T

he year is 1867.

Tokyo opens its borders to foreign trade, Nebraska becomes the 37th U.S. state, barbed wire is patented, a colony of the British Empire north of the young United States is about to become a country and the modern game of lacrosse is born.

"> Medicine Game, Montreal-Mohawk Reenactment Mark 150th Anniversary of Lax in Canada | USA Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO BY DANIEL ROWE

Kanerahtens Bush has eyes on the deer hide ball as River McComber challenges him during a traditional medicine game at McGill University in the middle of Montreal.

Medicine Game, Montreal-Mohawk Reenactment Mark 150th Anniversary of Lax in Canada


T

he year is 1867.

Tokyo opens its borders to foreign trade, Nebraska becomes the 37th U.S. state, barbed wire is patented, a colony of the British Empire north of the young United States is about to become a country and the modern game of lacrosse is born.

The Creator’s Game, of course, had been played by the Kanienkehá:ka (Mohawks) and the other five Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations for centuries, but it was in 1867 that the a dentist named George Beers, who learned the game in Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake) from the Mohawks, wrote a set of rules down in Montreal and created the modern game.

Indeed, four months before Canada united as a nation, Beers wrote a letter to the Montreal Daily News titled “Lacrosse – Our National Field Game.”


“This is what kept me connected to my past,” he said through tears holding his wooden stick above his head. “Through the language of my elders, that’s the only thing that you could say kept our identity at those times.”


Fast forward 150 years to last week, when Montreal’s McGill University hosted the Canadian Lacrosse Association’s sesquicentennial anniversary with a series of tournaments, lectures, dinners and events highlighted by two reenacted games harkening back to how the game was played before and after European contact.

First, the Kanienkehá:ka (Mohawk) bear and wolf clans squared off in the Creator’s Game Saturday afternoon donning traditional buckskin breechcloths, playing with a deer hide ball and shooting for a single pole on either end of the dirt field.

Wenhniseriiostha Goodleaf led her warrior players onto the field before the contest followed by elder Kakaionstha Deer, for whom the game was played.

“It was exciting,” said Goodleaf, the high school student from Kahnawake. “It feels good because a lot of non-Natives don’t really know how we handled our medicine back then. Now they do. They have some sort of an idea.”

The game was played as medicine for the elder, who said she felt better after seeing the wolves and bears play.

Playing his traditional game, in his traditional style in the middle of his people’s traditional territory was a unique experience for Kahnawake Mohawk River McComber.

“For everybody here, players and fans included, it was definitely a treat,” he said. “It’s very fun to play, but it’s a lot more difficult.”

McComber, who played with the bears, faced off against Kaneráhtens Bush of the wolves, who echoed McComber’s excitement.

“It felt amazing to be out here playing this game in front of all these people,” Bush said.

McComber’s father and grandfather are local lacrosse legends. They played through the 20th century using the wood sticks, though none played with the stick used in the 1800s, as the boys did Saturday.

“With the times, lacrosse has gotten easier and more fine-tuned,” McComber said. “It was more body-to-body aggression back in the day, and that’s what we’re kind of getting the feel of. With the breeches and the 18th-century sticks, that’s just a bonus.”








Stick maker Travis Gabriel from the Mohawk community of Kanesatake watched the game along with fellow crafters Alf Jacques from Onondaga and Seneca Richard Big Kittle.

“It was really something to watch,” Gabriel said. “Every time I watch a medicine game like that, it does give me a certain amount of pride, because that’s how we originally played the game. It was nice to see that that’s still there.”

Following the traditional game, Kahnawake and McGill University laxers reenacted a game between the Caughnawaga Indians and the Montreal Lacrosse Club from 1867.

Dr. Beers (played by Dick Binsley) and Big John Rice Canadian (Larence “Buck” Cook) introduced the game and spoke about Beers’ rules and how they differed from the traditional game.

McGill’s captain, Bohe Hosking, spoke about lacrosse’s international appeal that spans nations.

“The sport itself is extremely inclusive and it’s meant to be more than divided by borders,” said Hosking, who originally is from the Washington, D.C. area.

Hosking and the McGill team have visited Kahnawake on occasion and taken part in practices. Hosking spent the week of festivities meeting old timers in the sport learning about its importance in the North.

“I definitely think that in Canada, it’s more ingrained in the culture,” Hosking said. “It’s just a way of life, whereas down in the States, there are a lot of tracks for athletic careers and whatnot. … Here, you see it in the ties to the community.”

Jacques, the stick maker, was not surprised to see so much support for the sport in Montreal. As part of his craft, he’s been able to see the excitement audiences have for the sport’s origins.

“I go around and talk about how the sticks are made to a lot of people all over the country in the United States and some in Canada, and I see that everybody wants to know,” he said. “They want a taste of that, the mystique, that spiritual game that the Natives play. They want a taste of that. They want a piece of that. They want wooden sticks, and want to know more about that traditional game all over the country.”

For Jacques’ fellow stick maker, Gabriel, the importance of showcasing the game in a traditional fashion in the center of Canada’s second-biggest city can’t be understated.

“It helps to show people that we’re not gone, we’re still very much alive,” he said. “Just that thought alone makes me happy.”




PHOTO BY DANIEL ROWE

Big John (Lawrence “Buck” Cook) and Dr. George Beers (Dick Binsley) recounted how the rules of lacrosse came to be in 1867.


The CLA took the lead in organizing the week’s events, and board member, author and Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famer Jim Calder worked with elders from Kahnawake and others to ensure the reenacted games, in particular, were as authentic as possible.

“It’s so important that we educate the lacrosse world on the history, the First Nations’ contribution to the history of the game, and how it turned into the modern game in 1867,” said Calder, who played for Canada in 1978 and 1982. “Kahnawake and the Montreal Lacrosse Club traveled to England three times and spread the game through the British empire through those three trips, so it was a cooperative effort to get the sport worldwide. … It’s a good time for everyone to remember where this thing came from.”

Ontario Lacrosse Association Hall of Famer Tewenhni’tátshon Louis Delisle took part in the traditional game and gave a lecture Friday titled, “The History of Lacrosse in Caughnawaga/Kahnawake, and how the warrior lacrosse players played a significant role in the evolution of Turtle Island.”

Delisle, who played from the 1950s to the 90s, voiced the importance of the sport to his people during his lecture.

“When I think back to how I was as a child, this is what kept me connected to my past,” he said through tears holding his wooden stick above his head. “There was no teachings, no longhouse — the longhouse was considered to be pagan. The authorities had done such a good job that you felt that old stuff was pagan, it was not to be learned about. But yet, through lacrosse, through the language of my elders, that’s the only thing that you could say kept our identity at those times.”

Photo Gallery

The Canadian Lacrosse Association commemorated the 150th anniversary of the sport in Canada with reenacted games harkening back to times before and after European contact. Photos by Daniel Rowe. (Click info icon for captions.)