Editor’s note: The following text is from a story about wooden lacrosse stickmaker Alf Jacques written by Sean Kirst of the Buffalo News. A link at the bottom of this page will take you to the full article.
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,” he’ll tell them. “Honor it. Make that stick happy and take it down sometimes and use it, then put it back on the wall.”
Alf Jacques, 67, went Saturday to the Skanonh, the Great Law of Peace Center just outside Syracuse, where he was the heart and soul of 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.
(Editor’s note: This video from 2013 sheds some more light on the Wooden Stick Expo…)
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.”Saturday’s festival also featured Six Nations crafts, dancing and music. But the entire Syracuse University lacrosse team, which showed up with Coach John Desko, was there for one main reason. Desko wanted to introduce his players to wooden sticks and the ancient craft that goes into making them. That left Arnold to say this of Alf Jacques:
“We couldn’t have it without him. It would be impossible. He’s a great educator. He knows how to talk to people. We want them to understand: This is a profoundly important game and it comes from here.”
Alf, close enough to the lake to feel the mist blowing off the water on a rainy day, spent hours showing visitors – particularly children – how to carve a stick. For him, it was 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. “She’d say: ‘Alf, you’re a strong one.’”
A month after her death, Alf noticed blood in his urine. He realized he’d 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.
“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 who’s 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 Ada’s 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, she’s gone to the spirit world, but she left us this knowledge to do, to carry on.”
In that sense, he said, she’s still around – as is Alf’s 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 didn’t 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.
You play lacrosse to say thank you to the Creator for providing the hickory trees, for the grass, for the sun, for the soil.
– Alf Jacques