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Cradle to the Grave

Every now and then I get hit with a powerful wave of energy that’s usually triggered by an event or encounter. This time the source of inspiration came from a small workshop I attended over the weekend with my brother Ryan courtesy of the Onondaga Historical Society.

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Deyhontsigwa’ehs is a game that was given to the Onondaga people as a gift from the Creator. Roughly translated, Deyhontsigwa’ehs means “they bump hips”. It’s a gift from the Creator, is meant to be played for the Creator and is known to possess strong healing powers – thus also often referred to as a “medicine game”.

During the time of European contact with the indigenous people of North America they noticed that almost all of the Native tribes played some variation of “stick game” that involved curved sticks and a ball (sometimes two, known now as “doubleball”). The rules and equipment varied between the tribes however spirituality and ceremony were the foundation of each form. The modern game of “lacrosse” (named after the crosier carried by bishops) is most closely related to the Iroquois style of stick game.

Although most lacrosse players, fans, coaches and enthusiasts are aware of the historical significance of lacrosse, I am writing this to encourage all of you to learn more about it and pass it along so that the future generations of players understand that they aren’t just playing a sport that a gym teacher made up for fun. Lacrosse has a backbone and a tradition like NO other. Our young players NEED to know this. It will make them appreciate the sport, honor it and create a strong feeling of belonging to this very sacred circle.

IMG_0233It was about 12:00pm yesterday when my brother Ryan called me and said “Alfie is giving talk on wooden sticks at 2:00pm, lets go!” That’s all he needed to say. I jumped in my truck, picked Ryan up and we drove to the Onondaga Historical Society. Let me start by saying that Alfie Jacques, in my humble opinion, is the most important man in lacrosse. He embodies everything I love about the sport.

We rolled into the Historical Society on this -10 degree day to find small posters that read “Alfred Jacques of the Onondaga Nation and noted Lacrosse Stick Maker” scattered throughout the building. We followed the signs and eventually landed at our destination around 2:10pm, so a bit late. We slid quietly through the doors of a large sterile meeting room with all white walls and filled with about 50 people ranging in age from roughly 11 – 85. At the front of the room Alfie stood behind an 18 foot table covered in Native American print blankets and all sorts of sticks. As we tried to find a couple open seats he noticed us walk in and gave us a cool welcoming smile and nod.

For the next two hours Alfie spoke of lacrosse in the most elegant and knowledgable way I had ever heard. It was one of those moments where I wished that everyone that ever played lacrosse or is playing it now was there to hear the words that were coming out of his mouth. I sat there with my jaw on the floor learning and absorbing as much as I possibly could.

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We didn’t know it at the time, but Ryan and I along with only 5 other people in the crowd of 50 were lacrosse players. We just figured the room would be filled with lacrosse players, but we were wrong. People were there to learn the history and the art behind the sport and the sticks. So needless to say Alfie was fielding some pretty basic question. But Alfie is just flat out cool. He looks cool, he acts cool and so his answers to the most basic and simple question were cool. He answered with knowledge, humor at times, and wisdom like only he can deliver.

IMG_0211One of the things he talked about was how deeply embedded Deyhontsigwa’ehs is in Onondaga culture. He talked about cradle to the grave. Every Onondaga boy, upon birth, is given a traditional stick and it is placed in their crib. And every Onondaga man that dies is buried with their lacrosse stick laying beside them. If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and enhance your view of the importance of lacrosse I don’t what to tell you — maybe you should go play baseball.

In his talk he covered other stick game’s from other tribes, another Onondaga stick game called “snow snake” that Ryan and I are definitely going to try, and then broke into his process and his sticks. He talked about growing up around stick making and the craft behind it. He comes from a family of world renowned lacrosse stick makers. He talked about how he made his own sticks that he played with in high school. I think that is why I admire Alfie so much, he is a doer.

When is the last time that you have ever heard of someone making their own basketball, or tennis racket, or golf clubs? It just doesn’t happen. That’s just another reason why lacrosse is unique and special. Although players aren’t injecting plastic into homemade molds or extruding alloys, they are still stringing — the art is still in the stick. This is why we are committed as a brand to hand stringing every single one of our pockets.  As we continue to innovate and push the boundaries it’s more important to us that we preserve the special elements that make lacrosse what it is.  I think that all manufacturers should feel a strong sense of responsibility to educate the next generation and carry on certain significant practices, like stringing, to make sure the game never loses sight of its origin and remains the most sacred sport on planet earth.

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At the conclusion of his workshop, Alfie invited anyone to step up to his hand made shaving horse and give the draw shave a try. As soon as he said, “would anyone like to give it a try?”, Ryan took his coat off and went right up to the front. I knew what he was thinking, here we are a lacrosse stick manufacturer, we need to learn, honor, and understand the history of the process before we can move forward with it. We owe it to our customers, we owe it to lacrosse.

A couple of years ago, I bent a few lacrosse sticks out of a shag bark hickory log my Dad got for me. I gobbled up as much information I could on the process, talked with Alfie, and watched all of his videos about 200 times. My sticks turned out okay, they didn’t look nearly as nice as a “Jacques” but I didn’t expect them to. All I was doing was conducting an exercise that would help me appreciate the process even more.

IMG_0230In closing, I would like to personally thank Alfie for such an amazing demonstration and being such a great leader in lacrosse. If anyone belongs in the lacrosse hall of fame it’s Alfred Jacques. I would like to thank my Brother for giving me a heads up on this event. And I would like to thank all of you for taking the time to read this. I encourage a deep dive into the world of Alfie Jacques to learn more about this sport and the stick. He is truly a treasure and we are so lucky to be a part of this community.

I approached him after the demo to shake his hand and tell him that I have been bending sticks myself. I told him that I tried to do the back bend and the first bend at the same time. I asked him if that was wrong. What he responded with is something that I will never forget as long as I live. He said, “when I was a kid making my first stick I was shaving the inside scoop and I asked my grandfather if I was doing it the right way” and his grandfather smiled and replied, “I don’t know, you’re not done yet.”

Comments (13)

  1. Awesome,awesome,awesome…Great writing Mike. What a great experience you were able to behold,and to share. I only wish there more to read. Lax on…

  2. Thanks for your article and your care for the game Mike. My favourite part each year of the US Lacrosse Convention is when the crowds move away and I can send time talking with Alf about lacrosse, stick making and life. Always a highlight to spend time learning from him.

  3. so happy for you Mike that you and Ryan got to share in that great experience with Mr Jacques. cheers to the whole family- Reggie

  4. I have never played lacrosse, but reading this article inspired me to learn more about the spiritual and physical history of it in the lives of indigenous peoples. Mike, best of luck for your family and the new adventures ahead!!!

  5. Mike , as a member of the Board of the Town of Onondaga Historical Society , we are very pleased to offer educational programs to the CNY public which illuminate and celebrate outstanding individuals, like Alfred Jacques and outstanding Nations and cultures , like the Onondagas which teach all of us the rules of the good life and the principles of care for the earth .

  6. Thank you, Mike for your article. As the president of the Town of Onondaga Historical Society, it was an honor and pleasure to have Alf as our guest speaker. It was very informative and I know enjoyed by all who attended. I know my grandson, Jacob Carter, who plays Varsity Lacrosse for Onondaga Central really enjoyed the program and shared in the opportunity to use the shaver with Alf’s guidance. It was also Jacob’s pleasure to meet you as well. Thank you to Alfred Jacques and to you, Mike and your brother, Ryan for taking the time to be with us.

  7. Great Article, next time an event like this is being held. Please get the word out. I would love to have the opportunity to attend. Nice work!

  8. This was more than a demonstration of making LaCrosse sticks. Alfred Jacques provided the history of indigenous nations and their sports as well as the spiritual component that embraces their cultural value system. Thanks Mike for the wonderful article.

  9. Great article. I would have loved to attend the workshop, but reading this was the next best thing. Is there any chance that Alfie’s presentation was filmed or recorded? These days nearly everything is, but a historical presentation and stick bending demonstration by a living legend like Mr Jacques is something I would love to see and share.

  10. Powerful article, I just shared it with my team. Anyone have any recommendations for books on the history of lacrosse?

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