Lacrosse in Historical Sources

As winter turns to spring, Myaamiaki ‘Miami people’ and their friends put down the threads of winter stories. With the other hand, they pick up lacrosse sticks.

Peekitahaminki at the 2018 Annual Gathering, Miami, Oklahoma. Photo by Jonathan Fox.

Peekitahaminki–lacrosse–is an ancient game in Indian Country, including among Myaamiaki ‘Miami folks.’ There are old records from the colonial period in which Europeans recorded their observations of Miami and Peoria people playing peekitahaminki. Here are a couple of them.

Related: Read Stomp Dancing in Historical Sources

In the 1710s, an Italian named Piero di Lietto (known as Pierre-Charles de Liette or sometimes “De Gannes”) traveled with Inohka ‘Illinois’ communities on their summer bison hunt. Here is how he described their game.

I have forgotten to say that before they set out for the chase [hunting] the men play at lacrosse, a few women mingling with them. They make the racket of a stick of walnut about three feet long, which they bend half way, making the end come within a foot of the other end, which serves them for a handle. To keep it in this shape they fasten a buffalo sinew to the curved end, which, as I have already said, they fasten about a foot from the end which serves as a handle. They lace the interior with more buffalo sinew so that the ball, which is a knot of wood of the size of a tennis ball, cannot pass through. 

This nation is composed of eight villages, of which there are six at Pimiteoui (Pimiteewi, ‘fire burns past’ near modern Peoria, Illinois) and two others which I have never seen with them. The latter are situated eight leagues below the mouth of the Illinois River on the Mississippi; they are called Cahokia and Tamaroa, and have, I believe, more than sixty cabins. The six of which I wish to speak are the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Moingwena, Coiracoentanon, Tamaroa, and Tapouara. The Peoria and Coiracoentanon usually join against the four other villages because they are as numerous as the four. 

In the middle of the prairie on whose edge their village stands they place two forks about ten paces apart. An old man who is neutral rises and utters a cry which signifies: It is time. Everybody rises and utters cries similar to those they give when they attack the enemy. The old man throws the ball into the air and pell-mell they all try to catch it. They strike their legs so forcibly that they are sometimes crippled, especially when someone manages to get the ball in hand so as to throw it a long way, so that it has sufficient distance to gain momentum and then strikes a player’s legs in front. This makes them fall down in such a manner that you might suppose they would never get up again. I have seen men in this state who were thought to be dead. The players rush over them without paying any heed; only their female relatives come and carry them off in a deerskin. Sometimes as much as two months elapse before they can make use of their legs, and often they break them.[1]

Painting depicting Ojibwe lacrosse players in the early 1830s
“Ball Players” painted by George Catlin. This image, while not of Myaamia players, suggests how Ojibwe players might have appeared to Catlin in the upper Mississippi River valley in the early 1830s. Wikimedia Commons.

The memoirs of entrepreneur Nicolas Perrot likewise give us a lot of detail about how Miami-Illinois speaking communities played the game in the late 1600s: 

The sauvages have several kinds of games, in which they take delight. They are naturally so addicted to these that they will give up their food and drink, not only to play but to watch the game. There is among them a certain game, called crosse, which has much likeness to our game of long tennis. Their custom in playing it is to oppose tribe to tribe; and if one of these is more numerous than the other, men are drawn from it to render the other equal to it [in strength]. You will see them all equipped with the crosse — which is a light club, having at one end a broad flat part that is netted like a racket; the ball that they use in playing is of wood, and shaped very nearly like a turkey’s egg. The goals for the game are marked in an open level space; these goals face east and west, south and north. In order to win the game, one of the two parties must send its ball, by driving it [with the racket], beyond the goals that face east and west; and the other [must send] its ball beyond those to the south and north. If the party which has once won sends the ball again beyond the east and west goals from the side that it had to win, it is obliged to recommence the game, and to accept the goals of the opposing party; but if it should succeed in winning a second time, it would have accomplished nothing — for, as the parties are equal in strength, and are quits, they always begin the game again in order to act the part of conqueror; and that party which wins carries away what has been staked on the game. 

Men, women, boys, and girls are received into the parties which are formed; and they bet against one another for larger or smaller amounts, each according to his means. 

These games usually begin after the melting of the winter’s ice, and last until seed-time. In the afternoon all the players may be seen, painted with vermilion and decked with ornaments. Each party has its leader, who makes an address, announcing to his players the hour that has been appointed for beginning the games. All assemble in a body, in the middle of the place [selected], and one of the leaders of the two parties, holding the ball in his hand, tosses it into the air. Each player undertakes to send it in the direction in which he must drive it; if it falls to the ground, he endeavors to draw it toward him with his crosse; and, if it is sent outside the crowd of players, the more alert distinguish themselves from the others by closely following it. You will hear the din that they make by striking one another, while they strive to ward off the blows in order to send the ball in a favorable direction. If one of them keeps it between his feet, without allowing it to escape, it is for him to avoid the blows that his adversaries rain incessantly upon his feet; and, if he happens to be wounded in this encounter, that is his own affair. Some of them are seen who [thus] have had their legs or arms broken, and some even have been killed. It is very common to see among them men crippled for the rest of their lives, and who were hurt in games of this sort only as the result of their own obstinacy. 

When such accidents occur, the player who is so unfortunate as to be hurt retires quietly from the game, if he is in a condition to walk; but, if his injuries will not permit this, his relatives convey him to the cabin, and the game always goes on as if nothing were the matter, until it is finished.[2]

Clearly, Myaamia athletes have long enjoyed playing lacrosse, as well is whacking each other’s feet in the process. We used to think that the sport went dormant among Myaamiaki sometime around the time of Removal, or in the generation before. I suspect that it did. But recently, I discovered that Edwin Miller coached and played for the lacrosse team at Carlisle Indian School. He was a midfielder. Notice that the team uses Iroquois-style sticks, with open pockets. 

Yearbook picture from Carlisle Indian School of Edwin Miller
Edwin Miller (Myaamia) at Carlisle School in 1917. From the Carlisle Yearbook.

The peekitahaminki tradition continues across Myaamionki

Full team photo of the Carlisle lacrosse squad. Courtesy Cumberland County Historical Society.

[1] Theodore Calvin Pease and Raymond C.  Werner, editors, “Memoir of De Gannes Concerning the Illinois Country” in The French Foundations: 1680-1693 Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, 23 (Springfield, IL, 1934), 342-44.

[2] Emma Helen Blair, ed., The Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and Region of the Great Lakes vol. 1 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 89-91.

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