The most popular men's game in the Woodland area, still played today by both Indians and non-Indians, was the ball game called lacrosse.
The name was derived from the French jeu de crosse, for the stick or racket used to play. Some tribes called lacrosse "the little brother to war," because games could be used to settle disputes between tribes or bands. Menominee oral tradition states that lacrosse was the gift of the Thunderers and among the Menominee it was played as a practice war game. Other Great Lakes Tribes played lacrosse for sport and for spiritual purposes, for instance before Midewiwin ceremonies. Among some groups where lacrosse was played for sport, wagers could be made on the games.
The ball, about the size of a baseball, had a deerskin cover and was stuffed with hair. In earlier times, the ball was made of wood. Some tribes carved designs on the ball-stars, circles, or crosses-and others painted it a red and black or red and yellow, which were probably symbolic of the moieties. Each man had his own stick, a sapling almost four feet long bent at one end to form a circular loop which was filled with netted leather. Iroquois rackets had larger, triangular hooks and nets. Many sticks carried identifying individual markings. When Whites adopted the lacrosse game, they used the Iroquois style of lacrosse stick.
Among the Potawatomi, players were invited by the customary gift of tobacco. When everyone had assembled on the appointed day, tobacco and food were spread on the ground and dedicated to the spirit being honored. The sponsor selected two captains. One was blindfolded and led to the pile of sticks which had been thrown down by each man as he arrived. The blindfolded man divided the sticks into two piles. Since each stick had identifying marks on it, each man retrieved his stick and joined the team formed by the random division of the sticks. Ordinarily two teams of five each were invited, but as many as nine sometimes joined in. Older accounts tell of very large tribal contests, with a hundred or more on each team.
The field was a level area with two goal posts set in the ground about a quarter mile apart. Some Minnesota Ojibwe groups used only one goal post. In winter, lacrosse was sometimes played on a frozen lake. The sponsor started the game by using his stick to toss the ball into the air in mid-field. Players either picked the ball off the ground with their sticks or caught passes from teammates, and the object was to run with the ball or pass it and score a goal by hitting the post behind the opposing players or by sending the ball between the posts. One man acted as goalie. A player could not touch the ball with his hands. The opposing team attempted to intercept the ball or knock it out of a man's racket and traditionally lacrosse was said to have been a very rough game. Generally, the fastest runners scored the most goals, but teamwork was important. A game lasted until a predetermined number of goals were scored and the prizes had been won. A game often lasted three hours or more; some lasted all day. The player who scored a goal immediately claimed his prize, which he presented to a woman spectator, often his niece or aunt. In turn, she would reciprocate with a gift at some future time.
During the earlier part of the 20th century, tribal lacrosse games were played occasionally, usually at fairs. By the 1950s, the game was not played as frequently, but it has seen a resurgence recently. In addition, some players from the Great Lakes tribes are now encouraging the use of the traditional Great Lakes type of stick rather than commercial Iroquois-style sticks.