The Medicine Game – The Origins of Lacrosse


Mais proprement, & à dire la vérité, ce qui a fortifié l’opinion du Gougou a été le rapport dudit Prevert, lequel contoit vn jour au sieur de Poutrincourt vne fable de même aloy, disant qu’il avoit veu vn Sauvage jouer à la croce contre vn diable, & qu’il voyoit bien la croce du diable jouer, mais quât à Monsieur le diable, il ne le voyoit point. Le sieur de Poutrincourt, qui prenoit plaisir à l’entendre, faisoit semblant de le croire pour lui en faire dire d’autres.

Marc Lescarbot, Histoire De La Nouvelle France, 1609

But indeed, and to speak frankly, what gave credence to the idea of the Gougou was the story of Monsieur Prevert, who one day told Monsieur de Poutrincourt a fable wrought of the same stuff, declaring that he had seen a savage playing at la crosse with a devil, and that he had clearly seen the crosse which the devil used, but as for the Old Gentleman himself, he remained invisible. Monsieur de Poutrincourt, who was much amused at his talk, made pretence of believing him in order to lead him on.

Translation, W.L. Grant, History of New France, The Champlain Society, 1911

Grant add this following footnote:

From very early times, la crosse was a favourite game of the French youth. Though the rules were indefinite and variable, it seems to have closely resembled modern hockey. From it are derived both golf and cricket. If the words here are, as I have ventured to take them, a reference to the national game of Canada, it is the first in literature.

Several years ago I attended a pow wow at Scugog Island First Nation near Port Perry, Ontario.  That July day was bright, sunny and very warm.  The pow wow grounds were located in a large open picnic field directly behind the band council office on the east side of Island Road.

Scugog First Nation had undergone a period of transformation due to the beneficial effects of the Blue Heron Casino, which had attracted development and tourism.  The July pow wow was one of the main summertime attractions at this small Canadian Indian reserve.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘pow wow,’ it is a gathering of Indigenous people for the purpose of celebrating culture and renewing relationships through the mediums of dance, art, trade and ceremony.  Usually a pow wow was put on by the local community who invited drummers, dancers, artisans and vendors from around ‘Indian Country’ to come and participate.  There are pow wows of various sizes at First Nation communities throughout North America and one can move from one event to the next all summer long on what is known as the ‘Pow Wow Trail.’

It is fitting that I begin this story of the Medicine Game with the setting of a pow wow where I first noticed something that piqued my interest that has blossomed into this book.  It was also at gatherings of people like this that the game of lacrosse took shape thousands of years ago as cultural and technological changes swept across North America moving the people from one age into another.

One of the beautiful things of a rural pow wow is that the senses are fully engaged in the experience.  From the warm sun, the bright colours of the dancers regalia – traditional costumes – and sound of the drums and song to the smell of sweet grass and the tastes of traditional country food.  There is no unattached observation at a pow wow because there can be no purpose in it.

The centerpiece of the pow wow is the circular dancing ‘arena.’  In the center of the arena is a small area – maybe 200 foot square – that is shaded by an arbour under which the drummers sit and the masters of ceremonies make their announcements.  The arbour at the Scugog Island First Nation Pow Wow was a sturdy cedar structure with a roof of fresh cedar branches.  Cedar is a very important medicine for the Mississauga Anishnabe people of Scugog First Nation as well as many other Indigenous people of North America.

A roped-in area, about 15 feet across, circles around the arbour and this is where the dancers, in their colourful regalia, dance to the songs of the drummers.  The dancing ‘ring’ is not covered and the dancers must make their way under the full sun of the day.  On the outside of the ring, spectators plant their chairs, umbrellas and sunshades to watch the dancers and occasionally get up and participate in the dancing when invited.

At the Scugog First Nation there is a large picnic shelter to shield the elders and small children from the sun.  This shelter is near enough to the arena that everyone can participate in the festivities.  As well, encircling the arena are the vendors and their booths, tents and vehicles so that the pow wow is a series of concentric rings of activity that leads one to the center of the arbour.  The circle is another important concept, not only to the Mississauga Anishnabe people of Scugog First Nation, but for many Indigenous peoples throughout the world.

In the Anishnabe world – that of the Great Ojibway Nation – dancers move counter-clockwise around the dancing ring.  While the drums pulse and rattles hiss, the dancers in their regalia two-step forward and become immersed in what could lightly be described as a spiritual trance.  Sometimes on accented beats of the drums a dancer will do something particular – a specific move, a spin, a side-step or a up and down headshake – or they might raise a hand or fist into the sky.  If the dancer is carrying something in their hands they might raise this object as if in veneration, toward the sky.  It was one of these objects that caught my attention.

The dancer I was watching was an older fellow, probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s.  He was a big man, thick and powerful, dressed in a caramel coloured leather outfit.  He had beads and feathers stitched to his clothing as well as a headpiece that looked like a bear’s head.  He was a fierce warrior battling the demons of modern life with an intense dance routine that consisted of large and violent steps.  But he danced in with a quick rhythm around the dance ring.

In one hand this warrior-dancer held a wooden staff of sorts.  When the accent beats were pounded out on the large drum, he would slow his pace and gently raise this staff into the air as to offer it to the sky or the sun.  It was a humble gesture, a gentle offer whose reasons were known only to him.

The staff was about 2 and a half feet long, an inch and half in diameter throughout it’s length and colourfully decorated with paint and hanging feathers.  On the top end of this staff, the wood had been shave and bent so that it formed a loop – about 5 inches in diameter that was tied back to the shaft.  In the loop there were two leather strings attached through 4 sides that crossed in the middle.  It was a curious staff, but it was familiar.  I had seen this shape before.

I watched this warrior-dancer make his way through the song, circling the arbour in his own unique way pausing from time to time to raise his sacred object to the sky.  What was that object?  Why was he carrying it like he did?  What significance did this object have for this dancer?

Later in the day and many more dances later I saw the warrior-dancer again, walking around the pow wow grounds and he had his looped staff tucked into his sash like a sword.  I took notice of the shape of the object again with curiosity.  Of all the things at this pow wow – regalia, the goods, the art and clothing – this one object had captured my keen interest.  It was a familiar shape, but from where did I know it?

The day came to an end, we packed up chairs and sunshade, said our good-byes to family and friends and headed back home.   While the country of Scugog Island changed to the farmers fields of North Durham, it suddenly occurred to me that the warrior-dancers ceremonial shaft was a lacrosse stick, but a very ancient design from a day long lost in the mists of time

I know now that each piece of regalia a traditional pow wow dancer wears could be considered of medicinal value to him or her.  So this warrior-dancer’s lacrosse stick might have had some medicinal value for him.  A sort of medicine stick he carried and honoured.  But why would he consider this lacrosse stick medicinal?  It would take my two youngest children to teach me that lesson.

‘The Medicine Game – Origins of Lacrosse’ is not about the history of lacrosse.  That subject has been well covered by Thomas Vennum Jr. in his two invaluable books, ‘American Indian Lacrosse – Little Brother of War’ and ‘Lacrosse Legends of the First Americans’ which cover the history and varieties of the stick-ball game from the early contact period; and by Donald M. Fisher’s book, ‘Lacrosse – A History of the Game’ which provides detail of the history of lacrosse in its modern inception from the early days of codified rules to the present day.

This book is also not about skills, tactics and game strategies.  Game play has been well covered by numerous authors in many forms over the years, however some of the material covered in this book could be used as a foundation for teaching skills and tactics and other game play strategies.

In the many books and articles about lacrosse, the origins of the game are hardly discussed or, when they are, it is an unknowable origin relegated to the ‘mists of time.’  There are many reasons for this attitude with the chief reason being the problems that researchers face when coming to a determination about the true origins of lacrosse.

The questions that the warrior-dancer inspired me to ask on that hot July day so many years ago have taken me on a journey of twists and turns similar to the journey that lacrosse has taken as it has meandered through time from it’s humble beginnings in the earliest hunting encampments of the Indigenous people of the Americas to the roaring crowds of modern stadiums and arenas.  In a way the medicinal connection of the Indigenous game is still intact today although in forms that people might not recognize.

I did not recognize any medicinal aspect of lacrosse when I fist picked up a stick – one of my brother’s old cast off ‘second’ stick – and bounced a tennis ball against the back wall of my grandmother’s house.  But there was something then – that I recognize today – that compelled me to keep bouncing that ball, scooping it up and throwing it again.  I would throw the ball as a great scorer and then save the rebound as a great goalie.  Sometimes the sheer repetition of shot – rebound – catch and throwing the ball again had a pleasant trance-like effect.  If I missed the concrete and hit the siding of her house – my grandmother would inevitably pop her face in the back window and tell me to knock it off.  But she never forbid me to play.

My older brothers – Bradd and Gregg – were pretty good lacrosse players.  I remember trophies the oldest of the two, Bradd, received from the local youth box lacrosse league he played in.  I recall a particular trophy that had a little player standing atop a wooden base ready to make the game winning play, in his hand a little gold coloured lacrosse stick which, I discovered, could be removed.  Needless to say, GI Joe, for a short period in the late 60’s, was also a pretty good lacrosse player.

In those days, box lacrosse was popular in my hometown of Oshawa, Ontario.  Large crowds would watch the local heroes – the Oshawa Green Gaels – win the Canadian junior title 7 years in a row during the 60’s.  With the same last name as one of the star Green Gael players, it was a privilege to be associated with him, even if he was only a very distant cousin.

Bradd’s promising lacrosse career ended when he was hit by a car and ended up in a full leg cast at 18.  He never really played again after that.  Gregg discovered baseball and soccer and those sports took his imagination elsewhere.  I followed lacrosse in the newspapers and the odd time when it was on TV, but I never had the desire to play on the local teams like my friends did.  I was content to watch them play at the local outdoor rink facility on Farewell St.  That left me bouncing the ball against my grandmother’s back wall or playing a street type lacrosse game with the neighbourhood kids, using steel window wells for nets.  This was the extent of my playing as a youth.

When I was 13 we moved to Ottawa, Ontario which would remove me as far from lacrosse as I could have ever imagined.  Ottawa has a long tradition with lacrosse to be sure, but in the mid-70’s in was known only in small pockets and was not in the news much.  I hung on to the idea of the game for a short while, but the interest in lacrosse eventually faded as time went on.  My personal involvement with lacrosse disappeared and would not re-appear until my two youngest sons – Sam and Jake – learned how to pass, catch and scoop a ball with a lacrosse stick in our backyard some 25 years later.

I am not certain if the warrior-dancer provided a guiding influence on my choice to suggest lacrosse to my two youngest.  They were playing softball in the local park league and were enjoying the experience immensely.  Since there is only 18 months between them they could play on the same team.  In their second year of playing softball my wife Sue and I allowed them to try lacrosse with a local minor lacrosse association.  They had the rough stick skills, but we were unsure if they would like playing the team game.

They loved it from the first moment with their new coach – Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame member Glen “Shooter” Lotten.  Even though they won a city championship in softball that year, lacrosse had quickly taken over their imagination.  From those humble beginnings in our backyard, Sue and I have become involved with the sport from coaching and training, to refereeing (Sue is a box lacrosse referee) to volunteering our time for both box and field lacrosse.  It has been an experience with many twists and turns!

Parallel with my involvement with local sports, I have also had the opportunity to renew my relationship with my Mohawk culture and, to a smaller degree, the Mohawk language.  Through this involvement, from volunteering with the local Cultural Centre, I came in contact with the real experiences of Indigenous people from many different First Nations in Canada and the United States.  It was this involvement and interest that led me to the pow wow at Scugog Island First Nation and my encounter with the warrior-dancer and his honoured lacrosse stick.  This book could not have been conceived without both aspects or attitudes towards the cultures or the games being in place.

When I first coached a travelling team in the Bantam age (13 to 14 year olds) category, I wanted to share more than just drills and skills with the players.  I wanted to tell them a story of lacrosse along with a few Mohawk words that we could use in games.  So this is where the Medicine Game truly begins – with a myth.

NEXT: Atsihkwa’e