Lacrosse as Ritual and Ceremony

Hi everybody,

As I promised yesterday, today’s post will be dedicated to the Haudenosaunee sport of lacrosse.


For the Onondaga, Dehoñtjihgwa’es (“they bump hips”) is far more than a sport though. According to Kent Lyons, Onondaga, the “original game” of lacrosse “was given as a gift from the Creator exclusively to the male population for healing and the proper applications of mind, body, and spirit.” This balancing of principles, which is always present in Haudenosaunee tradition, is played out on the lacrosse field.  “The game mirrors life, traditional life,” Lyons continued. “Its teachings are directly from the Creator, and his gift of lacrosse is, in essence, a code of conduct and strategy designed for all of life’s various situations. It is revered by the Haudenosaunee … as a game of discipline and honor.” The sport is ceremonial as much as it is entertainment. Its intensity is ascribed to the inherent male spirit through which the Creator wished the game to played. This male spirit, despite its intensity, must be disciplined and hold honor throughout the game, above base aspects such as “anger, vanity and brutality.” This is done because of the sanctity associated with the game.

Its intensity, though, as with other Haudenosaunee traditions, was misinterpreted by immigrant nations. French Jesuits, the first Europeans to witness and write about the sport, saw it as war-like and extremely violent. This misconception supposed aspects of the game that are antithetic to its original spirituality. The game is sublimely intertwined with the spiritual tradition of the Longhouse and the men who play it. Lyons wrote, “the power of lacrosse weaves throughout the very essence of Haudenosaunee men on a spiritual, physical, and social level, each player becomes identified in all that he does by the discipline and strength of his game.” While the ceremonial aspect of lacrosse is discussed above, Lyons’ comment supposed another aspect of the sport: the personal implications on its players. That is to say, how a player acts on the lacrosse field is indicative of his personality off.

As a lacrosse player, you must show humility and dignity. There has to be immense trust given to your teammates. It is not a game of personal achievement, but one where assists and selflessness are seen as ultimate signs of respect.  Coordination between the team must be present, as the team has to progress as a single unit, working the defense and taking advantage of opportunities afforded through strategy. All of these aspects – dignity, humility, cohesiveness, respect, selflessness – are cultivated throughout the game and become present within its players. This created well-rounded men from which clan protectors and leaders could be chosen. This, coupled with the ritualistic aspects of the game, highlight the cultural importance of lacrosse within the Longhouse.

I witnessed my first lacrosse game this past Saturday at Tsha’hon’nonyen’dakhwa’ (“where they play games”) in the Onondaga Nation. It was an all-day event, featuring a double header between the Junior ‘B’ (college-aged amateurs) versus Montreal and the Senior ‘B’ Onondaga Redhawks (professionals who played for free during the summer) against the Six Nations. The arena, built in 2001, is a source of pride for the nation. It is filled with trophies and memorabilia from past teams and tournaments. It’s museum also featured different Haudenosaunee cultural aspects such as a replica of the Two Row wampum and a bust of Atotarho.

The teams played with extreme gusto; the Junior ‘B’ team ran up the score, easily beating the Montreal team by over twenty points. At the end, though, there was little excess celebration. The respectfulness after winning, as described above, was present. The second game, between teams that are more highly trained, showed the cohesiveness and teamwork required by each player. No one person rose above the other, but rather the Onondaga Redhawks shone as a team, winning 15 to 6. “These traditional teachings,” Lyons finished his article with, “are not apparent to the beginner but, like all natural things, mature with time.” While I was not able to pick up every cultural aspect of lacrosse, especially when I was not even able to keep up with the rules, it was all present nonetheless. And as lacrosse reaches international borders, its heart and ritualism stay present within Haudenosaunee culture despite its misrepresentation by other peoples.

Also, it was an immense amount of fun to watch. For more information, or a different perspective, please read this New York Times articles on the 1990 Iroquois Nationals who played at the Lacrosse USA National Tournament. The Nationals teams was then coached by Onondaga Faithkeeper, and extremely active voice in Haudenosaunee activism, Oren Lyons. Several players are interviewed, as well as Kent Lyons who I have quoted above. The article can be found here.

All the best,



Lyons, Kent. “Lacrosse/Dehoñtjihgwa’es: The Creator’s Game”. Neighbor to Neighbor, Nation to Nation: Readings About the Relationship of the Onondaga Nation with Central New York, USA. Edited by Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. Syracuse: Neighbors of Onondaga Nation, 2014.

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