Randall Nąątisak Blackdeer helped reintroduce an age-old custom to his community.
In a way many people don’t realize, 2014 was a momentous year for lacrosse. Beyond the Final Four, Miles Thompson going pro, and the World Lacrosse Championship, it was the year that many Native Americans in the Midwest began to revive the art of making Great Lakes style sticks.
Among this group of stick makers who sought to revive this antique practice was Randall Blackdeer, a member of the Ho Chunk Nation in the area now known as Wisconsin.
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“It was the summer of 2014 when I got to see my first lacrosse sticks and take a crack at making one,” said Blackdeer, who had been living in Texas as a member of the Air Force before moving back to Wisconsin to be closer to his tribe. “It seemed like a lot of the different tribes in the area and even all the way to the Twin Cities were getting into lacrosse and starting to rediscover it.”
Blackdeer described his first attempts at making sticks as a trial and error learning process where he would use a razor blade to carve the stick and boil the wood to bend it by hand into the iconic circle shape. In the early days of this process, Blackdeer looked to family to get started.
“I went over to see my jaagii (jah-jee), which in our culture is a way of saying one of your dads, one day, and he was working on a durable looking lacrosse stick,” Blackdeer said. “He had it about half way done… He gave it to me, and I worked on it all night until I had what I thought was a decent looking lacrosse stick. I showed it to him, and he thought it looked pretty good.”
From there, it took him two years to refine his style to make something he could be consistently happy with. Blackdeer explained how each new method he came across would drastically change his style until he had a more refined process.
“I think my style hasn’t really changed too much ever since about 2016,” he said. “But from that first stick to the end of that next year everything changed. I discovered a belt sander, I discovered a table saw, every little thing I came across, I discovered a steamer.”
In the process of making sticks, Blackdeer put function over fashion. Each stick had to be strong; the traditional game has very few rules and is full contact. A stick has to be durable enough to take some punishment but light enough to not tire out the player using it.
“I wasn’t trying to make a pretty stick,” he said. “I was trying to make a functional, durable stick.”
Given this challenge the obvious question that arose was which kind of wood would work best?
The answer came, as many often do, from history.
“I used hickory, and as far as I know, I’m the only Great Lakes style stick maker that uses hickory,” Blackdeer explained. “It’s what our people used back in the day … The old sticks I wound up coming across later were all hickory.”
Hickory proved to be dense and strong, so it could be shaped into a thin stick that wouldn’t break easily. Ash is another popular wood for stick making, Blackdeer pointed out, but hickory has better strength and a historical precedent. Since then, it has been his wood of choice.
The challenges didn’t stop with figuring out how to make the sticks, though.
“Then I realized I had to learn how to use the thing,” he said.
As with much of this process, learning to catch, throw and cradle with these sticks was a process of trial and error. He would practice with tennis balls against a wall, working on how best to release a throw, how to cradle a ball while moving quickly, and how to pick the ball up off the ground. After a time, he got it down and felt more proficient in his stick handling.
Now, it was time to play a game.
“I realized that in order to play an actual game, I would have to make quite a few more so out of necessity,” Blackdeer said. “I started making some more sticks.”
Randall Blackdeer’s production went up from there, even being commissioned by the Ho Chunk tribal government to build a set of 40 sticks. While this large task was intimidating to Blackdeer, he knew it was necessary to take this game from a craft to a fully-revived sport.
“The whole journey was fun, it was incredible,” he explained. “The first time we played some 3-on-3, I thought, ‘This is the first time in 60 years this has been done.’ Someone would score a goal, and I would think, ‘That’s the first time in 60 years that someone has made a shot from that far.’“
It has grown from there to be a game played regularly by the community. There have been ups and downs as the novelty of the tradition has worn off, but Blackdeer said it’s the kids playing that motivates and inspires him most.
“Just to be a part of its resurgence was pretty special to me,” he said. “That we got this game going enough for these young kids that someday when they’re older, they’d be able to say, ‘I remember playing lacrosse.’”
The game is now more strongly established in his community. It isn’t rare anymore for someone to have seen or played Great Lakes lacrosse. The future is optimistic with so many younger players starting to pick up sticks and gain some skill.
“Even if the game didn’t progress anymore, I’m at least happy that we passed the torch as much as we could to the next generation,” Blackdeer said.
Lacrosse has incredible meaning in itself both as a cultural pastime and as a touchstone for Ho Chunk youth to connect to their culture. Native American traditions, cultures and games have been systematically oppressed for more than 100 years, and Randall Blackdeer hopes that this game can provide some healing after such a long period of cultural destruction. Lacrosse could be one important way for all Ho Chunk people to reconnect and learn the culture that they may not have previously had the opportunity to participate in, he said.
“This could be a tool for getting them deeper into their culture, their sense of identity, who they are,” Blackdeer explained.
It truly has been a journey of resurgence, self discovery and cultural revitalization. These tasks can seem daunting to many, and knowing where to start can feel intimidating and like a challenge that is too big for one person to attempt. Blackdeer is quick to point out that it was not just him who started this process but many people from his community and his family. When asked about how others could follow in his footsteps, Blackdeer had one piece of advice for any Native American person who wants to learn their culture and tradition.
“I think one of the lessons I learned from this whole journey is that if you want to learn something, if you want to experience something, if you want to try something, don’t wait for someone to come along,” he said. “You have to try it, you have to get dirty, you have to get sweaty.”