David Bezhigaabaw Butler (Bezh) is one of the best Ojibwe stick makers out there. His ability to create a quality stick is widely known, and he has become one of the go-to stick makers of Great Lakes style lacrosse.
Great Lakes lacrosse has seen a renaissance over the last decade. The game had gone largely dormant with little to no active participation for at least 50 years. Only the occasional stick maker turned out a stick that was often used as a novelty piece or pow wow dance regalia. That was the situation Bezh found himself in when he started to become interested in the game.
“When I was growing up I didn’t even know about traditional lacrosse,” he said.
Bezh grew up on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in the area now known as Wisconsin. In 2007, he decided to move to Minneapolis to take advantage of the Ojibwe language and culture programs available in the city and eventually found himself as an instructor of Ojibwe language at the Division of Indian Work and later at Bdote Learning Center. Currently, he teaches language and culture at South High School in Minneapolis.
Lacrosse was introduced to Bezh during his time as an educator. At one of the schools he worked in, he participated in several enrichment opportunities with his students to get them more physically active.
“This program came in, and it was something new as an opportunity for our kids to get into some physical activity,” he explained. “We brought tennis in, we also had some baseball guys come in. Then we brought in a lacrosse group, which brought in traditional sticks.”
It was this group that piqued his curiosity.
“I just asked, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and I decided to check it out,” Bezh said. “They taught me how to pick up, and after a couple tries, I got it. Then I started to show the kids.”
It was from this program that he was soon invited to play in his first game. Community games around the Twin Cities were growing and gaining popularity among the Indigenous communities of the area. A coach from one of these Great Lakes lacrosse programs reached out to Bezh once she saw his interest in the game.
“I said, ‘All I know how to do is pick up,’” Bezh recounted. “She said, ‘Well, you should definitely still come through, because there are some people who are still even trying to do that. Anyone who has an interest in playing should come through.’”
Despite the assuring invite, Bezh was thrown into games with players whom he felt were far out of his league.
“When I show up, these guys are like extra ace players, and they’re smacking the ball out of my stick giving me no mercy,” he said. “I’m a brand new player, and all I know is pick up!”
Even with the rough introduction, Bezh had a great experience and continued to come back to the community games. His skills quickly improved, and soon he was one of the better players on the field.
“I really got addicted to lacrosse,” he explained.
As an educator, Bezh kept teaching language but found there was also demand for physical and craft culture. While many people around him knew about Indigneous craft traditions, few had any ability or experience in making traditional items.
“I found there was a lot more to learn,” he said. “I found a lot of people didn’t know how to do these things, even as simple as dream catchers and tobacco pouches.”
Bezh began teaching students how to make these items for themselves, but he was yet to try his hand at crafting sticks. That opportunity would come some time later at an event he attended with his students; an event that just happened to have a stick maker showing stick-making techniques. It was there that he began the learning process that would lead to him to becoming a household name in the Great Lakes lacrosse world.
“I got my piece home, it was only half done,” he said. “It was like an eighth of a tree, there was so much wood on it, and I finished it with a hatchet and a box cutter.”
From that first stick, it was just a matter of practice and refinement to get to the point that Bezh felt confident calling himself a stick maker.
As a teacher of language and culture, Bezh was keenly aware of the significance of history and tradition. However, he also knew that a living culture adapts and innovates with the passage of time. Stick making was no exception.
An idea to make a stick out of more contemporary materials came to him from one of his students who was working on a science project.
“I had a student in a science class try to make a different kind of stick,” Bezh said.”When he decided to make sticks, that’s when I decided to make a kind of hybrid modern/traditional stick.”
He discovered that he could make a functional and cheap stick using plastic and dowels rather than wood and leather. These lighter, more quickly produced sticks were ideal for the teenagers he worked with who needed something they could be a bit harder on and that was light enough to play with as they developed their cradling muscles. If a stick broke, it was much easier to replace a plastic and dowel stick rather than a steam-bent wood stick.
“Making 20 sticks out of plastic is probably about the same amount of time it would take to make one [steam-bent wood] stick,” he explained.
These sticks have been met with praise, though they are not preferred by all. Sometimes it just comes down to price.
“A lot of people would rather have an all wooden handle, they don’t want the plastic stick,” Bezh said. “They say it just doesn’t feel right or it’s not traditional enough for them. Some people say, ‘I don’t care, how much is that [plastic stick]? $30? Yeah, let me get that!’”
It wasn’t enough for Bezh to only make sticks, though. He is an educator at heart and wanted to give as many opportunities to learn lacrosse as possible. He created a series of videos teaching basic stick skills that he put publicly on his Facebook and YouTube pages.
Bezh discovered these videos had more reach than he anticipated when he visited the Fond du Lac reservation in what is now known as Minnesota. He met a player there who had only learned from watching his videos, and to Bezh’s surprise, he proved to have considerable skill!
“Some people just got it in them, if you pick up a stick and if it feels right,” Bezh said. “If you find the right stick and you get that ball in there, it’ll feel right.”
A popular video shows Bezh demonstrating incredible stick skills that look more like something from a kung fu movie rather than lacrosse. He gives his students the credit for his tricks.
“Everything I can do, I’ve learned from the youth I work with. It was just a matter of playing against a bunch of kids,” he explained. “Kids being inventive and creative. A lot of what I can do now, I learned from just watching kids do it and teaching kids how to do it better.”
With lacrosse in the Great Lakes growing again and more people picking it up, it has to be asked what the future of the game could look like. While “grow the game” has become a rallying slogan in the lacrosse community, Bezh has a perspective on the traditional game’s future that may surprise some.
“I’m not a guy who wants to see it mainstream,” Bezh said. “That’s not really something that’s a goal of mine. To see it on ESPN someday is not on my wishlist.”
Rather than mainstream popularity, for Bezh it’s much more about community development and people connecting to their heritage.
“I do want to see people in my community playing like it’s an ordinary thing to do,” he explained, “because when I was growing up, I didn’t even know about traditional lacrosse.”
All of this is part of his broader efforts of cultural revitalization. Bezh ultimately wants to make sure that everyone in Ojibwe country will know not only about lacrosse, but all traditional practices.
“I’m going to try to bring back everything I can, because everything is just like a piece of the puzzle of everything our ancestors wanted us to be,” he said. “Everything they did, they did because it was beneficial to the community.”
Lacrosse, both past and present, has an important role in Ojibwe culture, and while it may have been dormant for a time, Bezh knows well what lacrosse’s function was and will continue to be.
“Lacrosse is a healing ceremony,” he explained. “It’s a way of connecting to your community and a way of connecting to your ancestors. You really feel connected when you play.”