By Kent Lyons
“As the power of Lacrosse weaves throughout the very essence of Haudenosaunee men on a spiritual, physical and social level, each player, becomes identified, in all that he does, by the discipline and strength of his game.”
The words of this text are taken directly from the teachings of the Haudenosaunee, commonly known as the “Iroquois.” In particular, the teachings of the Onondaga Nation, recognized as one of the few Native governments still operating under their original, ancient traditional system, and considered the spiritual center of the Iroquois Confederacy.
As we evolve as a unique and separate culture, the Haudenosaunee have always considered themselves only a part of creation, not masters of it. The understanding that we have of ourselves is quite different from what is conveyed in the texts of history. The understanding of a culture has two points of view? from the outside and from within, and the root of understanding exists in the experience of identifying not only the “what,” but also “why.”
For the purposes of writing about the ancient game of lacrosse, the foundation of cultural understanding will begin with an extreme abbreviation of a history that has sown the seeds of Democracy in a land that was proclaimed by opportunists to be wild. What actually existed in this perceived “wilderness” were the very roots and seeds of an unspoiled Democracy. There existed nobility, process and protocol, and a respect for women that placed the female bloodlines in leadership positions with power to ratify and recall of their respective Chieftainship titles. There existed a confederated union of Nations that enacted international disarmament and promoted peace, all prior to European landfall. The mere presence of the Haudenosaunee as a functioning governmental entity in this century is a testimony to the utterly perfect and complete design of the original laws and practices of the original inhabitants of this country, now known as America.
The formation of the “Great Law of Peace,” a democratic process brought forth to the Haudenosaunee by the Great Peacemaker, a messenger from the Creator marked a confederation of warring nations who laid aside their arms and accepted peace as a way of life. This confederation placed the power in the will of the people and is separated by a system of clans? which is further divided into houses utilized in both religious and political applications. Historically, this formation has been placed in the early to mid 1600’s. However, based on the oral tradition of the Haudenosaunee, as well as references to an eclipse which occurred at the time of the original confederation, the Haudenosaunee place their own formation almost 500 years earlier, at about 1142 AD. These teachings place the original Five Nations—the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca—at peace with each other, as their international clan system made them distinctly related families, separating bloodlines and establishing social responsibility within each Nation and Clan to one other.
The original game of lacrosse is sacred to the Haudenosaunee, and is known to the Onondaga as, Dehontsigwaehs (Deyhooncheegwaehs) an Onondaga word translated as “They bump hips”. The original game is considered to be of divine invention, given exclusively to the male population as a gift from the “Creator” for healing and the proper applications of mind body and spirit. The game is designed and played in direct patronage to honor his will, which, is always for the benefit of all of creation. The actual play of the game was, and still is, as many historical observers have recorded, played on an open field, with a configuration of wood fashioned to represent a “goal area” at either end into which upon successful passage of a ball, utilizing a netted stick, points could be recorded, by two opposing groups. The variance of participant numbers, length of field, size of goal area, reasons for play, has been wellnoted and recorded by historians and is directly related to geographical location and the evolution of woodland technology. The first recordings of this ancient game came from reports of French missionaries who immediately mischaracterized what they saw. They drew a correlation between the curved nature of the players sticks and the crosier’s staff held by Christian bishops? and in other cases, they likened the game to “le jeu de la crosse,” an ancient form of field hockey. Both are attributed to the naming of the game as it stands in contemporary western culture. In all actuality, the two constants that define the game, for all of its participants and observers, is the use of a type of woven or netted stick to catch, propel or carry the ball through a defined space as well as the rule forbidding the clutching of the ball with your hands.
The Haudenosaunee historically played, and continue to play games within their own communities, giving thanks for the continuance of the game and for the ceremonial healing power associated with the Creator’s will? and more popularly, for the pure enjoyment of its’ inherent vigor and continual tests of stamina, strength and intellectual prowess. From the moment a boy is able to hold the stick, and comprehend the game, he is taught respect: for the power of the game is sacred, and it demands the purity of mind, body and spirit, the lack of any, it is believed, weakens the man and presents the opportunity for failure.
The Game mirrors life, traditional life, the teachings are directly descendant from the Creator, and his gift of Lacrosse is, in essence, a code of conduct and the use of strategy designed for all of life’s various situations. These teachings are not apparent to the beginner. However, like all natural things, mature with time. True enlightenment comes only with continued involvement and experience. The wisdom is ancient, the teachings are not.