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Native American sports: a cultural insight

Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro


Native American culture is deeply rooted in tradition and sports have played a significant role in our heritage for centuries. From tribal rituals to friendly competitions, Natives all across the United States have developed a diverse range of sports that reflect our values, skills and spiritual beliefs. Games such as lacrosse, shinny and stickball are just a few examples that showcase physical prowess, strategic thinking and teamwork. Team sports also serve as a way to resolve conflicts and build camaraderie within our tribal communities. It is my intention to shed some light into the fascinating world of Native American sports and highlight their significance and cultural importance.

I will begin with one of the most popular Native sports: lacrosse. Lacrosse is also called “the Creator’s Game.” Played by many tribes in the U.S., lacrosse represents a spiritual journey. Natives believed that the game was a means of communication with the spirits. As when we play today, much like we did in older times, we honor our communities and our ancestors.There have been a number of famous lacrosse stick makers, though traditional methods of lacrosse stick making are few and far between, as the majority of our stick makers have crossed over. It is a rare treat to own a traditionally made wooden lacrosse stick. These sticks can cost hundreds of dollars and many months of time go into making just one stick. Worth noting is that a number of Native American players have made a name for themselves in the world of professional lacrosse.

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Shiny is a traditional ball game that resembles a combination of field hockey and soccer. It is played with sticks and a woven ball. This game requires agility, speed and coordination. However, in typical native fashion, it is more than just a sport. It symbolizes unity among the tribes and helps to foster diplomacy and peace during times of conflict. It is often played at intertribal gatherings to aid in strengthening the bonds between clans.

Stickball is a test of strength and courage. Though it is known by various names among various tribes, stickball is a physically demanding sport requiring strength, speed and bravery. Stickball is similar to lacrosse in so much as it involves the use of long sticks to propel a ball towards a goal. Oftentimes, the goal net is miles away. Stickball games are intense and highly competitive and are meant to mirror the challenges that are faced by Native tribes in everyday lives.

Native American sports are not solely focused on physical prowess. They have deep cultural and spiritual significance, as games are often accompanied by rituals, prayers and ceremonies. We invoke the spirits and seek their guidance. We play our tribal songs, and dance our traditional dances. Traditional attire is also worn to aid in celebrating the interconnectedness of nature, community and spirituality.

Despite the challenges posed by colonization and forced assimilation, Native American sports have managed to endure and even evolve over time. Today, efforts are being made to revitalize and preserve these ancient traditions to keep them alive for future generations. Native American athletes in various roles in modern sports continue to inspire and represent their heritages and cultural resilience.

Sports have served as more than mere entertainment for the Native American communities. They are integral to our identity, community and the unity of our tribes throughout history. Sports promote physical strength and skill to embody cultural values and spiritual beliefs. Our sports exemplify the resilience and the vitality of our cultures. By understanding and appreciating sporting traditions, we as Natives are able to honor the contributions of our Ancestors in shaping our cultural world as well as the world of sports.



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