Illustration, Robert DesJarlait, from The Creator's Game: A Story of Lacrosse/Bagaa'adowe, Art Coulson, 2013, Minnesota Historical Society Press
Note: The following are excerpts from an article I am currently working on.
There’s a saying in lacrosse – Grow The Game. When I illustrated “The Creator’s Game: A Story of Bagaa-adowe / Lacrosse” by Art Coulson in 2013, little did I know that I would grow the game on a personal level. The game would draw me deeper in, much deeper than I ever expected.
I began to personally grow the game when I first touched pen to paper for the drawings for the book. At that time, I had a basic knowledge of lacrosse. But to do the drawings, I had to research the topic. Once the book was completed and published, I thought I would continue on my way. But then something about lacrosse pulled me in. It grew within me.
Certainly, it was part of my inquisitiveness as a tribal historian. Here was a game that was deeply embedded in my culture. It wasn’t merely a game of competiveness. Rather, there were spiritual and medicine connotations to the game. So far back does the game go that we have our own origin story about lacrosse and the game has played a significant role in several traditional stories. It was a game that reflected ogichidaag traditions. The war dance and victory dance were incorporated as part of the game. Writers like William Warren, Francis Densmore and Johann Kohl offered little insight into lacrosse and the game became a historical footnote not just to chroniclers of Ojibwe culture but also to the Ojibwe themselves. The tournaments that were played between different reservation communities were largely forgotten. Colonialism and assimilationist policies undermined its demise on Ojibwe reservations. We not only lost a part of our history but also the spiritual legacy that imbued the game.
The story of lacrosse among Native peoples is wrought with racism and cultural appropriation. Lacrosse is a microcosm of the macrocosm. We need to look no further than lacrosse to understand the prejudice and bias directed toward us as indigenous peoples.
When George William Beers, the so-called father of modern lacrosse, wrote “Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada,” he encapsulated the Native version as a game played by uncivilized redskins. Revisionists point out that Beers was using the language of his time. However, Beers’ view continues to permeate the game today.
For our part, we need to Grow The Game. Although there is a resurgence of the game among our youth, we need to more strongly emphasize the game’s history and traditions. The ceremonial protocols that were once part of the game are lost in the mists of time. But we can reassert the traditions we have. We can smudge the sticks and players, have a medicine man offer prayers before and after the game, have a drum at a game with singers singing war songs, and celebrate with a feast and victory dance when the game has ended. Games can be played for competition and games can be played for medicine. In medicine games, games can be played for people who are stricken with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or other ills that affect our people.
Lacrosse is like our language. It gives us identity and direction as Ojibwe people. This is the game that the Creator gave us. Let us honor that and Grow The Game.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait