Lesson 12 – Lacrosse

Lesson 12 – Lacrosse

The term Kaposia, which is used to identify Little Crow’s Dakota village, is a word that means “light” and “active.”  The name was given to Little Crow’s village, apparently in honor of their skill at the Indian game of lacrosse, the success of which depended largely upon swiftness.  The traveler and artist, Frank Blackwell Mayer, referred to the Kaposia band as “the lithe people.”  While camped at Traverse des Sioux for the treaty negotiations, Mr. Mayer got to witness firsthand a game of lacrosse played by the Dakota Indians.

Dakota Ball Players by Frank Blackwell Mayer
Dakota Ball Players by Frank Blackwell Mayer

Traditionally, the Indian game of lacrosse was a major event that could take several days and included anywhere from 100 to 1,000 players.  The field, which generally had no out-of-bounds, could stretch anywhere from 500 yards to 6 miles long.  In his journal, Mayer thoroughly described the Indian game and was impressed by many aspects.  He first noted the regalia of a ball player who was adorned in breech cloth and their heads which were “adorned in every variety of fanciful manner.”  He also noticed their belts which the Indians used to hang ornaments that greatly contributed to the effect of motion.  Finally he noticed their faces which were often painted with brilliant colors.

Mayer described the game as it occurred before him on the prairie, enamored by the skill and physical talents required.  In witnessing a point being scored he left a vivid description:  “One is at last successful, he shakes the crowd from him and runs as near to his bounds as he can without danger of losing his ball, he is at the extreme end of the prairie a half-mile distant from the place he left, again they contend and the ball is carried nearly to the opposite bounds, the chiefs and old men encouraging their men with a rapid stream of Dakota fluency, the players contending to the utmost, their suppressed words of eager rivalry indicating the vigor of their exertions, now in the eastern bound, now by your side, the crowd of spectators escaping from the stream of players by whom they are likely to be overwhelmed, from one end to the other of the immense prairie, from your side to the distant horizon, they course with incredible swiftness.”

The game, Mayer noted, took all day with only a slight intermission for rest.  By the end, he suggested that the players must have run at least forty or fifty miles.  Mayer was so impressed, that he stated, “one can have no idea of the physical powers of this race until he has witnessed this display.”  This was one of many games and dances that Mayer had the opportunity to witness while camped at Traverse des Sioux leading up to the treaty negotiations.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

The men, now prepared for competition, sallied forth to the grounds now surrounded by eager spectators.  A ball was tossed high in the air and the game began as the competitors battled for the small, round object.  Each player was equipped only with a stick, his lacrosse, which appears similar to that of a shepherd’s crook.  The crook at the end of the stick is used to pick-up, carry, and throw the ball.  The goal of the game was to use one’s stick to throw the ball beyond the boundary of one’s opponent.  But this was not made easy.  The ball was often knocked loose by the opponent who attempted to disrupt and deny the ball carrier from ever throwing the ball.  Once it was thrown it flew an incredible distance high through the air so that it could hardly be seen.  Ambitious eyes watched for the ball’s falling point whereupon they descended almost instantaneously.  They fought and scuttled over the ball until finally one player had broken loose, alluding his pursuers.  He advanced as far as he could safely carry the ball without risk of dropping it to an opponent.  Then, standing a half mile from where the competition began, he hurled the ball beyond the horizon and over the boundary of his foes.  He turned to the crowd which roared in excitement as he raised his stick and encouraged their adulation.

The game continued like this for many hours, no man showing any sign of exhaustion.  I watched in awe at the physical endurance and prowess of the Indian.  One can have no idea of the physical powers of the Dakota Indian until witnessing such an impressive display of athleticism and strength.  His form so graceful and his movements so swift and powerful as he runs, vaults, springs into the air and courses from one end of the prairie to the other.  I tried to capture these images in my sketchbook, but their movements were so quick, so constant, I could not properly resemble the brilliant setting for which I was witness.

With the game won the stakes were divided and the victors off to celebrate.  The losers, though withdrawn, did not become angry or take offense to any rough treatment.  The afternoon now waning, I set back to my tent satisfied with the day’s events.  I contemplated my unique surroundings once more, finding myself grateful to participate in such a profound and incredible experience.  Remembering also the words of Ashton White and Red Iron, who told me not to take this moment for granted.

Read about the word Kaposia and other geographic names derived from the Dakota people (p. 170). 

Sources:  

Warren Upham, “Minnesota Geographic Names:  Their Origin and Historic Significance,” in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol 17, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1920).

Bertha L. Heilbron, With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851:  The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1986).

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