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'Minnesota Lacrosse: A History' by J. Alan Childs (2015)

A Mohawk Book Review on 'Minnesota Lacrosse: A History' by J. Alan Childs (2015)

Alex Jacobs
1/18/16

As a Mohawk, I must first issue a caution to other Iroquoian peoples. Yes, Lacrosse exists outside of New York, Ontario and Quebec, but Minnesota? Yes! Very much so, thanks to the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples and a small but determined group of Minnesotans centered around the historical St. Paul Lacrosse Club and the Minnesota Lacrosse Association.

I must commend the author J. Alan Childs for a supreme labor of love, because my initial reaction was to the actual book itself. A self-published one person community effort. It brought me back to my old Akwesasne Notes days in the cut & paste era of Xeroxed pages and old newsprint. Then I read and understood the effort and the research of days in libraries and hours on the internet.

An important reference in the book is Dan Ninham who organized Northern Minnesota Lacrosse based in Bemidji which re-vitalized Native clubs from Red Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Lower Sioux and others. This effort re-established “the Ball Game” among urban and Rez Natives. Ninham is Oneida from Wisconsin and his wife Susan is from Red Lake. The Ball Game, or Lacrosse, is called baaga’adowe in Ojibwe and Tabkapsicapi in Dakota. Ninham’s “coaching tree” includes Max Kelsey, Jerry Morgan, John Hunter, Franky Jackson, Lukas Fineday, Pete Neadeau.  Jerry Morgan’s 2004 book “Baaga’adowe”, referenced his main informant Rueben Goggleye who said that the Dunn, Cloud, Fairbanks and Raisch families were the last to play the game before it fell out of favor.  

A town called Ball Club near Leech Lake was historically where lacrosse games were played on both sides of the lake and along the Mississippi River and people travelled by canoe and horse to come together and watch games. The Ball Game was a medicine game in Minnesota too, it healed by bringing people together to hold feasts and prayers and settling differences as up to 40 people per side would play.

How a culturally relevant activity like lacrosse faded away is mentioned a few times as boarding schools, christianity, government, World War Two and the G.I. Bill all coincided to offer other “opportunities” but at the same time degrade culture, language and traditional activities. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that lacrosse really appeared again among city and college players, both men and women, in the Twin Cities. Jump ahead to recent times and a half-time exhibition during the last home game of the Minnesota Vikings hosting the Green Bay Packers in 1992; the 1995 North American Indigenous Games held in Blaine; and The River Rendezvous celebration in Bloomington in the late 90’s.

These events are within memory but Childs’ research really lays out the tradition of lacrosse going back 100 years ago when the Ball Game was peaking and even further back to the period after the Civil War when people in the US and Canada wanted to restore some sense of normality.

In 340 pages an author can only do so much but Childs covers a 400 year history, geography and cultures as best he can in a short amount of time, with every reference to lacrosse and stickball he can find in the northern regions from the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. There are areas of conflict and politics back then and in modern times that are mentioned only in passing but we can easily fill in why things happened or did not. The book covers so many areas of lacrosse, culture, games and sporting activities so well, that we all can fill in when necessary. Childs’ covers the growing acceptance of the game in-state, then beating all American teams, competing with clubs from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec and how victories against these Canadian teams make the St. Paul club a major contender and finally champion.

To get back to the Ball Game, or Tewaarathon, “little brother of war”, as we Mohawks call it, Childs details what he has found out historically from American, Canadian and English proponents of the game along with First Nation cultures. Because realistically, settlers and natives have different concepts of the game, yet the beauty of it all is that eventually we get to settle it on the field. An 1834 game played by Kanawake Mohawks in Montreal starts the interest in Canada.

Hockey is basically born from Lacrosse and the first puck is a lacrosse ball that has its top and bottom cut off in 1875. The late 1800’s sees an explosion of games both traditional and new (shinty, bandy, baseball, football, soccer, rugby, field hockey, basketball, American ice polo, Canadian ice hockey and lacrosse). Lacrosse actually sets standards of the time like written rules, first electric light night game, challenge cups, goal nets, women’s teams, All American teams and most importantly forward passing.

Football is considered too violent as men actually die on the field and baseball is wicked because young men would rather hang out and get paid to play a game and not develop other skills. Colleges consider switching to lacrosse to avoid these evils. Only President Theodore Roosevelt can save football as we know it today and only the Native American game of lacrosse and athletes like Jim Thorpe who showcase this forward passing element actually make these games enjoyable to watch and play.

Childs makes an important point, Lacrosse is played in the air, not on the ground, and this ancient Native game actually presages the modern era. You have to be a complete sports nut to know all this, so it is refreshing and it fills in so much of what we now consider modern games and “tradition”.

There are aspects not included from what I was told back home. The modern game of indoor box lacrosse developed because 100 years ago Iroquois clubs beat all comers and so were forbidden to play “field lacrosse” on the international stage. So empty outdoor hockey rinks became grassy box lacrosse fields and turned into the fastest game in two feet. Also as an aside, no one seems to know where the term Hockey comes from, but if you hit a Mohawk man with a stick, he will shout “Ah-ghe!” or “ouch”. Just saying.

Minnesota Lacrosse: A History by J. Alan Childs was fun and I’m only half done. It belongs in your library to fill in so much history, tradition and custom and to use in your own research. There is a bibliography of books that reference lacrosse, historical time-lines and evolution of rules of the game.

'Minnesota Lacrosse: A History' by J. Alan Childs (2015) is available on Amazon.  For additional info contact: flamethrowerprod@gmail.com or Lacrosse History blog at laxhistorygeek.com .

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