaborative evidence from other areas of investigation.

 NEXT: 4. The Archaeology