Today’s favorite game lacrosse owes its origin to the Iroquois tribes. Baggataway or the “Creator’s Game,” as it was called by the native tribes, was practiced by them as early as the 1400s. A synthesis of military preparation and religious ritualism, the game was invented and played by Huron, Algonquin, Mohawk, Onondaga, Ojibwe and other Iroquois tribes inhabiting mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes areas. The wide-open game became popular among settlers after William George Beers, a dentist in Montreal, added a standardized set of rules in the 1840s.
Baggataway was suitable for tremendous athletic skill young Iroquois men boasts. There were no standard rules except that no one could touch the ball with his hands. Meetings held the day before to make a decision on the rules. The sporting event lasts for days at a stretch from morning to evening. Between 100 and 1,000 players divided into two sides vie for a tiny deerskin ball in a field usually marked by two goalposts, but without any sidelines.
In The Rule of Ranging, my hero Finn learns to play baggataway the hard way, but he is rewarded afterwards.
The playing area between two goalposts, usually trees, rocks or wooden poles, could be between 500 yard and 5 miles. Players had “three-to-four-foot long sticks attached to small nets at their end to catch, throw or carry the ball.” Each goal post had poles with marks at three different heights. When scored above the chest-height mark, one point was allotted. If the ball was thrown above the top half, the player scored two points. Three points were awarded when the ball hits the top adorned by a large replica of a fish.
Baggataway began with the ball was thrown in the air and two sides ran to get hold of it. Passing the ball was skilled trick while dodging a rival player was considered an act of cowardice. Traditional healers served as coaches while women played almost an identical game called amtahcha.
Apart from being a recreational sport, baggataway had social, political and religious significance. The event played a crucial role in keeping the Iroquois Confederation together for centuries while it kept native warriors robust for combat. Just running across the vast field require strong physical attributes and stamina.
The military significance of baggataway was evident in June 1763 when the event was used as a ploy to unite Sauk and Ojibway tribesmen and capture Fort Michilimackinac. The natives held the game for days outside the fort protected by the British troops and brought a large number of men there. They threw the ball over the walls and stormed the garrison.
Often inter-tribal disputes were settled through the game. It was called “the Creator’s Game” and played to collectively pray and please the gods.
There were elaborate rituals associated with baggataway. Men decorated themselves and their sticks with charcoal and colors. Religious ceremonies held the night before and players participated in a dance ceremony with fancy clothing. Sex was not allowed while sacrifices and other rites were organized to pray for the victory.
Players walked into the field amid fanfare and a host of traditional rituals. The end of the event was celebrated with community feast and dance.
[Image credits: The Catch by Robert Griffing]