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  • Lauren Karmo

Roots of the Game: Indigenous History of Detroit and Lacrosse


Native Americans hold the most important place in the history of lacrosse as the creators of our favorite game. At Detroit United Lacrosse, honor and respect for the game and its roots are intertwined into not only our overarching mission, but our daily activities.


The city of Detroit occupies the territory that is home to the Council of Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. These three Anishinaabe nations currently represent about 0.4% of the Detroit population according to the US Census.


The sport of lacrosse was created by the Algonquin tribe — a neighboring Anishinaabe nation from the territory that is currently occupied by Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec. The Indigenous people named the game “baggataway” after the deerskin ball used. We call it “lacrosse” now after the French colonizers first observed the game in the 1300s. Their word “la crosse” was for the players’ sticks.


Most indigenous people played this game with thousands of men and valued it for recreation, discipline, warrior training, and for the Iroquois tribe, a religious ritual. The Cherokee called lacrosse “the little brother of war” for its rough nature and physicality. Contests could last days, but even then, players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands, only the stick.

Anishinabe men staged a game outside of Fort Mackinaw in present day Michigan. They threw the ball over the fort walls and the women revealed weapons under their blankets. The Anishinabe took the control of the fort.



By the 1700s, more rules were added to the game, limiting the number of players to 60 and later to seven, and added a set distance between nets. Lacrosse has always had some version of a faceoff, and in 1800, it became very close to the standard one used in today’s men’s game.


We share in this important history of the sport with our youth at Detroit United through every game we play and through small history lessons and books read aloud. Check out some of our favorites like “A Lacrosse Story” by The Sunseri Family and “Lacrosse Legends of the First Americans” by Thomas Vennum.


Explore current Anishinabe lacrosee players, and for more information visit www.anishinabebaagaadowewin.org.


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