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.
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.