This past weekend, people gathered at Onondaga Lake Park for the 6th annual Haudenosaunee Wooden Stick Festival. It celebrated wood lacrosse sticks and the origins of lacrosse, the sport, and Haudenosaunee culture.
The festival was organized by Sandy Bigtree and Phil Arnold of the Indigenous Values Initiative in collaboration with the American Indian Law Alliance. Sponsors included U.S. Lacrosse, Syracuse University and Nike.
The stick festival was the first held without legendary stick maker Alfie Jacques, who died earlier this year.
On a field marked off with the dimensions of a box-lacrosse playing area, teams such as the Salt City Eels, Buffalo Creek Old Stix and Oneida Silver Hawks took part in the Randy Hall Memorial Masters Lacrosse Tournament. All players had to be at least 35 years old; a number were 60 and older. They were encouraged to use wood sticks, but that wasn’t mandated.
In his booth, Travis Tionatakwente Gabriel showed off wood sticks he makes in his shop on Kanehsatake Mohawk Territory west of Montreal, Canada. He sells sticks to teams, individuals and collectors.
Gabriel regards stick making as an integral part of his life. Indeed, he describes the process as a craft, a source of joy, a passion. “It’s something I have to do,” he said.
Back in 1970, the notion of a wood-stick festival would have seemed odd. All lacrosse teams, including high school and college teams and those playing box lacrosse, the indoor version of the sport, used sticks with wood shafts and leather pockets.
Over 90% of the sticks were made in a factory on Cornwall Island on the St. Lawrence River whose employees were mostly Akwesasne Mohawks. The remainder were crafted in shops around the region; the Patterson family at Tuscarora, near Niagara Falls; Alfie Jacques and his father, Lou, in their shop on the Onondaga Nation; and others.
However, in 1970, STX, a company based in Baltimore, Maryland, received a patent for a plastic lacrosse head. Soon they were making plastic sticks on a mass-production basis and selling them around the country. By the time of the first college-lacrosse tournament in 1971, many players were using plastic sticks.
There was a devastating impact on wood-stick makers. “At one point, we were making over 11,000 sticks a year,” Jacques once said. “All that changed over one year. Orders were canceled, and we had a large inventory of sticks we couldn’t sell.”
After the changes, Jacques went to work as a machinist, while also making sticks on the side. Once the machinist job ended, he spent many hours in the shop and also displayed his sticks at national lacrosse conventions and during presentations at colleges and high schools.
Today, wood sticks are no longer predominantly used, but they are certainly not on the verge of extinction. Many players in box lacrosse still use them.
Some lacrosse fans, with an old-school perspective, have never warmed to titanium sticks or synthetic-mesh pockets, referring to such sticks as Tupperware. They note that artisans like Jacques began by harvesting a hickory tree and then going through a labor-intensive process. He and his father, Lou, respected forests; they both planted seeds to begin a new generation of hickory trees.
Jacques, who made wood sticks for 55 years, interacted with many people in the world of lacrosse. Tyler Gabriel, goalie for the Salt City Eels team, used an Alfie Jacques stick on Saturday. “I prefer wood sticks,” he said. “That’s because of the cultural significance and because I find a wood stick gives me better control of the ball.”
Bert Smith, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, had a booth at the festival. He’s an ardent lacrosse fan who played the game at the University of Connecticut. He also works in stained glass. At the festival, he was selling glass sculptures made with fused glass and copper wire that incorporate representations of lacrosse sticks.
He first met Jacques in 2007 at a lacrosse convention and was impressed by the sticks’ artistry and by Alfie’s friendliness. “If you talked to him for five minutes, it was like talking to an old friend,” Smith said.
This weekend’s festival paid homage to the sport and its birth: It was first played by Native Americans, including the Ojibway, in what is now Minnesota, North Dakota and other areas; Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee in the South; the members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The version played by the Haudenosaunee had a profound influence on current-day lacrosse.
The festival was staged right by Onondaga Lake, a place with great importance in Haudenosaunee history. According to oral tradition, this is where centuries ago the Great Peacemaker met with representatives of the warring Haudenosaunee peoples, beginning a road to peace and the formation of the confederacy.
“So much happened there,” said Bigtree. She also spoke of how the confederacy’s core beliefs, including democracy, equality, and a respectful relationship with the natural world, are still very much relevant today.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about artists and exhibitions in the Syracuse area. And he’s a lacrosse fan.
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