'The original contact sport': How lacrosse has Native American roots

The game is part of the Haudenosaunee origin story. It has grown in popularity around the world, while maintaining its Native roots.

They rush up and down the field, wielding netted sticks. Pushing and chasing each other, they do what it takes to catch the ball and score.

For many players, lacrosse is a battle royale between schools. But for many Native players of lacrosse, the game means much more – it is their connection to their culture, their history and each other.

A game as old as time

"Lacrosse is a very, very old game," said Christopher Lindsay Turner, cultural research specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "It may be one of the oldest games played anywhere on Earth today, and it certainly is the oldest organized game that became a sport that has been continuously played."


According to Turner, some of the earliest documentation of lacrosse was written in the 17th century by French explorers. They observed a "stick game" being played among the Native people called the Haudenosaunee (ho-den-uh-SHO-nee).

Referred by the French as "Iroquois" — meaning "people who live in long houses" -- the Haudenosaunee lived predominantly in upstate New York at the time. They included a confederation of five (later six) Native American nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, Seneca and later, Tuscarora.

For these nations, lacrosse plays a significant role in their culture. According to Turner, the Haudenosaunee say lacrosse is older than the Earth itself as it is part of their origin story.

From the sky world

The Haudenosaunee origin story begins in the sky world, where lived a chief and his wife. One day, the chief removes a tree at the center of the sky world, at his wife's request.

"She had a lot of reasons for doing this. One of which, she was interested in medicine," Turner said. "She had been told that she could get medicine by removing this tree and seeing what was under it."

But when she takes a look, she falls through this new hole in the sky world and toward a blue world below her.

The animals of the blue world, seeing the chief's wife fall, catch her and float with her in the sea. A turtle pipes up, offering to come out of the sea to put her on his back and save her.

Turner said this is the beginning of the world as we know it, as the woman begins making the Earth on the back of the turtle. 

Here’s where the origin of lacrosse begins.

When the woman fell from the sky, she was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. That daughter grew up and later had twin boys, who go on to create many things in the known world.  

Some of their creations were born out of the boys’ near-constant competition and fighting. One way they decided to resolve their conflicts was by playing lacrosse, a game they learned from their mother.

"She brought knowledge from the sky world down with her, and she had taught them that lacrosse was a way you could settle disputes," Turner said. "So, they played the first lacrosse game on Earth — and it was a knockdown drag out."

As physical as the game was, it had a strong spiritual element for the twins. According to Turner, lacrosse was a gift from the Creator through the mother of the twins, so they play the game to please and thank the Creator.

"They're thanking the Creator for all of the things that they have been given through everything around them, the good things of the earth, the original instructions — the ways that they have of knowing how to live in the world," he said.

Evolving into a team sport

The Haudenosaunee continued this tradition of playing lacrosse, or "stick game," for the Creator. Turner noted that they also played it to generate wellness by having the Creator’s forces involved in healing an individual.

Additionally, the game was used to "heal" divisions between trading nations at war.

"It makes so much sense that they have this option of saying, ‘You know what? We can't work out this particular question. Let's set the field and play some stick game'," Turner said.

Despite the peacemaking and spiritual intentions of the game, the game itself was quite physical.

The Haudenosaunee name for lacrosse is gajihgwa'ee (gah-jee-GWA-eh), according to Turner. While the name translates a little differently among the Haudenosaunee's six languages, it roughly translates to "they're bumping hips."


"It's the original contact sport," Turner said. "That's how they described [it] because they were constantly bumping hips, trying to knock the ball out of the possessor."

While the earliest known lacrosse game was found with the Haudenosaunee, Turner points out that similar stick games exist in other Native cultures.

According to Turner, traditional lacrosse had very few rules, making the game quite a bit more intense. Players were essentially able to do whatever they needed to do to get the ball out of the possessors’ net.

He noted that the Haudenosaunee lacrosse game was observed and then preserved by Europeans, who took an interest in the sport and applied rules and regulations to it. 

In addition to creating standard rules and regulations, the Europeans also influenced what the game became popularly called.

"Lacrosse" originated from the French explorers who observed the Haudenosaunee game in the 17th century. The explorers named the "stick game" after the French name for "the stick": la crosse, which became "lacrosse".

The stick was made of wood. Today, the preferred sticks are made of wood from the ash tree and are constructed of one piece by necessity.

"The piece of wood has to be steamed and, in separate phases, curved, so it can be just the right curve to construct the net across," Turner said, adding that the nets were also traditionally made of natural materials, such as deer sinew.

The ball was likely made of materials such as intestine or the skin of an animal, but varied depending on where the game was played. 

Heart of the game

Over the years, the game evolved and grew into a sport now played throughout the world. 

Despite its evolution, for many Haudenosaunee, the game is still about giving thanks to the Creator and bringing attention to the players' self-awareness, healing and personal wellness. 

"You don't have to be Haudenosaunee to have a good, clear mind and have a good frame of mind and a good conscience," Turner said. He noted that a cloudy, angry conscience won't help improve anyone's gameplay.

"You need to get obsessed about your sport in order to be good at it. I think most people would agree," he added. "And why shouldn't that include a component of knowing the history of a game like this that's so old and knowing where it comes from?"