BEMIDJI, MN Maxwell Kelsey sharpens the blade of his
simple, two-handled draw knife, then pulls it in long and careful
strokes over a freshly split piece of ash wood.
Kelsey uses a piece of ash that he split from a log and a
draw knife to shape the wood into a lacrosse stick Monday,
March 27, 2017, in Bemidji, MN.
Kelsey, 34, never breaks his gaze, even as wood shavings fly
into his beard and torn flannel shirt. For hours without rest, he
splits, carves and steams the long ash sticks and then, proudly,
lifts his finished product in the air: A wooden lacrosse stick,
made using the same techniques as indigenous peoples of centuries
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" he says, hoisting the stick in the
dim morning light of his woodworking shop in a quiet neighborhood
"I'm peeling back history with every draw of that knife."
That reverence for tradition, coupled with attention to detail,
has turned Kelsey into one of the Midwest's most famed makers of
old-style, wooden lacrosse sticks.
As North America's oldest team sport undergoes a historic resurgence,
hundreds of Kelsey's finely carved sticks are being used by young
lacrosse players around the region. From the Leech Lake Indian Reservation
in northern Minnesota to the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, new lacrosse
teams are sprouting up and competing using the traditional
sticks of the Western Great Lakes tribes.
Kelsey is seen through the head of a lacrosse stick he was
stringing the netting. He had earlier in the morning made
the netting from twisted wood fibers soaked in water to soften
Monday, March 27, 2017, in Bemidji, MN.
Early in November, nearly 100 boys and girls gathered at a sports
dome in Savage for the third annual Twin Cities Native Lacrosse
Tournament. Young players came from as far away as Wisconsin, South
Dakota and Michigan to compete using the old-style, wooden sticks.
Before each game, young players and their parents prayed and sang
traditional healing songs.
The original lacrosse stick, with its steam-bent stem and deer-hide
netting, is at the center of this revival. Many older tribal members
recall receiving such sticks as gifts when they were children. Ojibwe
mothers are said to have once placed the sticks in their cradleboards,
backpack-like wooden frames for carrying swaddled infants, because
women played the game and the sticks were believed to have spiritual
To the Western Great Lakes tribes, they were more than sports
equipment: The deer hide netting is strung across the stick's pocket
like the four directions of the "Medicine Wheel," a spiritual symbol
of healing. The game itself is frequently called the "creator's
game" or "medicine game," because of its power to heal and bring
"This game is bigger than just a sport or an amusement," said
John Hunter, a descendant of the Winnebago and Ojibwe nations and
co-director of the Twin Cities Native Lacrosse league. "For Native
people, the wooden-stick game is in our blood. The sticks are part
of the soil and we are part of the soil and when we play, we are
A coach, a friend
Kelsey, who is non-Native and makes a living restoring vintage
airplanes, can still remember the moment when he became fascinated
He was on a field trip with his third-grade class to an interpretive
center in Deer River, in Itasca County, when he saw about two dozen
Ojibwe children playing lacrosse with carved saplings. He recalls
being transfixed by the curved shape of the wood and was assured
by one of the elders that it was the "correct stick" of the region.
That day, Kelsey found his own sapling and began stripping away
at the bark with a knife, determined to make his first rudimentary
At Bemidji Middle School, Kelsey began playing modern lacrosse
for a coach, Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida tribe, who was bringing
traditional lacrosse to reservations across the state. Kelsey and
Ninham struck up a lasting friendship. When Kelsey started making
birchbark canoes by hand, Ninham took notice and asked him to make
a batch of traditional sticks. Before long, Ninham was passing out
the sticks to young players from Red Lake to the Lower Sioux Reservation
in southern Minnesota.
Many of those early sticks were too thin and broke, sending
Kelsey back to the drawing board. He began collecting 19th-century
paintings of the Great Lakes tribes playing the game, as well as
historical descriptions of how the sticks were crafted and the materials
"Being a white guy, I had to do everything wrong before I could
do it right," he said. "I had to really unearth how it was originally
Kelsey breaks from lacrosse stick making to talk about his
passion. In his shop on his walls Kelsey has reproductions
of historical drawings and paintings of Native Americans playing
Today an 1857 painting by Seth Eastman, a military officer known
for his detailed portraits of American Indian life, hangs above
a workbench in Kelsey's shop. The painting shows members of the
Ojibwe tribe playing a game of lacrosse ("Baah-gah-du-an-nig" in
Ojibwe) on the frozen banks of the Minnesota River. He also has
photos of an Ojibwe stick once owned by explorer Giacomo Costantino
Beltrami, now in a museum in Italy.
The scent of sap
Kelsey's stick production is decidedly low-tech. He creates
steam with his grandmother's old soup pot and then filters the steam
through a plastic pipe holding the ash wood. Most mornings, the
smell of boiled sap wafts through his shop, filling the air with
a pungent, sweet aroma. Apart from a wood drill and a chain saw
to cut trees, Kelsey refuses to use power tools. (See photos on
Instagram under the handle @bemidji_maker.)
"Max is one of the last, great purists," said J. Alan Childs,
author of a book on the history of lacrosse in Minnesota. "When
you hold one of his sticks, you are holding a replica of what they
used hundreds of years ago."
Kelsey and friend Daniel Devault, 36, left, who grew up
on the Leech Lake reservation and helps Kelsey with stick
making, talk about the craft as Kelsey's son Teal, 4, who
has his own stick, stands nearby Monday, March 27, 2017,
in Bemidji, MN.
Daniel Devault, 36, who grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation
and works in Kelsey's shop, has been tutoring younger members of
his community on making the old-style sticks. He gave one to his
son, Danny, when he was six months old; now 2, Danny can catch and
cradle the ball in the deer-hide netting a feat that older
athletes struggle to master.
"For Native kids, it has become very important to have an identity,"
Devault said. "This was a huge part of our lives at one time and
it's our responsibility to pass on that heritage."
Kelsey, 34, a wooden lacrosse stick maker, uses a piece of
ash that he split from a log to shape into a stick Monday,
March 27, 2017, in Bemidji, MN.
Kelsey uses a small finishing knife to fine tune a piece
of ash he was turning into a lacrosse stick Monday, March
27, 2017, in Bemidji, MN.
Kelsey uses fire to singe a knot on a lacrosse stick netting.
He had earlier in the morning made the netting from twisted
wood fibers soaked in water to soften Monday, March 27,
2017, in Bemidji, MN.