Lacrosse players hail from the privileged, largely white pockets of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. They unite and form tribes in Eastern prep schools, where they can be spotted driving SUVs with "LAX" stickers affixed to the rear windows. Many grow addicted to dipping Skoal and wearing soiled white caps with college logos on them. They gain entry into top colleges by virtue of their skills with the stick. They graduate, start careers in New York, marry trophy wives, and put lacrosse sticks in their kids' cribs.
It is ironic then, that this WASPiest of sports was a) invented by Native Americans and b) used not so long ago as a pretext to massacre a group of white soldiers by said Native Americans. As early as 1100, American Indians played something akin to our modern day lacrosse. Originally called “baggatiway,” a French Jesuit named Jean de Brébeuf renamed it lacrosse (the French word for the stick the Indians used). The whole point of the game was to prepare men for war. It was probably good practice. According to accounts from Jesuits who witnessed the game, baggatiway was played on a field from 500 meters to 3 kilometers (about 1600 feet to close to 2 miles) and could last the whole day. The game was played throughout what is now Canada and the United States. Europeans, enthralled by the game’s fast pace and war-like atmosphere, were avid fans.
Being such avid fans, it probably didn’t take much convincing for British Major George Etherington, commander of Fort Michilimackinac, to accept an invitation from the local Ojibwe tribe to watch a lacrosse game between them and the Sauk on June 2, 1763. For whatever reason he did not pay attention when the local French population — the British had just recently won the French and Indian War(s) — told him the natives were planning an uprising. Etherington also did not notice the many women standing at the fort gate wrapped in big thick blankets…in JUNE. He was also not aware that the major fort in the area, Fort Detroit, was under siege by Indians led by Pontiac (you know, like the car). Oblivious to it all, Etherington and most of his garrison happily joined the Ojibwe and Sauk in their fun and games. They placed their bets (betting on the games was standard practice with the Indians and later Europeans) and watched enthralled. This was just a game, so the British kept their guns back at Fort Michilimackinac. THIS WAS A HUGE MISTAKE.
Remember those women at the fort gate?
They had guns and tomahawks under those blankets. Remember Fort Detroit being under siege? That was simply part of a larger rebellion. Fort Michilimackinac was next. In a matter of seconds, the 500 men who had been playing lacrosse became soldiers. Using the weapons the women had smuggled in, the lacrosse players killed or captured every British soldier save Etherington and his lieutenant — they managed to escape. The Obijwe were not completely merciless. The French settlers of the area were spared. We don’t know how many people actually died. Most historians believe at least 27 men were killed and a dozen captured.
The victory was short lived, however. The British sent thousands more troops to the area and quickly defeated the alliance the Pontiac had created among the tribes of the area. Ironically, a few years later, these same Indian tribes would ally with the British to fight a common enemy: the Americans. War makes for strange bedfellows indeed.
Richmond Hill "Young Canadians" lacrosse team, 1885.
And what about lacrosse? Well, in 1869 a man by the name of W. George Beers decided to codify the game. Doing so distanced the game from the more freewheeling style the American Indian was used to. Beers described the American Indian version of lacrosse as barbaric. In 1880, the National Lacrosse Association of Canada ordered that only amateurs could play the sport. This effectively barred Indian teams from competition because they accepted money for playing. It didn’t help that the type of white people that took up the sport were rich. The created expensive lacrosse clubs that only the rich could afford to join. Then the sport switched from wooden sticks (mostly produced and sold by Indians) to plastic ones. After that, any indication that lacrosse was actually a Native American sport was lost and the sport became synonymous with the white East Coast elite.