The fans in Metropolitan Stadium these days get pretty excited about the fate of the Vikings or the Twins, but the current crop are a tame lot compared to the sports fans who hollered it up in Bloomington, Minn. over three hectic days some 115 years ago.
The action in those days involved neither football nor baseball, but a game known simply as "ball," or the Dakota Indian equivalent of same. The Indians were playing this game long before the white man came to their country, and though the Canadians later adopted it, tamed it and called it lacrosse, the game as played in Bloomington in the 19th century and earlier bore a closer resemblance to an urban riot or an intertribal war than to anything seen in organized sport today.
Try to visualize some 250 nearly naked men and boys sprinting up and down a half-mile field bearing stout three-foot clubs with net pockets. Their bodies are painted in various shades of blue, red and yellow and adorned with fox tails and wildly tinkling bells. Ranging along the sidelines like third-base coaches as the men run up and down are medicine men masterminding the game. They are dressed in outlandish costumes and chant weird incantations while hordes of spectators—old men, women and children—scream encouragement to one team or the other. The cheering is more than token encouragement, for in all likelihood every piece of property owned by each fan's family is riding on the game's outcome.
For lack of diligent sportswriters many great contests among the Dakotas must have gone unreported, but the Dakota Friend, a monthly newspaper published by the Mission at Fort Snelling and edited by the Rev. Gideon Pond had its man (the editor) on hand to cover one great series of games played over three days in the month of June 1852.
May 5, 1968
The site on which this contest took place is several score Harmon Killebrew home runs from Metropolitan Stadium. Aside from the fact that it was situated roughly midway between their rival camps, the contestants undoubtedly chose it because it offered a considerable stretch of open terrain. Today the area is occupied by $30,000 homes owned by pursuers of the good life as it is practiced in upper midwestern suburbia, but in 1852 it was a kind of extra-urban no man's land.
By that time Bloomington had already become far too civilized for the woods-loving Indians. Situated along a main road that skirted the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling to Fort Ridgely, some 50 miles to the south, the community boasted two hotels and the only river ferry for miles up and down stream; this made it almost a metropolis. Even though they had little use for such urban surroundings, substantial numbers of Dakotas made their homes in what might be called the Bloomington suburbs so as to be able to trade their hides and pelts for guns, blankets, whiskey and other necessities of life available at Fort Snelling.
Many experts have called the Dakotas the most highly developed of all the western tribes and the bravest in wartime. Even if they had never aimed a bow and arrow in wartime, the Dakotas would have to be highly rated for bravery just for the way they played their game of ball. It took a staunch man to cradle a ball of rawhide in a net of thongs and head into a crowd of linebackers intent on stopping him by whatever means might come to hand.
A historian named Frederick Webb Hodge has described the way the Dakotas played their game in a Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. He makes it sound much like contemporary lacrosse without the rule book. The crosse, or club, says Hodge, was strung with netting like that of a loose tennis racket and the goals were much like those used today, except that the webbing was of deerhide thongs. Players on either side, according to Hodge, could number as few as 10 or as many as 100. But the game he describes so formally seems to have had little in common with the wild shinny that went on in Bloomington.
According to Pond, the Dakotas of the Minnesota Territory merely marked off two lines about half a mile apart and defied each other to carry a ball across them. The one firm rule of their game was that no man could touch the ball with his hand, but this seemed more a matter of religion than athletics. The ball was a sacred object and must not be profaned.
There is no available record to give us the box scores of the seasons that led up to the Bloomington series. Indeed there is no firm evidence as to why the series was scheduled at all, though planned and scheduled it must have been.
All Indian ball games were rooted in religion and were accompanied by a great deal of ceremony and ritual, and it may be that the Bloomington games were timed to match a religious festival that took place there each year when the trees were in full leaf. Whatever the occasion, the underlying purpose of the games was simple: pure greed. Like his white conqueror, the first American had one weakness: he could not resist betting his guns, his horses, his blankets, and, as Pond gloomily observed, even the kettle in which his squaw cooked the food for his family on the outcome of a contest. "How," moaned the good Mr. Pond, "can the Dakotas be otherwise than poor?"
One of the contesting factions had journeyed some 10 miles upriver from the southwest. Known as the Shakopees, it was led by Chief Little Six, a belligerent type who 10 years later was to be one of the leaders of a Sioux uprising that earned a place as one of the bloodiest events in the often bloody annals of settler-Indian relations.
The opposing team consisted of three separate bands led by a trio of chiefs known as Good-Road, Sky-Man and Grey-Iron. They came from the wilderness about six miles north of Bloomington on the shores of Lake Calhoun, one of a chain of four lakes scattered along what is now the western edge of Minneapolis.
So, while the Shakopees trekked north-eastward, these three bands at Lake Calhoun struck their tepees and headed south. Every living thing—braves, squaws, children, horses and dogs—journeyed to Bloomington, each family lugging along all its physical assets.
After a Sunday afternoon and evening of ceremonial dancing, prayer, fasting and frantic laying of bets, the combatants took the field on Monday morning, June 14. According to Pond, Six's band had wagered 16 guns (six of them double-barreled), eight horses and blankets, along with various calicoes, belts and garters, worth at least $800. The partisans of Grey-Iron, Good-Road and Sky-Man had covered all bets.
There were no scorecards available as the opening game got under way in Bloomington, but they wouldn't have been much use even if they had existed. Obviously, no Indian rookie had to worry over whether or not he'd make the team; there was room for everyone. Pond reported that some 250 men and boys joined in, nearly outnumbering the 300-odd spectators who cheered them on.
Three games were played on that day, and the downriver Shakopees, or Sixes, won them all. It cost the bunch from Lake Calhoun very dearly. Forget about tribal honor—they dropped about $2,600 worth of property. And on the wild frontier, it must be remembered, a dollar was a substantial piece of money.
The Calhouns were down all right, but they certainly were not out. They had, it seems, a secret weapon. As the teams assembled on Tuesday, the Calhouns introduced a ball of awesome power that had been made long ago by an old war prophet named Ehakeku. Ehakeku was a medicine man of widespread fame who had made his reputation by setting fire to one of the largest buildings in the white settlement of St. Peter some 70 miles to the south.
Now there is nothing new to organized sport about a magic ball. Any basketball fan who has ever felt his heart in his mouth while a cinch layup tottered perversely on the rim of a basket before dropping away, anyone who has ever watched a sure double play flip piquantly over a shortstop's glove, anyone who has ever seen his easy putt take a sharp left turn just this side of the cup, knows that a ball is a toy of the Powers of Darkness. The thing about the Dakota Indians was that they had sense enough to leave the manufacture of such things to men who understood their powers.
Minnesota's medicine men enjoyed an absolute monopoly on ball manufacture. There were no official rules. Some preferred to stuff deerhide with hair or moss, others used a rounded knot of wood. Others employed a hide-covered ball of moistened clay, measuring about 2½ inches in diameter, which hardened to something like rock. The netted circle at the end of their club, incidentally, was only a slight bit larger than the ball's diameter.
What gave each ball its special power was that the medicine man infused into it the spirit of the particular god that inspired him, after which he painted it to suit the caprice of the god. Whatever it was that Ehakeku breathed into the particular ball used that day, it worked wonders.
Promptly at 11 a.m. this primitive spaldeen was tossed into the air in the center of the field midway between the two goal lines—much like the basketball center jump—and, in Rev. Pond's words, "two to three hundred men rushed for it as for their lives." The Calhouns won both games, and the series stood at 3-2, in favor of the Shakopees.
But while the god that resided in Ehakeku's ball had a great day, other gods fared less well. One of the things that made a medicine man among the Dakotas so powerful was that he had a god residing inside him. One might suppose this would make him immune to injuries from mere mortals, but not so. While the older medicine men at Bloomington raced up and down doing their best to magic out a victory from the sidelines, the younger ones took part in the game, and one of them, young Visible Mouth, got himself clobbered. What's worse, he was clobbered right on the side in the very place where his medicine god lived. The blow obviously clobbered the god as well and put an end to the Calhouns' streak. The second day's play came to a confused end after two games as Visible Mouth's professional colleagues rushed onto the field to minister to the dual injury.
The two squads had at each other once more at 10 a.m. on Wednesday with some $300 to $400 worth of merchandise riding on the outcome. Evidently Ehakeku's ball was still psyching the Sixes, because the Calhouns won again to square the series at 3-3.
How many games the Indians intended to play is unknown. Perhaps until one side had bankrupted the other. As things turned out there never was any deciding contest, for following the sixth game, the series was brought to a sudden stop in the midst of high argument. Pond notes that Indian ball usually ended that way.
By that time some $4,600 worth of property had been won and lost. Some of the Sixes reneged on paying off. Just as the Calhouns were reaching for their rifles and tomahawks, the band of Little Crow—a surly lot whose talent for murder was renowned—showed up to assist the Sixes. The bands of Good-Road, Sky-Man and Grey-Iron prudently withdrew.
We can suppose that some of the Sixes diluted their dark fury with wait-'til-next-year hopes. If so, they were too late. As it turned out, the games played on those three days were the last significant ones ever played in the region. Six years later Minnesota became a state, and the noble Dakotas were removed to government reservations far to the north and west.