The Messaging of the Canadian Lacrosse Association – 150th Anniversary of Lacrosse

 Lacrosse had a long history in Canada preceding the first standard set of rules as codified by Montrealer Dr. George Beers in 1867.  From the early impressions recorded in the 17th century by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf, to the Iroquoian games observed by 18th and 19th settlers in and around Montreal, to (rumours of) lacrosse being “declared the National Game of Canada in 1859.”  What the 150th anniversary of lacrosse actually commemorates is the dating of the first national governing body for lacrosse, then known as the National Lacrosse Association, now known as the Canadian Lacrosse Association.

As a national sport governing body, the Canadian Lacrosse Association has as set of self-defined responsibilities, as evidenced by the following mission statement set out in section 3.1.1 of their Operations Manual: “…to promote, develop and preserve the sport of Lacrosse and its heritage as Canada’s National Summer Sport…”  Included in the responsibility for promotion, of course, is the material produced to promote the activities of the 150th anniversary of lacrosse.

History, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is, “The whole series of past events connected with a particular person or thing.”  Naturally, as part of the 150th anniversary of lacrosse, the Canadian Lacrosse Association has produced promotional material briefly outlining the history of lacrosse.  It is understandable that such promotional products – press releases, website postings, posters, etc., – will have a need for brevity in order to get a memorable message across to pique interest and influence the reader to investigate the topic in more depth.  In other words, there is only so much space in the promotional text devoted to the history of lacrosse.

Even a modest student of history will be able to explain how historical facts are carefully selected as a representation of past events and how, in some ages, this fact-selection was often used to advance a particular ideology contemporary with the historian writing the historical text.  Brevity is also a technique of the historian since a full disclosure of all the facts of a particular historical event may result in an incomprehensible narrative.  Thus the selection of which facts to include in a history is purposeful.

This brings us to the promotional material released by the Canadian Lacrosse Association ahead of the 150th anniversary of lacrosse.  It is not my wish to critique the grammar, nor provide an analysis for the selection of this adjective or that noun, nor otherwise nit-pick my way through this material in comparison of some ideological perspective.  Others are more qualified to do this. 

What I do wish to do is point out how some information in this material, no doubt widely distributed, has been presented as fact and how these facts might be construed in the larger context of relations with Indigenous people in Canada.  These perceptions are important since, as the Canadian Lacrosse Association claims to be a national sport governing body inclusive of Indigenous members and partners, they ought to have a responsibility in presenting their programming in such a way as to promote positive relationships with all Canadians.

I will only select four passages from two promotional products to illustrate how the misrepresentation of fact can be seen to mean something altogether in a different perspective.  The first product, a web page linked here, on the Canadian Lacrosse Association website:


At first glance, a seemingly harmless bit of text, nothing controversial.  In fact, some of this material is borrowed from other material on the Canadian Lacrosse Association website and, since there appears to be no complaint about the content, it must be accurate.  However, there are two very problematic phrases here, presented as fact, which may not be so factual when examined a little more closely:

“Lacrosse, because of its unique history, exists as a link between the disparate components of Canadian history, First Nations and European Settler. It remains the rare occurrence in which an element of native culture was accepted and embraced by Canadian society.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines disparate as, “Essentially different in kind; not able to be compared.”  I would normally pass this off as poor word selection and excuse the author for likely meaning ‘distinct.’  After all, disparate means apples and oranges, or black and white, both fruits and colours respectively, but different in structure and composition.  In fact we often say ‘like comparing apples and oranges’ to illustrate disparate things. 

To emphasize the point of “disparate components of Canadian history,” the author then continues to state it “remains the rare occurrence in which an element of native culture was accepted and embraced by Canadian society.”  This, quite frankly, is untrue in the fullest sense of the word.  For example, corn, beans, squash, canoes, snowshoes, the words Canada, Ontario and Toronto.  A wide range of items and practices originating in “native culture,” were readily accepted and embraced by Canadian society, often immediately, and many of those things remain a significant part of the Canadian cultural fabric to this day.  The acceptance and adoption of lacrosse, first by those early settlers, then Canadian society at-large was no rarity, in fact, it was absolutely normal and commonplace.  Why then does the Canadian Lacrosse Association wish to create a historical condition that separates Indigenous people from the rest of “Canadian society?”

Let’s look at the third sentence in the opening paragraph:

“The European concepts of structure and rules were added to the religious and social rituals of the first North Americans, and together produced one of the first symbols of the new Canada – lacrosse.”

We see that separation illustrated here again, those “disparate components.”  The European concepts of structure and rules added to the Indigenous religious and social rules.  The truth of the matter is that Dr. Beers’ first set of rules, while acknowledging the indisputable roots of lacrosse, almost completely abolished any formal Indigenous religious and social context surrounding the game, whatever they may have been at the time. However, the key problematic phrase here is “The European concepts of structure and rules…”

It doesn’t take much research into the history of lacrosse to note that practically all Indigenous stick-ball games had structure and rules.  Some of them may have been temporary or based on the conditions of the playing location, but even rules of those types were agreed upon prior to the game and consisted of an established protocol to determine them.  There were rules for boundaries, how the ball was to be handled, how the stick was to be used, how the timing and outcome of a game was to be determined; there were even those who enforced the rules in a referee-type capacity.  The stick-ball game that came to be called lacrosse was already structured with rules and protocols long before Dr. Beers was born.  In fact, the only thing that Dr. Beers did was write the rules down in a grammatical structure that was understood by the organizers of the day.  In that way, with written English, were “European concepts” applied.

This brings us to the second product, also containing two phrases of dubious meaning.  I am referring to the News Release put out by the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation, which is the charitable wing of the Canadian Lacrosse Association.  The News Release is linked here.


This paragraph somewhat clarifies the accomplishment of Dr. Beers, but again emphasizes that curious notion of a separation between Indigenous and Canadian, from an Indigenous “folk-game” into a “formal sport.”

While it may be obvious what is meant by the word ‘sport’ when used in the contexts of our daily lives, the full meaning of the word, especially pertaining to what we consider athletic activities, encompasses a significant portion of understanding of a given culture, and is often part of the everyday study of anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists.  For our purpose, however, let’s return to the Oxford Dictionary definition of sport: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”  When it comes to lacrosse, this definition should suffice and we might surmise that the ‘formal’ part refers to written rules.

The definition of ‘folk-game’ is a little less well known and we can turn to sociologists Eric Dunning and Kenneth Sheard who described folk games as, “…deeply-rooted in tradition…” with games that were, “…relatively simple, wild and unruly, and played according to unwritten rules.”  Dunning further writes that “… ‘folk-games’, the games of ordinary people, were played in regional isolation, with competition traditionally occurring between adjacent villages and towns or between sections of towns.  There was no national competitive framework.”

The common view today, the distinction between Indigenous lacrosse as a folk-game as opposed to a formal sport, appears to be reasonable.  Certainly the aspect of the lack of written rules is true.  From what we know, in early historical times, Indigenous lacrosse games were played between regional villages and had no national competitive framework.  We know that Indigenous lacrosse, at least on the eastern side of the Mississippi was deeply rooted in tradition. Many historical accounts imply that the games were relatively simply, wild and unruly.  It would appear that the designation of Indigenous lacrosse as a folk-game is fair.  Indeed, the following fourth phrase from the Press Release emphasizes this aspect:


The author is making an emphatic statement; this was the first known “contained” game, implying that previous games were not contained within boundaries or, if they were, no one recorded it.  The implication of this, of course, points to Indigenous lacrosse as being a loosely played, ritualistic, regionally-varied pastime that was finally civilized with the European concept of structure and rules.

Dunning and Sheard devised their definition of the folk-game while studying the historical changes in English football that led to the development of present-day rugby and soccer.  Their investigation was based on a plethora of source material available to them and, for at least rugby and soccer, their conclusions of the sports origins appears reasonable. However, can the same criteria be applied to lacrosse?

Before we can determine whether or not lacrosse evolved from a folk-game to a formal sport in the same manner as rugby and soccer, let us turn to a more refined definition of sport, this time by Kendall Blanchard in his book, The Anthropology of Sport.  After a considerable amount of space devoted to defining what culture is, the difference between work and play, games and sport, Blanchard concludes:

“Sport, then, is a physically assertive activity that is aggressively competitive within constraints imposed by definitions and rules.  A component of culture, it is ritually patterned, game-like and of varying amounts of play, work and leisure.  In addition, sport can be viewed as having both athletic and nonathletic variations, athletic referring to those activities requiring the greater amount of physical exertion.”

It would seem that, insofar as Blanchard is concerned, Indigenous lacrosse as played in pre-colonial times (and, in some cases, still) meets the qualifications to be defined as a sport.  So how does the Indigenous lacrosse, as played in the early to mid-19th century compare to folk-game?

The advantage had by Dunning and Sheard in their examination of early football in England was that their research was informed from many written primary sources surrounding the development of the sport, from eye witnesses to sport builders, spectators and players.  Much was known about football, including rules, structure of play, etc.  The same cannot be said for pre-colonial Indigenous lacrosse, nor can it be said for early observations of the game.  de Brébeuf, in his brief mention of ‘crosse’ in the Jesuit Relations, tells us almost nothing about how the game was played, except that it was played on a “beautiful field.” 

In addition to the dearth of detail, existing descriptions of lacrosse come from observers who were not familiar with sport in a sociological or anthropological perspective and had to rely on their own frame of reference, or that of their Indigenous translators, to explain what was going on.  It is this information that is used to define early historical lacrosse, almost always from a European point of view, almost always from a time that can be described as tumultuous for both player and spectator.

With the information that we do have, acknowledging there are gaps in the details, a picture of lacrosse emerges that contradicts the criteria given to define a folk-game as defined by Dunning and Sheard.  We know there were rules and structure, uniforms, persons acting as referees or enforcing proper behavior.  We do not know if rules were written down, or recorded in a standard form that was passed from generation to generation and we do not know if there were any ‘national’ competitions.  With regard to the latter two things, even modern lacrosse undergoes frequent rules changes; and using a national competitive framework to separate a folk-game from a sport would mean that house league lacrosse does not count as a sport. 

From all descriptions of Indigenous lacrosse that come to us from those early writers, it is apparent that pre-colonial Indigenous lacrosse can be clearly defined as a sport.  The peach-pit game, snow snake or double-ball (as we know it today) may be considered folk games, but lacrosse – played on the Indigenous national or international scale – was a sport and very likely the first true team sport many of these early writers had ever encountered.

I have spent considerable space here debunking some of the information – presented as fact – contained within the promotional material pertaining to the Canadian Lacrosse Association’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of lacrosse.  It might appear to be mere quibbling with language, a difference of opinion with regard to definitions, or the contingencies of only having so much space to get one’s promotional message across.  It might seem altogether unimportant to raise this sort of information into a debate.  However, placed into a larger context, one must wonder exactly what the Canadian Lacrosse Association is trying to promote.

In light of my criticism of the promotional material presented by the Canadian Lacrosse Association, let’s return to the mission statement: “The mission of the Canadian Lacrosse Association is to promote, develop and preserve the sport of Lacrosse and its heritage as Canada’s National Summer Sport…”  Note that the mission statement does not say, ‘the folk-game of lacrosse’ or ‘Canada’s National Summer Folk-Game.’  Lacrosse was transitioned from an Indigenous folk-game to a formal sport 150 years ago and that is the only aspect of lacrosse that needs to be promoted, developed, and preserved.  Indeed, that is the only thing being celebrated in 2017.

Such controversial impressions can be shocking, especially when one considers that this promotional construct was likely in no way intentionally misleading, was not designed to be exclusive, and surely the heritage of lacrosse includes that popular Indigenous folk-game from hundreds of years ago.  If one reviews the promotional material further, there is a listing of events including a re-enactment of traditional games and the creation and display of traditional sticks; Indigenous people are included in the celebratory events.  So what’s the problem?

Indigenous lacrosse has an unbroken tradition that very likely spans thousands of years and includes all forms of lacrosse even as they are played today.  There might be variations on the structure and rules, but there have always been variations on the structure and rules; there might be different forms based on the playing location or playing surface, but there have always been different forms, locations and surfaces; there might be different nations, playing according to their needs, but there has always been different nations playing lacrosse in a way that suited their cultural sensibilities.

Seeing that this long chain of Indigenous lacrosse tradition exists then why, in the promotional material, do the Indigenous people seem to disappear? Certainly they are mentioned as part of the early history of lacrosse before it became a so-called formal sport; they are mentioned again as celebrated keepers of the traditional game and the traditional stick, for demonstration purposes at special events, but where are the Indigenous people in the modern lacrosse tradition developed over the past 150 celebratory years?

The simple answer is that the “anniversary of lacrosse” refers to the anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Lacrosse Association, formerly the National Lacrosse Association, and nothing more.   One cannot blame the Canadian Lacrosse Association for being too inward looking and self-promoting, even if superficial; even if they put themselves at risk for serious criticism.  For those people not familiar with the history of lacrosse, it almost seems that when the Canadian Lacrosse Association began, the history of lacrosse truly started and this is entirely not true no matter what angle one wishes to take.

As for the invisible Indigenous people, the progenitors of the current form of lacrosse, they have had their own, unique experiences with the structure and rules of the modern game that may not be as well known.  One hopes that in the celebration of this historic event, the Canadian Lacrosse Association intends to illustrate how the rules of modern lacrosse were used to prevent Indigenous participation in the national competitive structure that defined lacrosse as a formal sport, or how that ancient Anishinaabe ball-game called baggataway, so widely played in ancient times, has long since disappeared from Anishinaabe communities in Canada.  These historical topics are perfectly germane, even if they lack the sentiment of self-congratulatory back-patting for having survived 150 years.