The Creator's Game

"When the Jesuits came into the country of the Iroquois, they saw these sticks that they were using. They thought that the looked like the sticks that the bishops were using, 'la crosier.' There it is," said Alfred Jacques, the Onondaga lacrosse stick maker, as he demonstrated the shape of la crosier with his handmade lacrosse stick. "Lacrosse. But we [Onondaga] never call it lacrosse." They call it the Creator’s Game.

The lacrosse that is played across the world today originated with the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee, who inhabited much of the Northeast, including most of New York State. Many other Native American tribes have stick ball games resembling lacrosse, but the Iroquois game is the version that developed into the modern-day sport. To close out Native American History Month this November, Reporter attended an event hosted by the Future Stewards Program, where traditional stick maker Alfred Jacques shared the history of lacrosse and the process of stick making. Jacques makes traditional lacrosse sticks for all of Onondaga, one of the Iroquois nations. For his stick making demonstration, Jacques brought along a former Syracuse midfielder and fellow Onondaga Jeremy Thompson to share what lacrosse means to him and to the Onondaga.

Origin of the Medicine Game

In Onondaga, playing lacrosse is medicine, used to heal and lift the spirits of members of the community. "Being a medicine game, it's not about war; it's not about killing," said Jacques.

However, when the Europeans first saw Native Americans playing the game in the 1800s, they interpreted the game differently. “When the Europeans came and saw this whole group of men coming towards this whole group of men, they thought it was going to be a battle,” explains Jacques.  “They were playing a game instead. We use the medicine game to settle differences. It brings people together."

Lacrosse is more than just a game, said Jacques. "This game is part of who we are as a people — it's part of our religion." The ceremony takes place every spring, where a communal game brings together young and old, male and female. The games are sometimes played old against young, or "old mush vs. young mush," as Jacques put it. The women support the ceremony by preparing food, but traditionally do not play lacrosse in Onondaga. Besides the annual spring game, other games can be called when a community member is sick or needs their spirits lifted, according to Thompson. Jacques has seen anywhere from two to 20 games in a year.

There are not many rules in the traditional Onondaga game, but there is at least one: you must have a wooden stick. That is where Jacques comes in.

Stick Making

Jacques started making sticks when he and his father decided to make a stick for him because buying one was too expensive. It's been 50 years, and he says, " I'm not going stop until I physically can't do it anymore." His traditional wooden lacrosse stick making is a process that spans eight months:

1) Jacques starts by cutting down a hickory tree and splitting it into eight pieces. Each piece later becomes a stick. He dries the stick for a month and a half.

2) He steams the sticks and bends the tips around into a half-circle that will later hold the net. He dries the stick again for at least six months.

3) He steams the stick again, and then puts a bend just below the semi-circle, where the bottom of the net will go. He lets the sticks sit again for two weeks.

4) He finishes cutting and carving the stick, steams and straightens the handle, and drills holes in the head where the net will string through.

5) He sands, shellacs and nets the stick, including the rawhide "wall" for the net, which he makes by hand. Finally, he pounds the netting to break it in.

Jacques makes his sticks completely by hand, without using any plastics or cutting any corners. One of the most important tools he has is his D.R. Barton carving knife, made in Rochester in the 1800s. "You really can't make a good lacrosse stick without this kind of knife," he said.

Both Jacques and Thompson share more than just a love of lacrosse: they share the heritage and ceremony of the medicine game with their community. They don't mind sharing their game with the rest of the world, though. Jacques is glad that Thompson plays the game outside of the reservation: "He's got the good mind, he can play pro, come back to the res[ervation] and play a medicine game. He knows what it's all about. You can't sell the whole thing out. It's our culture."