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Sean Kirst: Wooden lacrosse stickmaker gives thanks at Six Nations capital

(This column, originally published digitally a year ago, has been updated for the Oct. 1, 2017, print edition of The Buffalo News):

People travel for miles to buy wooden lacrosse sticks they've ordered from Alf Jacques. They drive Route 11A, through the Onondaga Nation, until they find his little shop beneath a hill.

Alf will hand them a stick, polished hickory shining like bone. He knows many buyers will put the sticks on display, protecting them like works of art, and he always offers one simple piece of advice:

“This stick was made to be used,” he will say. “Honor it. Make that stick happy and take it down sometimes and use it, then put it back on the wall.”

Alf, 68, is this weekend's homegrown star for the Haudenosaunee Wooden Stick Festival at the Onondaga Nation, traditional capital of the Six Nations, near Syracuse. "He's a legend all over the world,” said Phil Arnold, chair of the department of religion at Syracuse University and director of the Skanonh Great Law of Peace Center, which coordinates the festival.

The center is located near the shoreline of Onondaga Lake, where the longhouse people of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, believe their Peacemaker gathered five warring nations, then convinced them to bury their weapons beneath a tree of peace.

Afterward, in gratitude to the Creator, they played a game meant as thanksgiving.

"Really, the wooden stick is the essence of the game itself," said Ansley Jemison, who was born in Buffalo, grew up on Seneca territory at Allegany and now serves as executive director of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse program, which includes players from throughout the Six Nations.

During his childhood, Jemison used a wooden stick. As he rose in competitive levels of lacrosse - he would eventually play Division I lacrosse for Syracuse University - he grew accustomed to using a plastic stick. But that transition carries a quiet price, Jemison said.

Amid a technological avalanche that can separate people from their roots, Jemison spoke of the festival - and the idea of "taking something natural and applying it, fashioning it into the game" - as a reminder of the deeper meaning of lacrosse.

The festival involves both box and field tournaments. Sunday, the Nationals will take part in several games at the Carrier Dome that involve a visiting Israeli national squad and a team from the University of Albany.

While the event offers native dancing and musical performances, it is built around wooden sticks and the ancient craft that goes into making them. Alf Jacques is offering several workshops at Onondaga, and an appreciative Arnold describes him as the heart of the event.

“We couldn’t have it without him," Arnold said. "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.”

For Alf, the effort involves both renewal and gratitude. In 2016, he lost his mother, Ada Jacques, to lung cancer. She was 87, but always seemed indomitable. Every year, she tended to her garden and the "three sisters" she grew there, the corn, beans and squash her people have harvested for centuries.

“She would always tell me patience is strength,” he said.

A month after she died, Alf noticed blood in his urine. After a checkup, he learned that he, too, had cancer. Surgeons needed to remove one of his kidneys. Alf stayed quiet for as long as he could, but he was soon drawn back to his shop.

The hands of an artist: Alf Jacques works on a lacrosse stick. (John Berry/The Buffalo News)

Yet it seemed that he had barely resumed his schedule when he noticed a sensation of pressure in his chest. The doctors told him he'd had a heart attack and inserted a couple of stents. Within weeks, Alf was again traveling, lecturing - and making 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, to him, she’s still around - in the same way as Alf’s father, Lou Jacques, who died about 30 years ago.  He and Alf, for years, worked side-by-side. The son 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 expectations, 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 needed one for a school team. To save money, 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 pieced together skills he’d observed in 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 going. On Iroquois territories, many infants still receive a tiny wooden stick in their cribs. At the end of the journey, old men clasp wooden sticks to their chests in the casket, ready to play the game for their Creator.

Alf Jacques in his shop, with his collection of wooden sticks. (John Berry/The Buffalo News)

“I do it my way,” said Alf, of making sticks. “I’m not ready to change.”

With the business diminished, he worked for years in a machine shop, and did his stickmaking at night. He now makes about 200 sticks a year, each one costing hundreds of dollars, as much as an act of love as for business. Alf is training an apprentice, Parker Booth, and Alf leaves it to him to find the trees, to drag them from the woods.

Pilgrims sometimes come to watch in reverence as Alf works in his shop. He tells them why he does it, the meaning of each stick, but the fascination is a little baffling to him:

“I’ve never done anything to try and be famous,” he said. “I’m just a stickmaker. That’s it.”

And yet: Strength comes from patience, whether it is a garden, a lacrosse stick, or day-to-day existence. Alf still grows  “hegowa,” beautiful corn used in ceremonies, known beyond Six Nations territories as “Indian corn.” He keeps the hegowa in open containers, near barrels filled with ancient sticks, and he says all of it comes back to a central way of life:

Alf Jacques holds two varieities of beans his mother raised in her garden, for generations. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

Alf Jacques holds two varieties of beans his mother raised in her garden, for generations. (Sean Kirst/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, Alf’s favorite season, follows a hard couple of years. He lost his mother and learned of his own cancer. He had a kidney removed and went through the procedure for his heart.

Even so, before long he returned to his shop, because "I’ve always thought if I stopped, I might never get back to it.”

Throughout the Six Nations, that seems impossible. They have Alf. They have his wooden sticks.

This weekend, they give thanks.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his columns in this archive.

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