Remembering Tom Vennum, Lacrosse's Unlikely Historian

Tom Vennum wrote the first comprehensive history of the game, “American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War,” and led the effort to educate modern players on the sport's Native origins.

Tom Vennum, the writer and anthropologist whose work celebrated lacrosse’s Native American roots, died Sept. 24 at the age of 82 near his home on Madeline Island, Wisc.

Tom wrote the first comprehensive history of the game, “American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War,” which, if you’re reading this article, is almost certainly on your bookshelf. Through his research and advocacy, he befriended major figures in both collegiate and Native lacrosse, like Roy Simmons Jr., Oren Lyons, the Powell brothers and Onondaga stickmaker Alfie Jacques. As a senior ethnologist at The Smithsonian, Tom published widely on Native lacrosse and lectured at coaches’ conferences around the country. He was just as likely to be found on the sideline of the nearest lacrosse field, though, hectoring young players about the importance of the wooden stick.

Tom came to lacrosse not through sports, but through music. He was a lifelong student of the piano and organ, and after encountering Native American drumming while pursuing a doctorate in music at Harvard, discovered a deep affinity for indigenous cultures. He went on to record musicians from Haiti to Wisconsin, reinvigorating public interest in indigenous music through collaborations with public figures like Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead. While studying Native drum-making on Madeline Island, Tom caught wind of another indigenous art: the carving of wooden lacrosse sticks.

His research on lacrosse led him to Syracuse men’s coach Roy Simmons Jr. in the mid-1980s. By then, plastic sticks with aluminum shafts had replaced hand-carved wooden ones, making the game faster and more popular. Simmons’ Orangemen, led by the high-flying Gait brothers, were at the forefront. But he worried about what might be lost as the game accelerated into the mainstream of American sport.

“Kids talked about Cooperstown [New York, home to the Baseball Hall of Fame], but they weren’t talking about Indian lacrosse,” Simmons said. “Every kid who picks up a stick ought to know where the game comes from.”

Simmons found in Tom — who at the time was making a film about birchbark canoes — a kindred spirit.

“Who the hell would buy a birchbark canoe today,” Simmons asked with a chuckle, “now that we have aluminum and fiberglass?”

Tom had researched lacrosse in the Great Plains and Deep South, where the Native game had either dwindled or died out. Meeting Simmons introduced him to elders and players of the Northeast Iroquois tribes, where lacrosse still thrived. Many nationally ranked college teams boast Iroquois players today, but 30 years ago, that wasn’t the case — in large part because white college coaches didn’t even think to recruit them.

“For a long time, U.S. lacrosse — Baltimore, Maryland, Long Island — never recognized where the game came from,” said Jacques, whom Tom visited over the years. “They didn’t give credit to the Indian leagues, the Indian players, and Canadians. It was all bush league to them.”

“Little Brother of War” helped change all that. It was published in 1994, a few years prior to the explosive growth of lacrosse that earned it the moniker, “America’s fastest-growing sport.” Virginia men’s coach Lars Tiffany recalled how the book elevated “the original purpose of the game, the ‘why’ Native Americans played lacrosse, which is critical if lacrosse players and fans are to make holistic decisions about the game’s future.”

Jacques’ business lagged for years after plastic replaced wood, but now, demand keeps him working seven days a week.

“More and more, people want to know and teach their kids where the game came from,” he said. “So here we are: It finally came full-circle…and that book was the lead. Tom recognized that the wooden stick wasn’t just a stick, but it was a medicine stick for the game. He understood that.”

I understood very little about lacrosse, when I first met Tom, and even less about its history. I just loved to play. I was 10, and learning the game in hockey rinks in Minnesota. I met Tom one summer up on Madeline Island, and on my birthday that fall, received a copy of “Little Brother” in the mail — along with a signed poster of Casey Powell.

“To Kip: Think Big!” it read. It hung on my bedroom wall until I myself went off to play at Dartmouth. I attended Tom’s high school, The Blake School in Minneapolis, and though he was in poor health by then, he’d still fly out once each spring from his winter home in Arizona to catch a game. After, he would give us updates on the Iroquois national team, try to persuade us to use wood sticks — or, at least, wood shafts — and would jot down a few of my teammates’ addresses.

Tom was a curmudgeon, too. During the many years he lobbied Blake to start a lacrosse team, he complained to anyone who’d listen about the athletic director’s reticence about the sport. He was concerned that lacrosse might diminish baseball’s numbers, which only riled Tom up more. When Blake boys finally took the field in 2001, we quickly scooped up state titles and sent players to college programs like Whittier, Navy and Yale.

I got a call one day at Dartmouth, on my walk down to practice. It was Tom, proud to report that Blake had just bulldozed a baseball diamond — for a brand new lacrosse field.

Here’s to Tom: our historian, our sacred listener, our curmudgeon.

Kip Dooley graduated from Dartmouth College in 2012 and writes from Minneapolis, Minn.

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