The game of lacrosse that we know today is far from what it was at its’ origins in early North American society. Some of the earliest forms of what we know as lacrosse were called baggataway or tewaarathon. According to Morrow, there were approximately 40 variations of lacrosse that First Nations tribes in North America partook in. From the perspective of the aboriginals, baggataway had many purposes but was often ritual affair. These principles varied from medicinal purposes, or healing power, to games that helped prepare the men for combat. It was reported that “historians identified lacrosse as the most important Aboriginal game”, due to the multitude of purposes it served to the indigenous community. Bagattaway allowed for the fostering of respect between neighbouring tribes, facilitated religious meaning throughout life, provided healing power, and finally, allowed the First Nations to honour the creator. By the late 18th century, lacrosse began to transition from revolving around religion and customs to sporting contest, or competition, becoming a pivotal factor. The purpose of this paper is to examine the history and evolution of lacrosse in early Canadian history.
One of the earliest and perhaps most infamous accounts of lacrosse involving the Europeans and First Nations was in June, 1763 on King George’s birthday. Two First Nations tribes used the holiday to invite the British soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac to spectate the game of bagattaway. However, what started as an entertaining game quickly took a turn for the worse in the eyes of the garrison men. During the game however, the indigenous players dropped their sticks, gathered concealed weapons, and massacred the British soldiers. This likely played a considerable role in why the Europeans didn’t participate in lacrosse with the First Nation for nearly a century following. 80 years after the incident at Fort Michilimackinac, as early as 1844, competitions between the European settlers and indigenous populations were recorded. The early competition was heavily dominated by the First Nations as it took the ‘whites’ until 1851 to win their first lacrosse game.
At this time lacrosse was still in its primitive stages and the rules, or lack thereof, was indicative of this. Dr. George Beers, perhaps the most influential figure in the expansion of lacrosse, noted that the style of play was a combination between sport and deadly combat. Beers wanted to tailor the game to Canadians by “appropriating and then transforming the Mohawk ball game into a rational sport”. Up until 1860, lacrosse had no standardized set of rules to follow, instead they were agreed upon by the people playing prior to the games. Given that there were only three white clubs in Montreal, having standardized rules was not that important. In fact, it was played more for the social than the competitive aspect in the games early days. Eventually, in September of 1860, a Montreal newspaper published the first rules of lacrosse which consisted of 8 playing rules. The rules were created by the Montreal Lacrosse Club which was the first lacrosse club in Canada, founded in 1856. While the inaugural rules were quite ambiguous and nonspecific, they marked the start of what Morrow referred to as the “embryonic stage of lacrosse development”. As the Europeans tailored the game to their liking, the original savage aspects of lacrosse became curbed by rules and regulations. However, even more changes to the game were to follow, in 1867 George Beers’ ‘Laws of Lacrosse’ were published. Consisting of 17 rules, Beers’ laws allowed for consistency across the sport and built the foundation that allowed lacrosse to flourish. Beers noted that the new game allowed for the greatest consolidation between physical and mental activity. He referenced the new game as “a pretty Canadian girl” and the original game as an “uncultivated squaw”, an derogatory term used to describe First Nations women. The adoption of rules along with stick changes that arose as the game gained popularity shifted the focus from the Native run first mentality to a passing game that employed cooperation and positional strategies between teammates.
Now that lacrosse had a standardized set of rules, a competitive platform to showcase talent was all that was lacking. In 1867, the year Canada became its own country, the National Lacrosse Association was formed. The conception of the NLA gave Canada its first governing body for sport and following the formation of the NLA, lacrosse in Canada started to boom. Within one year of its inception, the number of teams in Canada skyrocketed from eight to 80. As a result of the multitude of teams, sporting contests required much more organization. A challenge system was adopted and representatives of various clubs interacted to create schedules.
Three tours of Great Britain between 1867 and 1883 are believed to be “the strongest unifying factors in the spread and acceptance of lacrosse” as they allowed the game to be “[exported] as a showcase activity and as a symbol of Canada”. In 1867 Captain W.B. Johnson toured England with a Caughnawagas team in order to demonstrate lacrosse, however, Johnson’s motivations were profit based and did little to grow the game. On the other hand, Beers “regarded the promotion of lacrosse as a personal crusade, a means of fostering national unity in the era of Confederation”. Beers’ intentions were for Canadians to view lacrosse the same way that Britons viewed cricket, “a link of loyalty to them to their home”. In 1876 Beers organized a tour of the British Isles with a white team from Montreal and a First Nations team, Beers hoped the trip would be a Canadian image builder. The trip was highly successful as it fostered the enthusiasm and development of lacrosse in Great Britain. During the tour a private game was held for Queen Victoria, this signified the legitimization of lacrosse as a sport due to the fact it was showcased for the most important person in the country. The uniforms worn by the white team during the tour were extremely significant as it marked the first instance a maple leaf crest was used as a symbolic feature in tandem with the Canadian identity. By the time Beers returned for another tour in 1883, lacrosse in Britain had already begun to flourish. Before the first tour in 1876 there were only two lacrosse teams in Britain, when Beers returned for a second tour there were approximately 150 teams. The teams had financial funding from the government and it became clear that the tour was propaganda to increase immigration to Canada, with lacrosse being the delivery system. The image that was being portrayed to the British population was “that of a young, resourceful nation that carried on the sporting tradition of Great Britain through its national Aboriginal game of lacrosse”.
Beers lobbied that cricket did not deserve the title as national sport because it was a game imported from across the Atlantic. As the sport gained popularity and the NLA was formed the slogan, ‘Our Country and Our Game’ which could be seen on the championship banner. Beers claims he was the first to propose lacrosse as the national game of Canada in 1859, and that a letter was published in the Montreal Gazette in 1867 with the title Let it be our national game. However, there is scarce evidence of this being published in any other major newspapers and no record of it in the parliamentary records. It is speculated that Beers’ concept of a national game garnered widespread acceptance through the medium of word of mouth; “if something is claimed to be true enough times, it is often accepted as truth”.
Although lacrosse was one of the most popular sports during the late 18th century, there were still many issues that we can pick out with the help of hindsight. As the Europeans were initially learning and transforming the game the First Nations provided the newcomers with a vast wealth of knowledge as well as being the only competition. Despite this, as the game gathered popularity the importance of Native players weaned. On the NLA championship banner the slogan ‘Our Country and Our Game’ referred to whites only, the term ‘our’ was very exclusive. As sporting competitions gained popularity issues regarding what constituted an amateur and who was a professional started to rise. Prior to 1886, this issues had not yet come to fruition, possibly due to the fact the white clubs needed First Nations teams to play against. During the 1870’s defining who could play in certain games became somewhat of a regular occurance and by 1880 the NLA added the term Amateur to its title, now being coined the NALA. The rules of amateurism ratified in 1880 essentially excluded the First Nations from club play as they ordinarily received prizes after competitions. This unfortunate circumstance however, did not bar them from competition as we know the three tours to the Europe all consisted of Indigenous players. An excerpt from Howell & Howell puts it quite nicely, “it seems ironic that Indians should, so soon, have been barred from the game they introduced to Canada’s white settlers”. The government along with the help of Beers “portrayed in carefully contrived fashion, the Indianness of the game and the country, white superiority over the natives and a Canadianness that was used by the federal Department of Agriculture in the 1883 tour”. What started off as an eminent symbol of Canada was tainted as the First Nations, who the game originated with, were cruelly used as the sport evolved. It seems that while on his crusade to sell lacrosse, Beers used the First Nations players as advertising gimmicks.
As someone who has played lacrosse his entire life, I am pleased that Beers was able to take the brutal game and not domesticate it, but institutionalize it. Still, I meet people who spectate lacrosse for the first time and are in awe of its speed, creativity, and of course the sheer physical nature of the sport. However, the racist atrocities committed by ‘whites’ cannot be forgotten. The game that Beers shaped gave it appeal to the public and set the foundation for growth also alienated the First Nations from their aboriginal traditions and rendered them a foreign minority in their own lands. What seems to be consistent across most of the world at this point in history is a theme of white superiority. A quote from Beers featured in Montreal Gazette epitomizes the beginnings of lacrosse almost perfectly, “just as we claim as Canadian the rivers and lakes and land once owned exclusively by Indians, so we now claim their field game as the national field game of our Dominion”.
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