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American Paintings and Sculpture
Artist: Edmund C. Coates, American, b. England, 1816-1871

Indians Playing Lacrosse on the Ice


Oil on canvas

28 1/2 × 35 1/8 in. (72.4 × 89.2 cm)
Whitney Collections of Sporting Art, given in memory of Harry Payne Whitney, B.A. 1894, and Payne Whitney, B.A. 1898, by Francis P. Garvan, B.A. 1897, M.A. (Hon.) 1922
Lacrosse originated among American Indians in northeastern North America. Variants of stick-and-ball games are played by American Indian nations throughout the eastern part of the continent. Oral traditions testify to the antiquity of the sport, which was first documented by Jesuit missionaries during the early seventeenth century. Lacrosse has an important place in American Indian community life. Both men and women, sometimes on mixed teams, participate in this popular form of entertainment. It is played for fun, to settle disagreements, and for spiritual or ceremonial reasons. Games are sometimes organized to honor guardian spirits or satisfy dreams. Matches are also played in conjunction with particular ceremonies. Additionally, the sport has played a role in military contests: in June 1763, Ojibwe people participating in Pontiac’s Rebellion orchestrated a lacrosse match to distract soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac prior to attacking the British outpost.

This winter lacrosse scene bears a striking similarity to Seth Eastman’s 1848 painting Ballplay of the Dakota on the St. Peter’s River in Winter (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). Edmund C. Coates, who worked out of a studio in Brooklyn, New York, was known to draw inspiration from other artists’ work. The everyday winter attire of players, as well as the baskets, quiver of arrows, and other items set down along the riverbank, and the tipis in the background are details found in both paintings. In Coates’s scene, the small number of players and few spectators suggests that the game may be an informal competition. Like many sports, lacrosse games can be highly organized events or casual pick-up games. Larger and more formal contests are likely to take place in the summer, when lacrosse is played most frequently. Throughout the year, players and spectators alike are inspired to gamble on the outcome. It is possible that the items arrayed along the bank were wagered on this game.

Players in this painting carry sticks created with a characteristic Great Lakes design. They are produced by skilled specialists within American Indian communities and are frequently made of a hardwood such as hickory that is carefully bent to form a pocket on one end. The small, round pocket of the stick is the design element that distinguishes the Great Lakes-style of lacrosse stick from Iroquois-style sticks (which have a much larger pocket and are considered the progenitor of contemporary lacrosse sticks). Players appreciate these Great Lakes-style sticks because they are highly accurate and capable of hurling the ball great distances.

Made in United States
On view
19th century

Helen A. Cooper et al., Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2008), 53, no. 22, ill.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.