Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part III a: Lacrosse, the Jesuit Relations, and a Man of "Sense"

Art Remillard

Just south of Syracuse, New York, members of the Onondaga Nation regularly gather in a ritualized celebration of community, tradition, and family. It’s a rather sweaty affair—but then again, games of lacrosse generally are. “Families here have been playing lacrosse together for a long time. It is part of our lives,” says Chief Irving Powless. Unlike the game you might be familiar with, the Onondaga version of lacrosse is quite unique. Their field has neither boundaries nor standard lengths. The number of participants vary from game to game. Clans make up the teams, so a game might have 5 against 30, depending on who shows up. And people of all ages play, from 10 to 80 (as far as I can tell, Powless is in his late 70s and still plays). None of this has made the game any less intense. Rumor has it that when Jim Brown came to the reservation to play, a 145-pound Powless knocked him to the ground. It’s no wonder why the Cherokee nicknamed lacrosse “the little brother of war.”

But the vigorous play is not for show. Instead, it fuses with effort and joy, and expresses a living connection with the past and present. As Powless explains, “When we play a game here on Mother Earth, a game is taking place up there in the Land of the Creator at the same time. . . . So then after we pass away and we are through we have a means by which we can get our stick up into the Creator's world so that we'll play again.”

This brings me to Paul’s post on the Jesuit Relations. The Relations holds our first written description of lacrosse, which certainly did not emphasize the community-binding function of the game. Instead, we see a prime example of the spiritual competition at work between French missionaries and medicine men--or more broadly, between European Catholicism and Native American traditions.
In 1636, living among the Huron in Ontario, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf commented on the game that he would call “lacrosse”—named such because the sticks reminded him of the “crosier” carried by bishops in religious processions. The connection between Catholicism and Indian culture ended there. Brébeuf had no love for the “sorcerer” who prescribed lacrosse as cure for individual and communal illness.

In the classroom, I use Brébeuf’s description of lacrosse to illustrate James Axtell's point that French missionaries labored to become “a man of ‘sense.’” That is, Black Robes went to great lengths learning, documenting, and absorbing Indian culture, language, customs, and religion. The end goal (bad pun?) was to build status within the tribe, and challenge the "shamanic rival for spiritual leadership.”

Below is Brébeuf’s description of Indian lacrosse. He also talks about a game of chance called "dish." You can find this writing in both Allen Greer’s aforementioned The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America and online.

Of three kinds of games especially in use among these Peoples,—namely, the games of lacrosse, dish, and straw,—the first two are, they say, most healing. Is not this worthy of compassion? 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.

Sometimes, also, one of these jugglers will say that the whole Country is sick, and he asks a game of lacrosse to heal it; no more needs to be said, it is published immediately everywhere; and all the Captains of each Village give orders that all the young men do their duty in this respect, otherwise some great misfortune would befall the whole Country.

The game of dish is also in great renown in affairs of medicine, especially if the sick man has dreamed of it. This game is purely one of chance: they play it with six plum-stones, white on one side and black on the other, in a dish that they strike very roughly against the ground, so that the plum-stones leap up and fall, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other. The game consists in throwing all white or all black; they usually play Village against Village. All the people gather in a Cabin, and they dispose themselves on poles, arranged as high as the roof, along both sides. The sick man is brought in in a blanket, and that man of the Village who is to shake the dish (for there is only one on each side set apart for the purpose), he, I say, walks behind, his head and face wrapped in his garment. They bet heavily on both sides. When the man of the opposite party takes the dish they cry at the top of their voice achinc, achinc, achinc, " three, three, three," or perhaps ioio, ioio, ioio, wishing him to throw only three white or three black. You might have seen this winter a great crowd returning from here to their Villages, having lost their moccasins at a time when there was nearly three feet of snow,—apparently as cheerful, nevertheless, as if they had won. The most remarkable thing I notice in regard to this matter is the disposition they bring to it. There are some who fast several days before playing: the evening before, they all meet together in a Cabin, and make a feast to find out what will be the result of the game. The one chosen to hold the dish takes the stones, and puts them promiscuously into a dish, and covers it, so as to prevent any one from putting his hand into it. That done, they sing; the song over, the dish is uncovered, and the plum-stones are found all white or all black. On this point, I asked a Savage if those against whom they were to play did not do the same on their side, and if they might not find the plum-stones in the same condition. He said they did; "And yet, " said I to him," all can not win;" to that he knew not what to answer. He informed me besides of two remarkable things: in the first place, that they choose, to handle the dish, some one who had dreamed that he would win, or who had a charm; moreover, those who have a charm do not conceal it, and carry it everywhere with them: we have, they tell me, one of these in our Village, who rubs the plum-stones with a certain ointment and hardly ever fails to win. Secondly, that in making the attempt some of the plum-stones disappear, and are found some time after in the dish with the others.
Among all these fooleries, I dare not speak of the infamies and uncleanness which the Devil makes to slip into them, causing them to see in a dream that they can only be healed by wallowing in all sorts of filth. May he who has saved us by the blood of the Lamb grant to remedy this as soon as possible, accepting for this purpose, if need be, our souls and lives, that we most willingly offer to him for the salvation of these Peoples, and the remission of our own sins.


Randall said…
Love this last paragraph. Gotta get in the colonizer's perspective!

Popular Posts