Ball Play, Stick Ball, And The Game of Lacrosse

  • Ball Play / Stick Ball was the early version of lacrosse, popular with many Native American tribes.
  • It was originally called Anetsa (“little brother of war”), and was frowned on by Christian missionaries who recognized the pagan practices and influences associated with the game.
  • Originally, huge bets were wagered on the winners – choking an opponent was a common practice – and broken limbs were expected.  These particular aspects lessened over time.
  • Ball Play was a popular spectator event and people dressed up for the occasion.
  • It was a full-contact sport that included wrestling and tackling moves.
  • The participants were young men, clothed in only a team waist-cloth, with their exposed flesh covered in bear grease.
  • An elaborate ritual took place the night before the game which involved scratching the players.  Spells were cast on the opposition to make them weak.
  • Players remained hidden while the game-director cleared a large, level plain of all sticks and stones.  Two stick-goals were set up about six hundred yards apart.
  • Teams were kept even and they numbered anywhere from 20-100 participants, though 30 warriors on each side was the average.
  • They entered the field whooping and shouting and then marched slowly to the center.
  • Each player carried a pair of ball sticks.  These were made from hickory wood and had a braided net at the end.
  • Lacrosse balls were about the size of a golf ball and were made from stuffed deer hide.
  • Before the game started, young women dashed onto the field and gave favors of belts and handkerchiefs to their champions.
  • After a lengthy speech from the game-director the ball was thrown in the air and the contest began.
  • The game was refereed by two drivers.
  • Rules were similar to that of modern-day lacrosse.
  • The first team to score 12 goals against their rivals won the competition.
  • Stick Ball was vigorous, fast, and exciting.
  • Games lasted about 2 hours, then the contestants ran to the river for an icy bath.


Finger, John R. The Eastern Band of Cherokees, 1819-1900. Tennessee: U of Tennessee P, 1984.

Wikipedia, “History of Lacrosse,” at