Every year since 1971, Memorial Day weekend brings the finals of the NCAA Division I lacrosse tournament. This year saw a rematch of perhaps the greatest rvialry in collegiate lacrosse as my alma mater (and defending national champion) Johns Hopkins played Syracuse. Of the 36 championships awarded since the tournamnet was established in 1971, Hopkins and Syracuse had each won nine. All time, Hopkins has an astonishing record of 882-277-15 and 35 titles in the years prior to the tourney. The game didn’t quite live up to expectations as Syracuse prevailed 13-10 with many observers feeling that each team had played a better match in the semifinals on Saturday when Hopkins defeated number one seed Duke 10-9 and the Orangemen beat Virginia 12-11 in 2 overtimes. ( I should note that the Hopkins baseball team won their game in the Division III College World Series on Monday and will be playing Trinity on Tuesday evening in the championship game.)
But for many, the greatest thrill was seeing a game that has been played by the First Nations of North America since before recorded history draw a record crowd of 48,970, the largest attendance for an NCAA title game outside the BCS football championship. When French missionaries arrived in the new world, they found the people of the First Nations all played lacrosse in some fashion. The two largest linguistic families in Canada both had names for Lacrosse; the Algonquin referred to it as “Baggataway”, an Ojibe name meaning meaning “they bump hips” and the Iroquois Nation referred to it as “Tewaarathon”, a Mohawk term for “little brother of war.”
The game played by the mighty Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onodaga, Cayuga, Senca and Tuscaroroa) of the the oldest living participatory democracy on earth, collectively called the Ho-de-no-saunee or the People of the Longhouse, (the name “Iroquois” is derived from a Basque term Hirlokoa, meaning the “killer people” since the Six Nations were enemies of the Basque allies among the Algonguin nations) is the one that evolved into modern lacrosse.
The game had deep spiritual meaning for the First Nations: the Onondaga phrase dehuntshigwa’es literally means men “hit a rounded object” but has also come to mean The Creators Game, since some legends hold that the divine leader Deganawidah, who united the original Five Nations of the Iroquois, took the game that had been part of the creation myths of the First Nations (no one invented lacrosse; in all of the foundation stories, the Creator gave it). and used it a substutite for war and a means to settle disputes among the tribes.
In the earliest times of American Indian lacrosse, the game had few rules, if any. Lacrosse games would last for days, stopping at sunset and continuing the next day at sunrise. The fields had no boundaries and goals were usually between 500 yards to a half-mile apart, though sometimes they were several miles apart. The goals were usually marked by a single tree or a large rock, and points were scored by hitting it with the ball. There were no limitations on the number of players on a team, and often there would be as many as one thousand players in a lacrosse game at the same time.
The Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame is on the Johns Hopkins University campus, and in front is a bronze sculpture called ”Dehontshihgwa’es (Creator’s Game),” with the following message on a plaque: ”The game of Lacrosse was given by the Creator to the Ho-de-no-saunee (Iroquois) and other Native American people many years ago. It is from the Iroquois that the modern game of Lacrosse most directly descends. May this sculpture forever honor the Iroquois and the origins of Lacrosse.”
Interestingly it may do that in several unexpected ways. Lacrosse was actually formalized as a sport five years before hockey, which appears to draw many of it’s rules from lacrosse, and it is lacrosse not hockey which is actualy the national sport of Canada. In addition, the game of basketabll was invented by Dr. James Naismith, the lacrosse coach at Springfield College in Springfield Mass as a way to help his lacrosse team stay in condition during the winter and many of the basic basketball plays, such as the screen and the pick and roll, actually come form lacrosse. So the next time you watch LeBron James or Chris Chelios, remember you’re really watching The Creators Game.