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