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The making of lacrosse sticks goes deeper into Onondaga culture than just a tool to play the game

Jacques Barry Lax tools.jpg
Jim O'Connor
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Onondaga Alfred Jacques cures wood for use as lacrosse sticks in a culturally important tradition, seen here with producer Brett Barry

To members of the Onondaga Nation, the sport of lacrosse is far more than a game. And few places show that importance as well as those who’ve kept the traditional art of stick-making alive.

The Onondaga were among the original creators of the sport, which they call Dehontsigwaehs, and believe it to have a spiritual healing power. The Nation members would compete in matches that could last days, intended to settle inner tribal disputes and fortify the confederacy. When French Jesuit colonialists later discovered the game, they noted how the big, curved sticks reminded them of a bishop’s crozier, and they called it “lacrosse”. Onondaga Nation members continue to cherish the sport’s legacy in a variety of ways, holding on to the traditions of their ancestors.

A Stick Maker’s Labor

Alfred Jacques, a Turtle Clan member of the Onondaga Nation, has been making wooden lacrosse sticks for over 60 years. He knows the importance of the sport to his community and plays a pivotal part in upkeeping the tradition. Over time he’s perfected his craft, but make no mistake, creating the sticks is hard work. He goes through an exhaustive selection process to select the best hickory wood possible before drying and storing it, sometimes for upwards of two years. At that point, he carves the stick and nets it with traditional rawhide, a process which Jacques admits is laborious but believes to be authentic and worthwhile. Jacques claims to have created over 75,000 handmade sticks in his life.

“It’s part of our culture and part of our religion, that we play medicine games, healing games, and you don’t do that with a plastic stick. So that’s why I continue to make lacrosse sticks,” said Jacques.

(More on this topic and the culture and history of the Haudenosaunee in The Land You’re On podcast: Listen here)

A Healing Game

Jacques’ stick-making and the cultural importance behind it have drawn national attention. When he and others call lacrosse “the medicine game”, they’re referring to its ability to heal spiritually and politically in a respectful way. Former Syracuse University women’s lacrosse player and Haudenosaunee member Jalyn Jimerson saw the sport’s healing power firsthand.

When she began playing lacrosse, she was discouraged by the more conservative members of the community, including her grandfather. The sport was traditionally seen as an activity for men, and some of that gender-based exclusivity lingers to this day. However, as Jimerson’s career blossomed, even her family members that didn’t originally support her began to attend her games and appreciate her success.

“Onondaga, they’re just very ‘central fire’, you know, very traditional. And my parents told me, you’re not playing the medicine game, you’re playing with plastic sticks, it’s not the same,” said Jimerson

Despite being the creators of lacrosse, efforts have continuously been made to exclude indigenous people from the sport. The original rulebook of modern-day lacrosse even stated that indigenous people could not compete against non-indigenous people.

Onondaga Nation member Neal Powless, Syracuse University’s ombudsman, was a 3-time All-American lacrosse player at Nazareth College. Powless was also named All-World in 2002, playing at the World Lacrosse Championship with the Iroquois Nationals. Powless is disappointed by the constant efforts to exclude the Haudenosaunee from competing in their own sport at the highest level. As Powless notes, the modern campaign to put lacrosse in the Olympics would once again keep indigenous people without representation at the largest stages in lacrosse.

Podcast Looks at True Origins

On episode five of “The Land You’re On” podcast, we hear first-hand testimonials from Alfred Jacques, Neal Powless, Jalyn Jimerson and more. We learn about the medicine game, why it’s important and how it is able to heal the people. We go through Alfred Jacques' process and his workshop, delving deeper into his sacred connection with woodworking and lacrosse. A day in the workshop creates a window into centuries of history and cultural tradition around the sport of lacrosse in the Onondaga Nation.

Jacques Barry Lax pod.jpg
Jim O'Connor
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Producer Brett Barry (L) spent a day with Alfred Jacques to learn about the lacrosse stick-making tradition and what it means for an episode of the podcast The Land You're On.

The Land You’re On is presented by Access Audio, and the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. The podcast is a limited edition, twelve-part series that will air on WAER’s website and all major streaming platforms. The series continues to reflect on the complicated history of our land, while also celebrating Haudenosaunee culture and traditions.

Cal Dougherty is a Newhouse School graduate student working with WAER on podcast and web content.