“It’s not just a game, it’s what we do”

“It’s not just a game, it’s what we do”
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WILMINGTON — Lacrosse is dubbed “the creator’s game” by many Native Americans. For them, it takes on almost religious proportions.

“It’s not just a game, it’s what we do. It’s who we are and what we believe in.

These are the words of Leon Sam Briggs, an elder from the Tonawanda Seneca Nation in upstate New York, where the game was invented centuries ago in the St. Lawrence Valley on the Canadian border. . He was introduced to WC as an ordained spiritual leader, herbalist, cultural consultant and master of lacrosse whose lifelong association with the sport dates back to his cradle and when he first picked up a stick in the early of the 1960s.

Briggs visited Wilmington College Thursday, Nov. 10, as part of WC’s programming for Native American Heritage Month. It was co-hosted by the Native Students Association. and head coach Garyck Todd’s men’s lacrosse team. The college offers programs highlighting Native American culture throughout the month of November.

Forget the high-tech aluminum and titanium lacrosse sticks used by most American players today. Native American teams still use sticks made from hickory. They are hand carved and custom bent through a steaming process that takes eight to 12 months.

“We bring sticks to life while teaching respect for the tree,” Briggs said, noting that it’s not unusual for a hickory lacrosse stick to last up to 100 years. Indeed, his current stick is 10 years old and retains a particular history of sporting dominance. “This stick broke 500 aluminum and titanium sticks,” he said.

Briggs plays in a masters league with teammates ages 55 to 82. “Guys your age hate it when a 67-year-old man runs around them,” he told the WC lacrosse players in the audience.

Briggs’ stick design has essentially not changed in the last 150 years – and resembles today’s modern sticks, albeit their metal composition. He said there were only a dozen traditional stick makers left – and he’s one of them. He brought a 200 year old stick with the circular basket style that was popular centuries ago. Of course, it’s hickory – “the mother tree” – and it features a basket with five strings representing five tribal affiliations.

In the 1600s, a French Jesuit missionary noticed that the strings of the lacrosse formed a cross and reported to Paris that Native Americans were playing a game called “la Croix”, or in French, “lacrosse”. Then the lacrosse fields were often miles long and hundreds of men and boys played on courses laden with trees, streams and rough terrain. There were few fixed pitch perimeters like sidelines and baselines that we know in today’s game. Rather, the borders were literally lines of onlooker women and children.

Bullets were burls of hardwood – ideal for possessing crack resistance and capable of traveling up to 135 miles per hour – or made of animal fur stuffed inside a buckskin cover. Some sacred “medicine games” featured balls with pieces of clothing from a deceased elder inside, which represented a sign of respect.

Women are forbidden to touch men’s lacrosse sticks, as mixing male and female “medicine” can have a negative effect on the spirituality of the instrument. Indeed, women in Briggs’ WC audience were not allowed to handle the sticks he passed around only to men.

Briggs plays a form of lacrosse that is a bit different from the typical “field lacrosse” that Americans are familiar with. “Box lacrosse” is based on the original game and is played on a mile-long field – yes, with trees and other obstacles – with men wearing shorts and moccasins in all weather. A 20-foot-tall post adorned with an eagle feather stands at each end of the field of play, where the goals are four feet high, significantly smaller than modern six-foot goals.

It is also full contact with few prohibited holds unlike the modern men’s game, which is very physical but with safety limits. Native teams wear pads similar to the chest protectors of baseball catchers and the goaltender wears a helmet. Briggs remembers playing in the 1960s putting JC Penney catalogs into a pair of hockey pants for padding.

He said the Native American word for lacrosse means “bump hips / we break hips.”

Lifetime Lacrosse membership begins with small sticks placed in infants’ cradles and lasts even into the afterlife, as the stick is the only artifact buried with the deceased.

Briggs has 14 nephews who play in professional lacrosse leagues, including Lyle Thompson, who is recognized as one of the best in the world. These Indigenous players are so good that Indigenous teams have faced US Olympic lacrosse teams 68 times – and have never been beaten. Additionally, the Briggs Masters team has never lost to a collegiate lacrosse team.

“We believe that while we’re playing lacrosse, our ancestors in the celestial world are playing at the same time,” Briggs said, noting that the game for them is more than just picking up a ball and stick and playing. He left Wilmington College players with the following message: “Remember where lacrosse comes from and give back to the game, to the young players on the rise.”

It’s good medicine!

Leon Sam Briggs, a Tonawanda Seneca elder, shared his important insights into the origins, traditions and spirituality of lacrosse during a visit to Wilmington College. He exhibits both a 200-year-old stick and the one he uses with a more modern design. Both are hickory.

‘Lacrosse Master’ visits WC as part of Native American Heritage Month

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