"Sticks" such as those at left were the principal weapons used in a semi-sacred ball sport variously known as "They Bump Hips" or the "Little Brother of War" that American Indians believe was given to them by the Creator sometime in ages past. This pair is part of the American Indian exhibit in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building. They were made only a century or so ago by Tuscarora Iroquois craftsmen using hickory and rawhide, the wood for their curved heads steamed for hours, then bent around a crook-shaped block.
More than three feet long and weighing a couple of pounds, they would seem unwieldy to modern lacrosse players, who pass the ball around and whack at each other with 12-ounce sticks of plastic, titanium and nylon. But they are symbols of triumph for a Native American culture that has otherwise been largely ignored, if not eradicated, by the modern white world. Year by year lacrosse grows more popular in North America (there are some 2,000 high school and more than 500 college teams in the United States alone) as well as in other parts of the globe from Japan to Germany and the Czech Republic. (When the Czechs first took up the game in the late 1970s, they reportedly used as a guide George Catlin's famous 1834 painting of Choctaws playing the game.) Yet lacrosse remains a uniquely Indian sport, requiring fierce competitiveness, speed and endurance, remarkable dexterity and tolerance of pain.
These days, of course, it is not lacrosse but professional football--with hockey as a close second--that people might reasonably describe as the "Little Brother of War." As played today, men's lacrosse involves ten players per team and lasts 60 minutes in a space roughly the size of a football field. It is still a game of hard knocks and bruises, played with fast-paced, passionate zeal by men and women. A remarkable witness to the demands and fascinations of the game is football's legendary running back Jim Brown. "Lacrosse is my favorite game," says Brown. "It takes tremendous endurance and skill."
According to Rick Hill, Sr., a lacrosse stalwart and a professor of Native American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, little is known about the two Smithsonian sticks. But studies by Smithsonian researcher Thomas Vennum, Jr., author of American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War (Smithsonian Press, 1994), suggest that in design lacrosse sticks are descendants of war clubs.
The butt of one elaborately carved stick at the University of Pennsylvania, crafted a century and a half ago, represents a hand holding a ball. Alongside it on the shaft is a carving of a handshake. The clasped hands, Vennum says, are not necessarily friendly. They may be symbolic of a dance in which warriors clasped hands to "strengthen themselves . . . as protective medicine" for battle. Some experts regard the carved ball in the hand as some kind of medicine ball, but Vennum thinks it is also linked to the ball end of war clubs, often carved as if held in the mouth of a snake or the claws of a bird of prey. The idea was that when such clubs were used in battle, the snake or hawk symbolically loosed its grip, sending the ball flying through the air to strike an enemy's head and kill him.
Sometimes the ball was carved as a human head that would fly off the club's handle and smack an enemy brave. One Iroquois legend tells of a flying head pursuing a whole family, bent on its annihilation. At the last second the ball is caught and thrown to its death in a vat of boiling bear grease.
As the game was played by its original inventors, from 30 to 50 players might take part on vast ball fields without sidelines whose variable length was determined by both teams prior to the match. Games lasted for days at times, and in some tribes players and nonplayers alike bet ponies, fortunes in fur and beadwork, even wives and children, on the outcome.
Early French and English settlers at first were both startled and horrified by the game. "Almost everything short of murder is allowable," one noted. "If one were not told beforehand that they were playing," another wrote, "one would certainly believe that they were fighting." Soon, however, they fell under the spell of the game, learning to watch (and place side bets) among themselves. So much so that lacrosse played a role during the period of Pontiac's Rebellion in which several Indian nations fought to reclaim lands from occupying British forces in what is now the Midwest. In 1763, during King George III's birthday celebration, Indians staged a game outside Fort Michilimackinac on Lake Michigan. While His Majesty's soldiers were caught up in the game's progress, warriors took the fort.
The later history of the "Little Brother of War" was sometimes as contentious as the relationship between Indians and Euro-Americans. According to U.S. Lacrosse, the Baltimore-based national governing body of the sport, white Canadians were playing as early as 1839. By 1856 in Montreal the first non-Indian team had been organized, and in 1860 a Canadian dentist, Dr. William George Beers, wrote the first Europeanized rules.
For a while lacrosse was promoted as the national game of Canada. Native American teams toured Europe playing exhibition games, including one for the benefit of Queen Victoria. Then, in 1880, the National Lacrosse Association of Canada banned Indians from championship play--officially on the grounds that the Indians were paid "professionals" not eligible for "amateur" sports. By that time the game was catching on in North American prep schools and colleges, with a scattering of Indian varsity players at such schools as Dartmouth and (later) Syracuse.
Today in Indian communities all over North America at the first sign of spring youngsters sally forth carrying lacrosse sticks. Many Indian players still request to be buried with their sticks beside them. The tradition of carved wooden lacrosse sticks still flourishes as well. In the Tuscarora Nation, near Sanborn, New York, Tuskewe Krafts, a firm owned by John Wesley Patterson, Jr., turns out 10,000 sticks a year at prices running from $60 to $90.
For many Indians in ancient days, and today as well, a lacrosse game was a ceremonial replay of the Creation story, and of the struggle between good and evil that followed it. The game could also be worldly practical--mock war used for diplomatic purposes or as a prudent step back from the threat of war. The story, retold by Vennum, of two lacrosse games played almost exactly 200 years ago between the Mohawk and the Seneca seems to offer a case in point.
Both belonged to the powerful league of Six Nations, the Iroquois confederacy that also included the Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Tuscarora. The year was 1794. After the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, whites were again threatening Indian holdings in what is now Ohio and western New York. Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea, in Mohawk), a powerful chief who had sided with the British during the Revolution, was negotiating with them for land in Canada, but the site offered was unacceptable. The Seneca agreed; if they took it the Mohawk would be isolated from the rest of the Six Nations. When Seneca intervention resulted in a better site for the Mohawk, Brant set up a ceremonial lacrosse match in part, Vennum speculates, to celebrate the Seneca help.
There was also bad blood between Brant and Red Jacket, an influential Seneca chief, going back to a time when Brant had called him a "cow killer," because it was said Red Jacket sent Seneca warriors off to battle while he stayed at home butchering their cows for himself. The match may have represented a fence-mending effort on Brant's part. If so, it apparently hit a snag. During the game, according to a report written at the time and cited in a biography of Brant published in 1838, a Mohawk lost his temper and "struck a sharp blow" to his opponent with his stick. All action stopped, the story goes; the Seneca team walked off the field. The Mohawk and the Seneca did not play each other again until 1797. But they kept on playing, and so did the other Iroquois nations. Lacrosse, in fact, was one of the things that helped hold the Six Nations together through the difficult years that followed.
In 1990 the Iroquois Nationals, an all-Iroquois lacrosse team, traveled to Australia for the world championship under their own flag and carrying Iroquois passports. "We stood tall," says Rick Hill. "For a few moments the lacrosse-playing nations (England, Japan, Australia, the Czech Republic, the United States, Canada, Wales, Scotland, Sweden, Germany) saluted our national flag. It was quite a change after 200 years."
By Adele Conover