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A History of Colonial Lacrosse

The Baggataway Cup, held at McGill’s Molson Stadium this weekend, marked the end of the McGill men’s varsity lacrosse season. While the championship garnered a recap, the Cup, named after the Algonquin word for lacrosse, necessitates a look into the history of the sport, to understand how colonialism has changed and continues to affect the sport today.

A far cry from the 10-player, one- hour game that is popularized today, Tewaarathon, as lacrosse is called in the Iroquois tradition, encourages the involvement of numerous players; some games, involving multiple villages, are thought to have had over 1,000 players. The field could be anywhere from 400 meters to multiple kilometers in length and the game ran from sunup to sundown. The ball in play was fashioned out of wood and, later, deerskin stuffed with hair, and the goal was often a rock, a post, or a tree. The game was played as part of festivals, to cure the sick, to prepare men and boys for war, to settle disputes between Nations, and for fun. Most commonly, it is played as a means of giving thanks to the Creator, facilitating a spiritual connection. Unfortunately, so few records of strategy, stick handling, or rules exist that few conclusions can be drawn about original methods of game play.

In the 1630s, French Jesuit missionaries first witnessed a game of lacrosse, immediately condemning it for being “savage.” It was cited as part of a religion that their mission sought to eradicate. Despite the initial condemnation of the game by French missionaries, an exhibition game between Iroquois First Nations and Canadians for Queen Victoria in 1876 impressed her, she noted that it was “very pretty to watch.” The game continued to rise in popularity until games began to interfere with church attendance. Despite holding audience for the Queen, US Lacrosse notes that First Nations players “were excluded as ‘professionals’ from international competition for more than a century” because they had to charge money in order to cover travel costs.

In 1834, a team of Kanien’kehá:ka First Nations demonstrated a lacrosse game in Montreal, which sparked further interest in the sport in Canada. By 1856, the Montreal Lacrosse Club was formed. The club is credited for establishing the first set of written rules of the game, codified in 1867 by William George Beers. The written rules and new regulations drastically changed the way lacrosse was played, breaking away from and erasing the sport’s origins. Beers shortened the length of each game, reduced the number of players, redesigned the stick, and opted to use a rubber ball. Shortly after the game was westernized, lacrosse became the national summer sport of Canada.

So prolific was the westernized version of the Indigenous sport that ice hockey, Canada’s national winter sport, was influenced by and patterned off of many aspects of lacrosse.

The Baggataway Cup takes its name from an Indigenous tradition that was stolen and changed to fit colonial ideas. The culmination of the season should be recognized not as a system of bracketing teams to find the best one, but as an expression of a history rooted in colonialism. We recognize lacrosse and the Baggataway Cup as a championship named for its Indigenous history, in a sport hailing from several Indigenous traditions, played at an institution historically rooted in colonial violence, where an Indigenous racial slur was only recently removed as the team name. In line with the colonial history of the sport, the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA), which runs the Baggataway Cup, doesn’t recognize the First Nations history anywhere on their website or in any information about the Cup.