“We play to help the community.”

I started playing lacrosse three or four years ago. I am fifteen now. One of my friends asked me, ‘Would you like to come play lacrosse?’

Photo courtesy of Shawn Beaver

Shawn Beaver | Bad River, WI

It was just a pick-up game at a community center. I started with the modern version of the game, but then I picked up a traditional stick and I just fell in love with it.

Lacrosse or baaga’adowewin is a traditional healing game and it’s been played for a long time. Before the modern way of playing came, Ojibwe people used this game as something to solve inter-tribal disputes.  Instead of declaring war and shooting guns, we used baaga’adowewin. They would play the game and whoever won would be the winner of that decision or war. The Ojibwe used this game in place of harming each other. It’s a healing game and it always has been. 

Baaga’adowewin is not a modern sports game. Our approach is different. It’s all about taking care of each other and love. The rules are: don’t play out of anger, be thoughtful, and have fun. We play to help the community. If someone gets hurt, we’ll stop the whole game and make sure that person’s okay. If someone gets angry, we’ll ask them to step to the side, take a moment to reset their energies, and they’ll join back in once they’re ready. We don’t keep track of scores either. We score, we reset, and continue the play. In modern lacrosse it’s more like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be physical and we need a win right now.’ That’s not what we’re trying to do with these games. 

We treat our lacrosse sticks as an extension of our bodies. We don’t swing it around like a sword. These traditional sticks are handmade and we don’t want them to break. I made two sticks last year and I’m helping teach a workshop on how to make them this year. The sticks are usually made out of cedar, white or black ash. It depends on the size you want the stick to be. Once you have your stick, you carve it down and make the basket frame. You want to get the basket frame longer than what you think and very thin. Once everything is carved down to size, you put it in a steamer so the wood gets flexible. After the steamer, it gets placed in clamps to keep it in shape and you leave it alone for a night. The next day if it hasn’t cracked anywhere, you sand it down, finish the basket with leather or sinew and the stick is ready to be used. 

I was asked to help bring traditional baaga’adowewin into schools to teach kids the game and help them  understand that this is our land. It is our right to be able to play here. Act 31 requires that public schools provide instruction on native culture. We’re starting with the middle schools and high schools, but eventually we want to get it into elementary schools too. 

Playing with non-native people is an important aspect of playing in schools. After school on the days we play, a kid might say to their parents, ‘I had the most fun at school today, I played baaga’adowewin.’ A lot of these families don’t really involve themselves in Native culture, they don’t know much about it. But then their kids can help them understand why Native culture is so important and how the game is important to us and to them. Then they tell their friends, and their friends come and try it out. The more people interested, the better.  

Helping to get Native culture back into schools is something I’m really passionate about. If you have a chance to play lacrosse–the traditional way–play it. It’s a really amazing game. And just playing once or twice really does make an impact on being able to bring Baaga’adowewin back and help people understand how important it is. My favorite part about playing is the community aspect and how we all get together and play and care for each other.

Shawn’s story was produced by Ma’iingan Wolf.

Whose land do you live on?

Ma’iingan Wolf produced Shawn’s story. Check out this TikTok from Ma’iingan and follow Love Wisconsin on TikTok!

Shawn mentioned Act 31 in his story. To learn more about Act 31, a state law passed in 1989 that requires that all students in Wisconsin learn about the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s federally recognized tribes, check out these resources and this book by JP Leary. Leary is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Education Center for First Nations Studies.

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