1. The Problem of Origins


The most prevalent ‘origin story’ of lacrosse goes something like this: it was an ancient game invented by the Indigenous peoples and first observed by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf in Huronia in 1636. Brébeuf named the game  ‘lacrosse’ based on the similarities between the lacrosse stick and bishop’s crozier.   Some passages on the origin of the game are less elaborate and refer to the origins lost to the ‘mists of time’ while others refer to a mythological origin, not serious, but quaint .

For most people, such bare bones stories are good enough since their interest in the game of lacrosse requires no detailed analysis of how the game came about, what it was used for (other than “little brother of war”) or how it affects the modern game.  It was an ancient Indigenous people game modernized by Montrealer George Beers  in 1867.  What more needs to be known?

Two books on the history of lacrosse are most noteworthy and required reading  for anyone interested in the roots of the game.  The first book, “American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War” by Thomas Vennum, is a sweeping narrative of the game in the early historical period.  Where Vennum leaves off, Donald M. Fischer picks up in “Lacrosse – A History of the Game” which brings the narrative into modern times.  The former almost exclusively deals with various forms of the game as they were recorded in early times while the latter deals with the transition of the game from those Indigenous people beginnings to the modern game we know and enjoy.

Both books are invaluable to gaining knowledge about the history of lacrosse, but they too have a vague and uncommitted view of how the game came to exist.   There are reasons for this view reasons that span across a multitude of social, historical and scientific disciplines which make declarative statements about the origins of lacrosse  – and the origin of many other ‘Indigenous people things’-  seem impossible.   However, sometimes things are not always as they seem.

To get an idea of some of the real problems to discovering the origins of lacrosse we first must examine the potential roadblocks to this knowledge.  The first problem is to ask ourselves: why would we want to know about the origins of lacrosse in the first place?  If we are satisfied that the game originated somewhere in the past and those origins are lost to the ‘mists of time’ what we are saying is those origins are not as important as the subsequent history and knowledge of the game as we know it today.  Fair enough, some are comfortable with this idea.  However, this bias could illustrate a general attitude toward how we see Indigenous people people today: their past is not that important and serves little purpose in the grand scheme of things.

I see things differently.  An examination of the origins of lacrosse will inform us of many interesting things about those ancient peoples who thrived in North America thousands of years ago, whose legacy is passed down to us in modern times either through sport, ideas or material culture.  the exercise of trying to determine the origins of lacrosse by applying multi-disciplinary views into a bigger picture can be a valuable backdrop to a way of organizing and looking at the past of the Indigenous people peoples of the Americas and perhaps people all over the world.  Finally, the knowledge we gain from this exercise will add to our own culture by allowing us to embrace the reasoning of the minds that invented the game that is now a world-wide phenomenon.

By stating such beliefs, any rational reader will require proof and I intend to supply you with that.  However, before we can proceed to drawing conclusions, there are steps take that require us to examine what we already know and believe which will require us to survey of some problems that exist that might block our path as we try to journey into the ancient past.  Some might seem insurmountable at first, but we’ll try our best to get through them to an acceptable competence to allow us to move on.  Also note I intend to briefly illustrate some concerns that will directly affect the subject I am trying to cover.   I do not intend to provide a detailed analysis or sweeping critique of historiography, written narratives  or the changing philosophies of anthropology.  I would direct the reader to the bibliography for sources which supply these analyses and critiques far better than I can provide.

One of the fundamental problems , if it exists, is a misplaced defensiveness towards criticism of the status quo.  Before I seem too biased against the so-called ‘Eurocentric’ perspective of the past of the Americas, let me say that any criticism of the accounting of this past will also include any accounts contributed by the indigenous people themselves.  When we examine the stories, myths and legends of the Indigenous people we cannot assume that their accounts are truer or closer to the truth ‘just because’ they are derived from Indigenous people.  Even though there has been expert recording  and translation of oral texts in historical times or some key insights have been provided in modern times, I would be dishonest to exclude them as unproblematic for some esoteric sensitivities.  All conclusions – from every perspective – deserve an honest look and critique to come to some order than makes sense to us.  And yes, I include this work into that mix.

History and Historiography

Everyone knows what history is; the dictionary usually says something like this: a chronological record of significant events often including an explanation of their causes.  Fairly straight forward stuff.   History could be contained in large volumes of details about a country or culture; it might also be a newspaper, documentary movie or television show or content on a website.   History is much more than a compendium of dates, manifests of names and lists of events, although these sources would be counted amongst historical facts or records.

History is a fickle enterprise.  By definition that branch of knowledge records and explains past events – such as the history of World War II or the History of Early New France.  History can range from newspapers to books, from medical prescriptions to the event lists in a scientific experiment.  As much as history is fickle, it is pervasive.  Everywhere we go, everything we do is affected by some historical process – either the record of our credit card transactions or the way we view the world, from the video news at 11 to the blogs on the Internet.  Whether we like to admit our fondness or dislike for the dry narratives of dusty old historians, we are profoundly affected by historical information at every turn and in every facet of our lives.

The fickle aspect of history can be traced to its progenitors.  If the historical record were a unbiased and clear record for all to access, the world would be a very different place.  But because it relies on human creation, preservation and interpretation, the best history can achieve in ‘truth’ is to be a valuable or educated opinion.  There are exceptions to this basic rule, historical financial accounts, and some scientific cataloguing among them, but for the record of social, political and religious interactions there remains various degrees of doubt.  Even the best detailed account of an event must omit details for brevity and so all accounts of an event always lack a total completeness.   Sometimes what is missing determines the value of the material.

Sometimes the doubtful or dubious quality of the historical knowledge is acceptable  because it fulfills its purpose without requiring more detailed enquiry.  When a blurred account will do, it does.  To qualify this though, blurred historical accounts may be acceptable in one time period, but not in others.  A good example of a fickle and blurred history is the historical accounts of the indigenous people of the Americas which has undergone several paradigm shifts over the past few hundred years.  This has resulted in the differences of opinion – and value – from one generation to the next as new philosophies of history are applied to the original data and new conclusions are reached.

For centuries the historical information about the Indigenous peoples provided by European journalists was accepted as fact.  It described those times in enough detail to satisfy the purpose in which it was used.  The Jesuit Relations are cited as the primary source for accounts of life among the Native people in the Northeast.  However, the Jesuit Relations were not compiled as a gift to the historical treasury of humankind; they served a purpose – mainly to advertise the successes of the Jesuit missions securing more financial aid towards their evangelical causes among the Natives.

  1. Kitson Clark in his book, ‘The Critical Historian’ expands on the definition of history as, “… any attempt to describe what has happened before the actual moment of narration shall be called history…” This greatly expands on the forms of what we might consider history to include such scientific areas such as palaeontology, climatology and, importantly for our purposes, anthropology, archaeology and ethnology.  Clark also adds this definition, “…carries with it the corollary that every attempt presents some of the problems which are common to all historical work, and therefore may be subjected to the same critical techniques as that to which history books are subjected.”

Some problems with history include certain distortions provided by the bias of the author illustrated in the well-known saying that ‘history is written by the victors.’  This concept of a distortion introduces controversy into the subject of history since it has fuelled cries of ‘revisionism.’   History requires a sense of trust in the material being presented, but one’s trust in the material does not render the material truthful.

The greater portion of history is, simply, a story told through the selection and arrangement of facts, usually in narrative form.  Reading a financial ledger from 1929 or the order of battle from July 3rd, 1863 might interest to a few select people who can understand what the details mean, but for the rest of us, the interest lies in the story being told.  The events of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, what did those events mean, how did people react?  Or the stories of bravery of the men that fought at Gettysburg on that fateful day that changed the course of the American Civil War.

The Jesuit priests were educated men of their time, but we must also view their education in terms of the social and religious programming required to belong to the order and their place in the society of 17th century France and, in a larger sense, Europe.  How well would a modern day member of an evangelical religious sect accurately report modern day events?  No doubt you will agree there would likely be kind of bias.  While we can agree that they might provide some factual information, we would have to be careful that we did not confuse their interpretations of events as facts because those interpretations would be coloured with the religious leanings of the recorder.

So too were the Jesuits in their Relations –  their cultural frame of reference not only determined their interpretation of facts or events, but also determined which facts or events to were important or valuable enough to record .  So what we get from the Relations is a narrative that would likely please the informational requirements of 16th & 17th century Europeans.

So when dealing with sources like the Jesuit Relations, we must look at the information in them as raw ‘data’ and not ‘knowledge’ because the information does not serve our purposes well in its processed 16th & 17th century state.  One problem with accepting flawed sources, such as the Jesuit Relations, as fact is the perpetuation of grossly biased and flawed history to modern times.   Let me be clear here, readers of history should always be wary of the ideological leanings in any narrative whether they are philosophical, religious, political or social ideologies of the times those histories were composed.

That historical narratives can be distorted and biased towards the author’s particular perspective is not a new phenomenon and is covered under the subject of historiography, the study of the modes and methods of history itself.   If some consider history to be dry, historiography can be dryer still!  However, it is an important aspect of our investigation into the origins of the game of lacrosse since by examining and accounting for the distortions of the historians (and anthropologists, archaeologists, etc.) we might gain new insight into some of the possible history of lacrosse from early times.  Beware though, because we write it and trust it, doesn’t mean it is automatically the truth.  The best we can do is present the facts, make suggestions about possibilities and let you decide what the story could be.  You will take the role of the historian and deciding for yourself.

Barbara A. Mann, in her paper, “The Lynx in Time: Haudenosaunee Women’s Traditions and History” illustrates two types of distortions which, while pertaining to the mythology involving Iroquoian women, also might help us in understanding some problems regarding the ‘pre-history’ of lacrosse and how we might understand these problems enough to get by them.  Mann writes about a “failure of context” and “inclusion of Western interpolations” as problematic when trying to understand Iroquoian myth and history.

“Failure of context” is a problem whereby a piece of information or fact is isolated from other pieces of information or facts that could change or enhance the meaning of the isolated fact.  This is not a wholly intentional distortion as you can well surmise the difficulty of piecing together information from languages quite unlike the classical European languages, with different frames of reference, different metaphors and different grammatical stresses and so on.  Adding to these difficulties is the nature of the time in which these facts were collected – during cultural ‘low points’ of a particular people – it is no wonder that the information gathered is fragmented and can appear to us as schizophrenic.

With Mann’s research, she has found that Iroquoian women’s stories were improperly collected because the ethnographers  weren’t all too interested in them.   Mann states, “Cogent recitals of women’s stories are rare; in fact, I would say non-existent. The stories that do exist are un-collated, often scattered through the literature in such oblique and partial forms that only someone intimately acquainted with them can fathom the allusions.”

Such collections are not unique to the mythology of Iroquoian women and occur in practically all areas of history pertaining to the Indigenous people.  Factors of interest or disinterest played their part with time and resources available to the collector in the field, an understanding of the material being collected or, sometimes the political or social controversies that might arise from the publication of some indigenous stories and myths.  The latter aspect was more prevalent during the imperialist phase of North American history where the notion of manifest destiny provided a framework for how such material ought to be presented.

We have the luxury today, that the original collectors of these pieces of information did not, and that is mainly that the body of knowledge and access to this body has greatly increased from since the days of early contact with the Indigenous people.  Where scattered collections existed in dusty old volumes, we have indexed computer systems, large databases of collected material and the sphere of our expertise has naturally expanded to include a larger view of this material and how to access it.  Our ability to correlate this data has increased greatly to allow us to apply some context to the original isolate facts.

“Inclusion of Western interpolations” simple refers to the understanding of those facts and stories because we try to attach meaning for us, using our own frame of reference.  This is the source of the bias as noted above.  With the collector of stories and lore from 150 years ago, their frame of reference is the interpolation and may often be a ‘Eurocentric’ view.

Sometimes the authors did not understand their distortions and put together their narratives to the best of their ability with what they had.  Jesuit Jean Brébeuf wrote a brief passage in his ‘Jesuit Relation of 1636,’ “Among all these fooleries, I dare not speak of the infamies and uncleanness which the Devil makes to slip into them, causing them to see in a dream that they can only be healed by wallowing in all sorts of filth.”  Brébeuf wrote this after another passage in which he referred to the game of “crosse” which could be conjured by a dream.

Other times this interpolation was intentional to acculturate or assimilate the subjects.  Mann writes further, “The missionaries likewise transformed the cycle of the Twins into a hellfire and damnation tale of good God versus evil Satan, a twist that flies in the face of the original, which contains no such good-evil dichotomy.  Brinton deftly traced the missionary origin of this interpolation from the 1636 version of Jesuit Father Brébeuf, which lacked any such dualism, to the versions current in 1868, which were awash with it.”

Mann suggests that we can solve the problems of “failure of context” and “inclusion of western interpolations” by applying the “Recovery Method” in which she states we require a “…shift in mindsets is also required, away from linear logic and toward a matrix of interlocking cycles.”  While she is specifically referring to solving the problems illuminated in the composition of Iroquoian women’s mythology, we might find this method is useful in examining the indigenous myths and stories we encounter when investigating the origins of lacrosse.  However, even with our modern perspective on sport and health, we can already see it is easy for us to make a “shift in mindsets” away from the opinion of Jean Brébeuf above.

Other problems with history compound upon the two noted above.  One such problem is related to the modern technical composition of historical narrative and ‘intertextuality,’ the phenomenon of one text being influenced by another, or previous, text.  This problem becomes more acute as historical narrative takes on a populist-like perspective through modern social media and the transmission of information through memes.  A rough corollary in the literary world would equate to something like folklore and popular slogans.  Although  folklore and slogans cannot be discounted as sources to, or partial truths of, history, rooting them out can be difficult.

One fine example of this intertextual phenomenon is illustrated by Barabara Adamski in her article on the history of lacrosse in the ‘Canadian Encyclopedia’ regarding the popular belief that Jean Brébeuf named the game based on the resemblance of the stick to a Catholic bishop’s crozier or staff:  “While many accounts allege that Brébeuf gave the sport its name based on the fact that the stick resembled a bishop’s crosier, Brébeuf’s own writings mention nothing of the similarity, nor do they provide enough of a description of the activity to ensure that he is referring to a game of lacrosse as we know it.”

That we know Brébeuf never named the game after the bishop’s staff hasn’t stopped people from writing he did nor has it stopped people from copying faulty information into their own narratives.  It must be acknowledged that false information that has previously published can be – and often is – corrected within a revision of a serious historical narrative, but that aged narratives keep the suspect information intact. There isn’t much we can do about this except ensure our sources line up.

One of the related aspects of the populist-like problem is the use of specifics when describing generalities.  I wouldn’t say that ‘people drive cars called Pontiacs,’ even though there is a modicum of truth to the statement.  Neither would I say that ‘the Indigenous peoples played a game called baggataway.’  with the former, people drive cars by of all makes and models, and with different names.  With the latter, over 200 distinct languages were spoken on the North American continent prior to the first Europeans and people played many stick-ball games with many names for them.  Baggataway is the Anishnabe (Ojibway) term for their version of the game, but it was not a term used ubiquitously throughout the Americas.

This may seem like nit-picking and, for some uses or contexts, it might well be.  However, when we explore those ancient origins of lacrosse, the name given to the game by the indigenous people will become very important.

Along the same lines is as the problem of using specifics to refer to generalities is the popular notion that the indigenous names for lacrosse all somehow refer to war, or ‘little brother of war.’  This misconception illustrates several of the historical problems noted above since it generalizes a specific term, is often communicated without a second thought and is taken out of context.

All of this together hints to us the inclusion of those Western interpolations we ought to be on the lookout for.  Why -when the game was referred to by most of its original players by decidedly non-warlike terms – has it become popular to refer to the game in this manner?  Especially seeing that the game from which this term was assigned – the Cherokee version of the game – is somewhat removed from the modern Iroquoian-based game in rules and equipment.  This ‘little brother of war’ aspect has even found it’s corollary within the modern culture of lacrosse itself as modern players ‘battle’ for the ball as ‘warriors.’

When we examine the origins of lacrosse we will need to be wary of problems that arise from the historical record of the game, especially the distortions produced by these problems.  With history, however, we are mainly referring to the narratives derived as an explanation of events or to written records, articles, stories, lists, ledgers and so on.   As we will see, some with history will also apply to the narratives supplied in anthropological, archaeological or ethnographic sources.  However, these three areas of science also bring along some unique problems of their own.


For readers who are not too familiar with anthropology, it might be a good idea to quickly review what anthropology is and how it fits in with the investigation into the origins of lacrosse.  Anthropology is, simply, the scientific field of study of human beings through time.  Naturally this includes the investigations of where we come from, who we are and where we are going; the cultures of the world and so on.  Anthropology is a broad area of study that has several sub-disciplines which include socio-cultural studies, archaeology, physical anthropology and linguistics.  Obviously there will be overlap and interdisciplinary cross-over expertise, at least a working familiarity of one or more of the sub0disciplines.

Socio-cultural anthropology deals with the social and cultural aspects of humanity, from specific investigations of small tribal groups to the sweeping theories of civilizations.   This differs from sociology however, in that sociology – once a sister branch of anthropology – has a more immediate focus in the present time on our present society.  Socio-cultural anthropology deals more with social and culture groups and hat are removed from our society in the present time.   Sociology is about us, socio-cultural anthropology is about them.  While this division might seem a little simplistic, it has implications when dealing with the integration, acculturation and assimilation of Indigenous peoples into modern day society.

The distinction between archaeology and physical anthropology is determined by the remains being studied.  Archaeologists study the material remains of past cultures while physical anthropologists study the human remains, the bones.  There is often overlap between these two disciplines since human remains are often found linked with material remains.

Linguistics is the study of languages and how those languages are formed, structured, communicated and so on.   While the first three sub-disciplines usually gather their data from field work, linguistics less so even though there may be overlap, especially with socio-cultural anthropological field work.

Anthropology is a ‘social science’ and differs from ‘natural science’ in the conclusions that can be obtained through the scientific method.  This statement must be qualified though.  Although anthropology, including the sub-disciplines, is often considered a ‘soft science,’ many of the underlying investigative methods are not.  This is especially apparent in archaeology and physical anthropology since they measure their artefacts using the ‘hard sciences’ of chemistry, biology and physics.  An example of this is radiocarbon analysis or accelerator mass spectrometry to obtain information relating to the dating of objects.

Anthropology is one field taking advantage of, and sometimes driving, new technologies derived from the hard sciences.  While this allows researchers to make more precise conclusions based on the data obtained, these conclusions are very focused and limited in scope.  The larger conclusions – who were they, how did they live, and so on – are still based on educated guesswork in the form of narratives and susceptible to the same problems of narrative as history.  To address some , as any good science ought, anthropology has undergone several revisions of its underlying philosophy which has resulted in competing ‘schools’ of thought when it comes to how the large picture conclusions are derived.

In opening his book, ‘History and Theory in Anthropology’ Alan Barnard writes, “Anthropology is a subject in which theory is of great importance.  It is also a subject in which theory is closely bound up with practice.”  In saying this Barnard recognizes that the philosophy of anthropology changes to address some problems encountered within a particular philosophical perspective.  How does one remove the ‘inclusion of Western interpolations’ in the examination and explanation of its data?  If we can expand on bias, we can see that anthropology can be susceptible to political or social ideologies even with authors who are as careful as scientist they can be.   In other cases, as illustrated in her book ‘Bones,’ Elaine Dewar suggests that anthropological conclusions can be influenced or directed by economic concerns, regionalism or prejudice against ideas and concepts that  go against popular theoretical frameworks such as the Beringia Theory about how the Americas were populated.

While I do not wish to go into detail regarding the factions of anthropological theory, it might be worthwhile to review some of the major theories that have influenced anthropological conclusions over the past 150 years .  For us to decipher some of the referenced  works of the early anthropologists, an idea of where they were coming regarding the overarching philosophy of their day will be useful.  We may separate the opinion from the data in order to re-organize the data to see if it fits with our hypothesis.  Not that insightful conclusions ought to be tossed out with the bathwater, but it could allow us to toss out extraneous material not related to our investigation.

One of the earliest anthropological schools of thought tied in nicely with the rise of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the mid-19th century.  This theory, called evolutionism, states that cultures pass from specific stages to another until they reached ‘civilization,’ which is the highest cultural order.  Evolutionism comes in several brands – ‘unilinear’ posits there is only one dominant line of evolution in which all cultures must pass; universal, which broadens the categories of the unilinear brand to give us the familiar cultural phases such as savagery, barbarism and civilization; finally, multi-linear evolutionism which states that cultures will go through the different stages of evolution, but the ‘trajectories’ of this growth will be influenced by other factors such as the environment.

Marxism and diffusionism are slightly different takes on evolutionism.  Marx and Engels saw the trajectories greatly influenced by economic factors such as ‘historical materialism’ which states that culture changes in response to material good and the production of those goods.  Marxism also supports unilinear evolutionary stages of cultures from primitive communalism, through Slave Society, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism and finally the desired end state of Communism.

Diffusionism has a different look on cultural change which emphasizes the influence on more ‘advanced’ cultures on the more ‘primitive’ ones.  A great city may have arisen in one area and the culture of this city might have a profound influence on the rural cultures in the same general region either through war and exploitation, economic exchange and so on.

A first look, the early theories would seem to make sense and fit most basic or initial empirical studies of a culture or cultural remains.  However, as the anthropological field grew, the problems that arose from these initial theories provided impetus into the next group of theories to take hold.

Initially of the 20th century, anthropology experienced several distinct changes in philosophy which naturally influenced the methods in which data was gathered and analyzed.   The American perspective was summarized by cultural relativism and historical particularism.  The former rejects evolutionism  regarding the value of comparing cultures or cultural development often in the form of ‘them’ compared to ‘us.’  The latter posits that a culture is “the product of a unique sequence of development in which the largely chance operation of diffusion played the major role in bringing about change.”

The American perspective emphasized the diachronic view, or the changes of a culture over time.  This provided impetus for archaeology in the Americas with a focus on unravelling the mysteries of the Indigenous peoples, with placed emphasis on the proper collection, preservation and study of ancient artefacts.  Prior to this period, archaeology was largely an amateur affair at the mercy of looters and private collectors.

The synchronic view,  the emphasis on the view of one particular point in time (or often in time imagined as one) was greatly influenced by the European perspective and gave rise to Functionalism ( or Structural-Functionalism) and Structuralism.  The former, influenced by the European developments in sociology, tried to explained cultures in the cultural functions of customs, traditions and institutions, while the latter, influenced by linguistics, sought to explain cultures in their cultural structures such as kinship, social organization, eating habits and, with an emphasis on grammar, language.

This view of anthropology greatly enhanced the value of fieldwork as a methodology in discovering and recording facts about current cultures all over the world.  Data from these studies them provided insight into our own society and human nature .

Both the Americans and Europeans each practiced archaeology and cultural anthropology however the fundamental differences in the two outlooks is based on how anthropology is organized.  In the Americas, archaeology is a sub-discipline of anthropology, while in Europe archaeology is often seen as a separate discipline on par with anthropology.

By the end of the 20th century the theories of anthropology were dealing with shortcomings in explanation including the place of the individual in cultural change, the lack of a rigid scientific methodology, the interpolation of the predominant male perspective, interpreting oneself to the material being studied – all similar problems experienced by history.  One response to these problems is to posit that authoritative or objective anthropological knowledge is practically impossible to obtain.  This has led to decidedly post-modern critiques of the conclusions of anthropology.

The postmodern perspective leaves room for ‘a’ conclusion, rather than ‘the’ conclusion with the caveat that, should a better conclusion come along, it ought to supplant the old one.  Any particular philosophy can develop insight or categorize aspects of a culture and the same data can be used in different perspectives to arrive a different insights.  Since anthropology is a social science, the objective truth of a set of data is not necessarily more important than the set of data itself.   While this may seem somewhat backward, consider that a particular plant can be analyzed in different ways, from a biological functional perspective, by way of chemical structural analysis, it’s evolutionary traits and so on.  The goal of all this anthropological philosophizing is to bring the field closer to a hard science than mere educated guesswork.

As we explore the data available to reconstruct the origins of lacrosse we will encounter vestiges of these old theories in the material and we can use the perspective of the time to help us determine the value of the data in relation to an overall conclusion, even if accept that the conclusion is not the absolute truth.  However, if at least we can keep an open mind, that is likely the best philosophy of them all.


Most information transmitted to us from archaeology comes in a narrative form either through monographs, research papers, books or lectures.  All of this information is susceptible to the same distortions as historical narratives, although in a slightly lesser degree seeing that the field of archaeology is younger than history or historical analysis.

While historians compile their histories chiefly from written records, the archaeologist compiles their histories from material remains  from stone arrow points and pottery shards to the outlines of buildings or monuments.  These are cultural records of a different order.   Competent archaeologists, like their counterparts in history, will try to determine meaning from those records and present that meaning to make sense to us or is at least significant within a meaningful body of study.

Like anthropology, there are specializations in archaeology, each with its own theoretical framework and methodologies.  The day of the lone archaeologist carefully digging away in a remote area has been replaced with a team of specialists all making valuable contributions to the record unearthed.  Nowadays we have specializations like archaeoastronomy, which studies artefacts in relation to astronomy; archaeozoology which will study the animal remains found at a site; or archaeobotany, which is the study of plant remains found at a site.  Since specialization is the order of the day, each artefact recovered from a site can tell us a little more than a single perspective of the lone archaeologist.

Part of the reason for this team oriented process is determined by modern archaeological investigations, especially in the Americas, where many present urban areas are on, or in close proximity with, former culture areas of the Indigenous peoples.  Population expansion has helped develop a quick acting mode of archaeology in which the investigation must be completed within a certain time frame to allow for such things as urban development, roads and highways or other modern infrastructure requirements.  The effect of this mode is that comprehensive archaeological digs are not possible and that the focus is on rapidly acquiring a representative artefact sample of the area before a deadline.

This illustrates one of the unique problems of archaeology as opposed to the philosophical problems of anthropology or the problems with narrative that can inflict doubt on the historical record.  For certain archaeology still has these problems to overcome, however there are other problems added to the mix of our interest in our investigation of the origins of lacrosse.

As we see above, a comprehensive archaeological investigation in urban areas is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  The trouble, in many cases, is that the present areas of urban settlement are in the same areas in which lacrosse was played in historical times, or likely have been played in pre-historical times.  No doubt that some ancient sites are long buried under tons of concrete and asphalt with small collections as the only memory left of those times.  This all results where the artefact record is incomplete and, while it might be complete enough for some purposes, it might be incomplete for ours.

Another factor that directly correlates to the incomplete archaeological record is one of artefact selection.  As we have learned above, the philosophy of anthropology and archaeology has changed over the past centuries and this has affected the methodologies used in those disciplines.   While the method of collection is scientifically sound in modern times, it was not always so and still continues to be haphazard in some regions.

Before the professionalization of archaeology in North America, most of the artefact collecting was left to the curious – amateurs of varying expertise and knowledge.   Sometimes ancient sites were looted for the most valuable items and the remaining artefacts were discarded or otherwise destroyed.   In other cases, only key or recognizable artefacts were collected and the rest were left behind in unmarked sites.  Often entire sites were dug up or destroyed in the name of urban or agricultural expansion.   Most – as well the evidence left behind by the Indigenous people – are lost forever and unrecoverable.

Once archaeology attained a level of professionalism, this still left considerable time for the methodologies of excavations to be worked out and there was further loss as artefacts of little or unknown utility may have been discarded.  It is doubtful that the profession remains in a similar state in modern times, which only leaves the interpretation of the artefact open to question.  We will see how this might play out in our investigation of the records and artefacts that remain.

There is another related problem to the one of the incomplete record, but this has more to do with soil than anything.   Due to varying ecological conditions throughout the continent over the millennia  acidic soils are commonplace.  Acidic soils are not conducive to the preservation of biological materials such as, wood, leather or textiles and finding such articles are rare and highly prized.  Lithic materials and pottery weather the soil conditions much better, but even human remains become susceptible to the effects of acid over long periods of time.  If one is trying to find the evidence of a wood and gut lacrosse stick, or leather bound ball, you can see the dilemma.  To date, there are no known pre-Columbian lacrosse sticks or balls identified in the archaeological record in North America.

Cultural Anthropology, Ethnology and Ethnography

As each of the main anthropological sub-disciplines has a fairly limited area of study, cultural anthropology could be considered ‘all the rest’ and its primary focus is on the study of human culture –  a “…system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artefacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.”

It would at first appear that the definition of cultural anthropology could include the other three sub-disciplines of archaeology, physical anthropology and linguistics, but the former two are more focused in the past, while linguistics has a very narrow focus, whereas socio-cultural anthropology is wide in scope.  It must be re-iterated that all sub-disciplines inform one another either through specific data or general philosophical considerations and this is especially true for linguistic and cultural anthropology.

Ethnology is the theoretical framework for cultural anthropology while ethnography is the actual methodological framework.   Cultural anthropology could be the ‘what,’ ethnology the ‘why’ and ethnography the ‘how.’  There are important reasons for making these rough distinctions mainly that many problems we will encounter in our search for the origins of lacrosse are based on ethnological and ethnographical data.

We have seen above, some of the philosophical changes that have occurred in anthropology over the past 150 years and these philosophical frameworks keenly apply to ethnological data.  However, ethnological data has been compiled for a long time and the ethnological data from these studies have become a part of the historical record and is, as we know, itself fraught with problems.

One of the key illustrations of this problem is the view of Indigenous people in the literature of a 150 years ago .  Mid-19th century cultural observations of the Indigenous people by well-known ethnographers, such as Lewis Morgan or Henry Schoolcraft are now used as sources of data to recreate histories of the people being studied, either through recording events or the extrapolation of cultural traits back into pre-Columbian times.   Not that using this information somehow illegitimatizes the conclusions of modern historians or ethnologists using these data sources, but the special problems of ethnology compounds upon the problems observed with history.

One problem, hinted at by Barbara Mann above, is the problem of the bias of the observer and the effect of this bias – this ‘interpolation’ – on the material being studied.  While it says that material or human remains can be scientifically analyzed with fairly objective and precise methods by the archaeologist or physical anthropologist, ethnographic material is subject to less precise methods which rely on human insight for an explanation.

During the 1950’s, cultural anthropology adopted a concept from the field of linguistics that has provided a measure of objective consideration when viewing the ethnographic data.  This concept regards the point of view of the ethnographer in relation to the point of view of a native of the culture or society being studied.

The ‘emic’ perspective is the ‘insider’ view of a culture, from the perspective of a native to that culture and likely the primary informant of meaning for a ethnographer.  The ‘etic’ view – the perspective of the ethnographer – tries to be culturally neutral, but recognizes that even with a best effort, some meaning of a particular cultural trait will be informed by the cultural framework of the observer.   The etic view may be as simple as translating a local myth into the language of the observer, trying to assign the same emphasis of meaning of one cultural symbol to something coherent in our culture, which may be impossible.

This results in a dialogue that must be recognized in ethnology otherwise we can only inform ourselves about ourselves and our ethnological work will be for naught.  Understand that our observations, as neutral as we may wish to make them, might be off or absurd to a native of that culture or they may be incomplete .

The formulation and recognition of the emic/etic dichotomy was not always the rule of thumb however and we find this apparent in ethnologies handed down to us, even in recent times.  Sometimes the ethnologist makes no bones about adding their opinion or perspective on a particular cultural trait they encounter.  If we can recognize this, we might still use the raw data and avoid any ethnocentric traps placed on the material.

Another problem with the ethnological record doesn’t really have anything to do with the internal structuring of ethnology itself, but more about the availability and reliability of the data being collected.  This is especially important to us since it will illustrate the barriers we must overcome when making determinations about the origins of lacrosse.

While observations of one type have been made about the Indigenous people since Europeans set foot on this continent, these observations were taken during, what we know as, a very tumultuous period for the inhabitants.  History records catastrophic events in the lives of the Indigenous people, primarily in the form derived from the effects of the rapid expansion of diseases from which the Indigenous people had no immunities, such as smallpox, measles, typhoid and cholera.

One of the primary effects of this phenomenon was an equally rapid depopulation of certain areas of North America and epidemics on the remaining populations over the ensuing centuries until immunities were established.  In this depopulated vacuum arose political, social and cultural upheaval that greatly affected the information that could be obtained from the Indigenous people.

An example of this follows the nature of epidemic diseases which would have naturally affected the most vulnerable of a population including the very young and the very old.  As we know, the Indigenous people relied on the oral transmission of their culture through speaking and oratory, stories and songs.  While there might have been often of mnemonic devices used – such as pictographs,  carvings, strings of beads or knots, etc., the culture was passed along via spoken language.  The main repositories of this body of knowledge would likely have been some of the most vulnerable of the population, the elderly.  One can imagine the effect on the culture of a village, town or, sometimes entire districts or territories by the rapid loss of this information.

The effect of this phenomenon on us, and the information will received when proper observations was recorded, is a record that is somewhat imprecise or inconsistent, fragmentary or borrowed from another culture group.  When we examine the Indigenous people’s mythology surrounding the subject of pre-Columbian lacrosse, we will notice this nature of the information.

Not only was original knowledge lost, but the context and meaning for the remaining material was also lost or poorly reconstituted in later times.  What we are left with nowadays is a hint of the possible leaving us to search for context and meaning to fill in the gaps.  While this may represent a paucity in the original record, due to the sheer data we have, we are not yet at the point where we can easily coordinate and correlate specific cultural data from one area to another on a grand scale to gain insight into those specifics.  These types of studies are also fragmentary .


As you can well realize, the undertaking of any study of the history or historical culture of the Indigenous people through the lenses of history or anthropology can be problematic, especially if one is trying to make firm assertions about the people or culture being studied.  Yet firm assertions are often made to support a hypothesis, theory or legal matters.  Generally of thumb the larger the assertion, the less reliable it will become.   In modern academia we find such studies to be very detailed within a limited scope and usually requiring a fair bit of interdisciplinary coordination in determining results.   Even though the linkages between the various studies can be very tentative, we often get a glimpse of the objective and this might cause us to make hasty conclusions.  Concede that such glimpses may be more probably, but constitute no concrete scientific truth.

Fortunately, through modern computing and networking technology, the accessibility of original or source study material is becoming more open to the public.  However this accessibility is a double edged sword since disciplined material can be used in undisciplined ways with the effect of confusing the overall record.  Compounded to this confusion is a constant changing of historical or anthropological philosophies, theoretical frameworks and concepts.  This provides a large variety of material that must be sorted through to determine key details.

One may ask – is there a particular or preferred historical or anthropological framework that lends itself to determining the true origins of lacrosse?  The answer is not clear.  However, as we travel through the material, we must keep an open mind especially in relation to the principle of parsimony.  While some material might seem tantalizing and produce excitement, we must take as through a review of this material as possible remembering that the simplest answer is the most likely.

NEXT: 2. Extraneous Origins