Lacrosse Past and Present

Dakota play lacrosse on the Minnesota River. Oil painting 1848.

Goin’ fishin’? Wotcha catch? Where’s the kippers?

We endured these taunts and more, delivered in the broad Cockney of our neighborhood and accompanied by sneering laughter, as my sister and I walked home from the bus stop. Our Catholic school uniforms already made us a target of derision for the local kids, but now at the end of term we carried our lacrosse sticks with us. What else could these odd things be but fishing nets? The kids seemed delighted to have something new in their arsenal.

Girls clumsily cradle

Our experience of playing lacrosse at school wasn’t much more positive. On the playing field up the hill behind the school we ran back and forth in miserable grey English weather. Shorts were not allowed for convent school girls and sweatpants were unheard of. We wore gabardine divided skirts, shorts disguised as skirts with box pleats, and Aertex blouses. Our formidable games mistress Miss Sands wore a below the knee tweed skirt and a sensible cardigan with a whistle on a ribbon around her neck. For some reason lost to history we called her Daisy. If the rain was too heavy for outdoor sports she took us to the gym and made us dance the Highland Fling. I’m not sure which activity we dreaded most.

Cradle girls! she would cry, Cradle! This referred to the back and forth swinging motion of the stick we had to perfect to keep the ball secure in the net. Up and down the field we ran cradling and dropping the ball, and cradling some more. It seemed a very tedious business. There was occasional drama when the dangerously hard ball would hit some unfortunate girl in the head. No one in those days seemed concerned about concussion though. My sister remembers an incident when a too generous application of the stuff used to condition the leather netting caused her ball to be firmly stuck as she ran cradling away. Miss Sands called out Oh well held Byrne! in her fluting Queen’s accent. But of course my sister was unable to pass the ball so her sporting triumph was short lived.

I had no idea at the time of the Native American origins of the game. Nor could I have foreseen that decades in the future I would become an enthusiastic spectator of my grandsons’ lacrosse games. Neither version of the game bears any resemblance to the lacrosse I played at school.

George Catlin. Choctaw Indian Ball-Play. 1846-1850. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Bishop’s crozier
Native American
lacrosse stick

Native American lacrosse dates back to at least the 12th century when the Iroquois people living in what is now the American north-east and bordering Canadian provinces are thought to have originated the game. French Jesuit missionaries in Quebec in the 17th century were the first to describe the game for Europeans. Thus the French name lacrosse, because they thought the sticks looked like a bishop’s crozier. The balls were made of wood or deer hide and the nets strung with deer sinew. The game was part of Native American creation mythology. One legend tells of the first game played between four legged creatures and birds. It was a way to prepare young men for war and also a method of settling disputes between tribes. Lacrosse could also be a healing ritual. In 1636 Jesuit Jean de Brebeuf wrote:

There is a poor sick man, fevered of body and almost dying, and a miserable Sorcerer will order for him, as a cooling remedy, a game of lacrosse. Or the sick man himself, sometimes, will have dreamed that he must die unless the whole country shall play lacrosse for his health; and, no matter how little may be his credit, you will see then in a beautiful field, Village contending against Village, as to who will play lacrosse the better, and betting against one another Beaver robes and Porcelain collars, so as to excite greater interest.

The men, who often played barefoot, followed no hard and fast rules. There could be hundreds or even a thousand players with no borders to the fields and no time limits. It must have been an amazing sight.

Lacrosse first caught on with Europeans in Canada where rules gradually evolved. In 1859 it was named the national sport. It even gained royal attention. In 1876 visiting teams of Canadians and Iroquois played an exhibition match for Queen Victoria at Windsor. She noted in her diary: 

The game is very pretty to watch. It is played with a ball and there is much running.

Fast forward to the 21st century and I can confirm Queen Victoria’s observation. There is indeed much running. And dodging, and darting, and spinning, and leaping. Pushing and shoving and falling as well. All at great speed. I was amazed the first time I saw my grandsons’ lacrosse equipment. Helmets! And mouth guards! An immediate hint that they play a very different game from the tame version I learned in school. Neither of my children played High School sports so this is my first experience of sitting in the bleachers at the school stadium and cheering on the school team. I love it! My eldest grandson is on the High School Varsity team and plays with Team Maryland. But he better watch out for his next youngest brother, still in Middle School, who is also a very good player. And next spring the two youngest boys will play lacrosse for the first time. It’s no longer soccer moms in the spotlight, it’s lacrosse grandmothers!

It can be hard for adults to get a laugh out of teenage boys but I succeeded when I grabbed a lacrosse stick and imitated my games mistress teaching us to cradle. Hilarity ensued when I ran up and down the kitchen crying out Cradle girls! in my best imitation of the Queen’s accent.

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