Jacques: At the Onondaga Nation, in recovery from cancer,
the famed craftsman is experimenting with making a lacrosse
stick from elm. (Submitted image)
People travel for miles to buy wooden lacrosse sticks they ordered
from Alf Jacques.
They drive Route 11A, through the Onondaga Nation, until they find
his little shop beneath a hill, near the house where he grew up.
Alf will hand them a stick, polished hickory shining like bone.
He knows many buyers keep the sticks on display, and Alf always
offers one simple piece of advice:
This stick was made to be used, hell tell
them. Honor it. Make that stick happy and take it down sometimes
and use it, then put it back on the wall.
Jacques, 67, is going Saturday to the Skanonh,
the Great Law of Peace Center just outside Syracuse, for the Haudenosaunee
Wooden Stick Festival. He's a legend all over the world,
said Phil Arnold, director of the center and chair of the department
of religion at Syracuse University.
The center was created to offer a Six Nations perspective on
their own history. It is on the shoreline of Onondaga Lake, where
the longhouse people of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy,
believe their Peacemaker gathered five warring nations, and convinced
them to bury their weapons beneath a tree of peace.
Afterward, to show appreciation to the Creator, they played
a game meant as thanksgiving.
The wooden stick is not just about the origins of lacrosse,
Arnold said, but about the origins of democracy.
There will be Six Nations crafts, dancing and music at the festival.
The event is built around wooden sticks and the ancient craft that
goes into making them, which leaves Arnold to say this of Alf Jacques:
We couldnt have it without him. It would be impossible.
Hes a great educator. He knows how to talk to people. We want
them to understand: This is a profoundly important game and it comes
For Alf, it will be a day of renewal, of gratitude. In June,
he lost his mother, Ada Jacques, to lung cancer. She was 87, but
had always seemed indomitable. Every year, she tended to her garden,
to the "three sisters:" the corn, beans and squash her
people have grown and harvested for centuries.
You would go to see Alf in his shop, and his mother would be
outside the window, with her basket, in the garden.
She would always tell me patience is strength, he
said. Shed say: Alf, youre a strong one.
A month after her death, Alf noticed blood in his urine. He
realized hed been feeling unusually worn out. He went to the
doctor. Alf learned he, too, had cancer. Within weeks, surgeons
removed one of his kidneys. Alf rested for a while, but before long
he returned to the shop.
Jacques in his shop with Maggie, the 13-year-old rescue dog
who belonged to his mother. (Submitted image)
The most important thing is just to do things and to be
here, Alf said. There were family duties he felt he needed
to perform. His sister Freida, an Onondaga clan mother, stopped
by the other day to drop off Maggie, a 13-year-old dog whos
gone blind, a dog their mother rescued after it had been abandoned.
Alf often looks out for the dog, while he works. He and his
siblings still care for Adas garden, where aluminum tins catch
the wind to frighten off the crows and deer. He grows as excited
in talking about the garden about the raspberries and beans
that are such a deep part of Six Nations heritage as he does
in talking about the wooden sticks.
I build the fire and feed the cats and do things I've
always done, Alf said. My mother is gone now, shes
gone to the spirit world, but she left us this knowledge to do,
to carry on.
In that sense, he said, shes still around - as is Alfs
father, Lou Jacques, who died about 30 years ago from emphysema.
He and Alf, for years, worked side-by-side. The son still feels
the father's presence in the rhythm of each job, in the long hours
spent cutting and shaping each stick.
From beginning to end, to do it to Alf's specifications, takes
eight months. The wood needs to dry, to be just right, before it's
ready. Alf has made lacrosse sticks since he was 13, when he was
a boy who needed one for a school team. His family didnt have
the money to buy one. He and his father did it themselves, felling
a hickory tree and dragging it to their house. They made a stick
Alf used until he wore it out.
His father, intrigued, pieced together all the skills hed
observed from old stickmakers at Akwesasne, the Mohawk territory
where Lou Jacques was raised. The craft became a family business:
At one point, decades ago, father and son were producing 12,000
a year. But the big companies figured out how to make plastic lacrosse
sticks, and the great demand for wooden sticks was gone.
Alf and his father kept making sticks, because many of the Iroquois
used them in the box leagues, and an infant still receives a tiny
wooden stick in the crib upon entering the world
wooden lacrosse sticks in a barrel, stickmaking shop of Alf
Jacques, Onondaga Nation. (Submitted image)
While old men clasp carry wooden sticks to their chests in the
casket, at the end of their journey, ready to play the game for
I do it my way, said Alf, of making sticks. Im
not ready to change.
With the business diminished, he worked for years in a machine
shop, and hed play lacrosse and do his stickmaking at night.
Prices vary, but each stick costs hundreds of dollars. He now makes
about 200 sticks a year, as much as an act of love as for business.
Alf is training an apprentice, Parker Booth, and Alf leaves it to
Parker to find the trees and drag them out of the woods.
They break them apart with axe and a mallet, and they use steam
to bend the wood and form the sticks. Around the shop, in barrels
or on the walls, Alf keeps weathered sticks made by long-gone craftsmen.
His passion now comes from studying their work and trying to replicate
it, or from experimenting: He is making a stick, for instance, out
of elm, a far more difficult wood than hickory.
Pilgrims sometimes come to watch in reverence as Alf works in
his shop. He explains to them why he does it, the meaning of each
stick, but the fascination remains a little baffling to him:
Ive never done anything to try and be famous,
he said. Im just a stickmaker. Thats it.
And yet: Strength comes from patience, whether it is a garden,
a lacrosse stick, or day-to-day existence. Alf grows hegowa,
beautiful corn used in Six Nations ceremonies, the variety known
beyond Six Nations territories as Indian corn. He keeps
that harvest in open containers in his shop, near barrels filled
with ancient wooden sticks, and he says all of it comes back to
one central way of life:
Jacques holds two varieties of beans his mother raised in
her garden, for generations. (Submitted image)
For hundreds of years, he said, his culture has been under assault.
His people lost much of their sprawling Upstate lands. There were
attempts to destroy the language, traditions and faith system of
the Six Nations. His parents taught him a great lesson, simply in
the way they lived: Resistance is a long game. It lies in sustaining
who you are, what you love, what you see as your true purpose.
You play lacrosse, Alf said, to say thank
you to the Creator for providing the hickory trees, for the grass,
for the sun, for the soil.
This autumn, Alfs favorite season, follows a long summer.
He lost his mother, then learned of his own cancer. He had the kidney
removed and allowed himself a few weeks to rest. The doctors told
him he would have a full recovery. By late August he was back in
his shop, because Ive always thought if I stopped, I
might never get back to it.
Saturday, with his lacrosse sticks, Alf will say thanks at the
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. Email
him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Law of Peace Center
The Skänoñh Great Law of Peace Center is
a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Heritage Center focused on telling the
story of the native peoples of central New York. The history is
told through the lens of the Onondaga Nation and covers topics such
as Creation, European Contact, The Great Law of Peace, and more.
The Onondagas, or People of the Hills, are the keepers of the Central
Fire and are the spiritual and political center of the Haudenosaune.