Alf Jacques preserves the indigenous culture of lacrosse through the manufacture of wooden sticks
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Mark Burnam has used the same type of stick in five different World Lacrosse Championship games for the Iroquois Nationals. It was a handmade 6 foot long wooden stick, with the same hickory wood used to make sticks for the rest of the team.
The sticks, heavy in nature, were opposed by many Nationals opponents who called the sticks “weapons,” Burnam said.
But the Iroquois Nationals didn’t use the wooden bats to threaten their opponents. They used them out of pride for their Aboriginal origin, even though the sticks were more difficult to use than the newer plastic versions.
“We’re Iroquois Nationals — we have a stickmaker on our reserve — we’re pretty proud to use them,” Burnam said. “This stick is medicine for us.”
Stick maker Alf Jacques has been making wooden sticks on the Onondaga Nation reserve since he was 11 years old. As the rules of lacrosse evolved and wooden sticks were abandoned in favor of plastic ones, Jacques retained the traditional manufacturing process in order to maintain the Aboriginal culture of lacrosse on the reservation.
“We had to maintain the tradition (and) the culture by making sticks for our people. You can’t play a real medicine game without a wooden stick,” Jacques said.
When he was younger, Jacques couldn’t afford a stick when he played in the Onondaga Nation. He constantly borrowed sticks from his neighbor, his brother or his father but always had to return them.
So one day, Jacques’ father, Louis, himself a club maker, took him into the woods to cut down a hickory and begin the long process of making sticks. The sticks weren’t appealing at first, but Jacques could play with them, he said.
Initially, the duo started making sticks inside their home, carving wood and netting sticks in their living room and kitchen, before moving to a small shed. In 1968, Louis took out a loan to create a full-time club-making building where Jacques still works today. Initially, the two made up to 12,000 sticks a year, Jacques said.
“He’s highly respected,” Burnam said of Jacques. “He sells his sticks before he’s even made them.”
To make the perfect stick, Jacques starts by looking for the right hickory – either smooth bark or stingray bark with no knots, limbs or twists. He cuts down the tree and brings it back to the shed and splits it lengthwise with a ledge axe. Then, Jacques carves it by hand and dries it for nearly two months, because “cool, damp wood” doesn’t bend, he says. The wood is steamed for 20 to 40 minutes inside a tank of oil placed over a salvaged wood fire before Jacques finally bends it into the shape of a lacrosse stick.
A wire holds the stick in place before it is stored to dry out for at least six months. Then it goes back into the steamer and is pulled out before being bent into the shape of a butt head. Jacques removes the wire and carves the stick into the proper shape with a two-handed shave to make it more manageable. He then drills the holes for the net, which Jacques does without any measurement, before sanding down the stick, and affixing his name, the date of completion and the shellac on the stick. The stick is dried again before leather nylon and netting are added to complete the stick.
Jacques estimated that he usually made about 20 bats at a time, although one day he remembered making about 400. But in 1974, when plastic bats “took over”, 12,000 bats per year grew to about 1,200, Jacques said. He and his father still made sticks on a smaller scale, mainly to preserve one of the reservation’s most important traditions. Boys born on the reserve are given a wooden stick – not a plastic one – when they are born and are buried with a stick as well, Jacques said.
Burnam has known Jacques since he played at Syracuse in the early 1980s. When Burnam played for the Orange, almost every player used sticks made by Jacques or Eli Cornelius, another Onondaga stick manufacturer.
Syracuse head coach Gary Gait used one of Jacques’ sticks in 1991 – his first season of professional box lacrosse after graduating from Syracuse. Gait remembers breaking about seven of his sticks, but said he liked using them because they were light.
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Jacques continued to make wooden sticks for box lacrosse players, who preferred them to plastic sticks. Since field lacrosse requires a wider and longer stick, Jacques said it was more difficult to make a wooden stick more usable than a plastic stick due to the difference in weight.
“When people saw you using it, I think they respected the game a lot more because not everyone can use them; they are difficult to use,” Burnam said.
But the sticks still served as field lacrosse defenders, Burnam said. They helped with the poke and slap controls because they were heavier and it was easier to pick up ground balls with the shallow pockets. Burnam remembers being able to pick up balls from the ground with one hand, a move known as “Indian pickup.”
“People used to move their stick very quickly when there was a wooden stick,” Burnam said.
For Burnam, Jacques’ sticks offered the perfect balance between challenging and keeping Indigenous culture on the court. Burnam still has his five world championship sticks and has no intention of giving them up.
“I had every single one of them,” Burnam said. “I’ve had people ask me, I’ll give you $500 for that stick. I’m like, ‘I’m not selling this stick.’ »
Published on April 24, 2022 at 9:47 p.m.
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