The name “La Crosse” is thought to have been inspired by a popular game played by Native Americans in the region, which was known as Prairie Lacrosse to the first white settlers. Today, lacrosse continues to grow in international popularity, but what is known about the origins of this game and the people that played it?
The game of lacrosse, also known as the “Creator's Game” to the Ho-Chunk, has a long history, as there were three different types played across the United States at the onset of European contact in the seventeenth century: southwestern, Great Lakes, and Iroquoian.
The stick pictured here is in the Great Lakes style, and was likely made and used in our region by a Ho-Chunk man. Lacrosse sticks like this one are made from a single piece of wood that is carved, and then steamed, boiled, and bent to create the circular shape. It is believed that these curved sticks reminded early French settlers of the staff carried by bishops, called la crozier, which sparked the name La Crosse.
Lacrosse games were grand events, and were not necessarily a ‘game’ in the same sense that we think of today. While it was played for recreation and ceremonial purposes, lacrosse could also be used to determine wealth, land, or social status, and was frequently used as a substitute for war. Because of this, a game could have hundreds of players spread out over miles.
While lacrosse games have changed over the years, the core values of the sport remains: identity and community. Lacrosse continues to be played locally by the Ho-Chunk Nation using traditional equipment to bring the community together and keep traditions alive for future generations.
This lacrosse stick is one of the objects that will be featured in the exhibition “[art]ifact, Where History Meets Art,” on display from Feb. 26 through April 17 at The Pump House Regional Art Center. It will be displayed alongside a new piece created by artist Jonathan Eimer as a response to the stick and the history of lacrosse in this area. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Public History Program, and the La Crosse County Historical Society.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.