Bringing Lacrosse Back to the Community – Love Wisconsin

Sapatis Menomin | Green Bay, Wisconsin

Every weekend we’d go to different traditional or competition powwows. I think it was something my mom did to keep us busy and out of trouble. I started dancing when I was able to walk. I first danced grass and transitioned into the traditional dance category when I was older. The regalia that I wore when I danced was all handmade by my family — my father was the one who did our beadwork in our family.

I’m originally from Milwaukee. I grew up around the Native American community down there, which was a pretty tight-knit group. We moved up here to Oneida when I was in second grade, and I went to the Oneida Tribal schools all the way through high school. I’m enrolled Forest County Potawatomi, but I’m part Oneida and Menominee too.

I learned how to bead and sew just from watching my family. My mom and her sisters made different outfits and things for people. They did finger weaving and quill work and stuff like that, too. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me as a child, but once I got older, I realized how privileged I was that these things were still carried on in my family, because a lot of people didn’t have that chance. That includes simple things like smudging, which is purifying people or things with smoke. When I was growing up, I didn’t see a lot of Native people doing these types of things, but there is a  resurgence of those kinds of traditional practices.

After I finished high school, I didn’t do a whole lot for a while. I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue. I even quit dancing. Eventually, I went to college, but I wasn’t a great student and ended up flunking out. It took me a while to understand that I had to put the work in to learn and do well. After three years, I enrolled in The College of Menomonie Nation and graduated with my Associates in Humanities.

It was around that time that I started getting back into dancing and developed my interest in sewing, beading, drawing, and doing artwork. I always loved to draw as a kid, but those traditional arts were just such a normal part of my life that it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could pursue more seriously.

I decided to go to UW-Green Bay to study First Nation Studies. I was learning a lot about Native American education policy, everything from the start of colonialism to boarding schools, and all the way up through today with the Bureau of Indian Education. While I was there, I got involved with the Native American community and student organization on campus, and became a student leader within the program. It’s not that I was going out of my way to prove myself or anything, it was just something I did. It was important to me that I help cultivate an atmosphere where people could talk about microaggressions and racism that people encountered.

After college, I wanted to be a Native advocate at the university level, or work with university level students in some capacity, but it didn’t happen exactly like that. Just last year, a friend of mine who works at the Forest County Potawatomi Museum and Library reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, look at this job. Are you interested?’

The job was with Community Powered, an initiative of Wisconsin Humanities that helps empower communities around the state by engaging in different humanities-based projects. In my position, I worked with the Forest County Potawatomi. I did a lot of community engagement, talking with people and seeing what kinds of projects they want to see happen in the area. Since it is a Native American community, a lot of what I heard from them was that they wanted more traditional language acquisition classes, as well as cultural arts and activities. I mainly worked at the library, and the Forest County Potawatomi Community Center. They have a huge facility there with a big indoor field, swimming area, and basketball courts. It’s really nice.

One day last year, the idea of lacrosse came up. I was talking to an elder who said that he hasn’t seen traditional lacrosse games played in almost sixty years. Traditional Lacrosse of the western Great lakes is an Indigenous game played by many different tribes. The game is said to be a gift from different spiritual beings and was meant to be played as a healing game for the people of the community. The practice nearly died out when the older generations got older and the younger generations were living in a more modern way. This elder was a young kid the last time he was able to play. After hearing this, that’s when I decided that I was going to focus on bringing lacrosse back to the community.

I played a little bit of lacrosse growing up in Oneida, so I knew the version of the game that we play there. Once, I got to play an exhibition game against some Menominee players in Keshena, and that’s when I first saw that they use a different style of stick in their games. Tribal identity is tied to the kind of stick you use. You could almost tell the different tribes apart just by looking at their sticks and how they’re made. For example, in this area, the Western Great Lakes, Forest County Potawatomi, Menominee, Ho-Chunks and Ojibwe use lacrosse sticks with small, enclosed hoops. Iroquois, such as the Oneidas use ones that are a different style that has a much larger netting or basket. I had an Oneida stick growing up, but I always wanted a Menominee or Potawatomi stick. However, there was no one who was making them.

The game of Lacrosse is America’s oldest team sport. We put games together to heal communities, or prevent diseases, or other things like that. It’s the same with the Oneidas. Iroquois do the same, but it is a little different. If a family is mourning or something like that, they’ll have a healing game for that family. The way the game is used depends on tribal history. In some tribes, women are allowed to play, but usually it is just the men.

When I first started looking into lacrosse sticks, it was August of 2022. I reached out to a few people about teaching me, but I didn’t get anywhere with that. There aren’t a lot of lacrosse stick makers around this area that I have found. That’s when I decided to learn how to do it myself. I started by looking on YouTube. I always joke that I’m a millennial and learn everything on YouTube, but it actually worked. There are a couple of videos on there of people making lacrosse sticks, so I watched those to see what materials they were using and what tools and went from there. I did some research and looked at different types of historical lacrosse sticks to see what they were using. One example that I saw was up in the Forest County Potawatomi Community Museum in Crandon. It was made of ironwood, which is a very hard wood. Other sticks were made of hickory or different types of ash, all hardwoods. You can’t use a soft wood like bass or anything with sap in it, because the sap will leach out of the wood during the steaming process and the wood won’t bend easily.

In the beginning, I built the tools that I needed, and then gathered my materials. What I had available to me was mostly white ash. It’s abundant because the white ashes are dying from the emerald ash borer. I thought it would be good to use that for my sticks because I would be able to keep the spirit of the trees alive and use them even after they were dying. I broke a lot of sticks early in the learning process, but after a while, some of them started turning out. I just kept making more and more, and eventually, I got my process down.

When you’re going out to pick a tree for making sticks, you have to look for a nice straight trunk because we use the trunk, not the limbs. Some people use smaller trees, like saplings, but I haven’t done it. I prefer to get lots of sticks out of one tree, if possible. It’s best to find a tree that doesn’t have a lot of branches, knots, or growths, and isn’t twisted in any way, because those things will show up in the stick later on. You might have a bent handle or a big knot, which makes the wood hard to work with. There are different stories about how we pick our trees, but those are all specific to each tribe.

Before taking the tree, you put your tobacco down and give thanks to the tree, then cut it down into a workable size, about fifty inches. From there, you split it in half several times, into eighths. Then you start carving those pieces into the shape you want. I feel confident in my stick-making abilities now. I’ve made quite a few.

I did two workshops up in Forest County, and I did a presentation for Native American Tourism of Wisconsin, where I demonstrated how to make sticks. I have also been working with the Laona School District up by Crandon/Carter area. I did a couple of demonstrations there, and another one in Crandon with their art class where I talked about the history of the game, too. When I do workshops, I make it about more than just lacrosse. I just spend time talking and sharing with the kids because being a mentor and passing along your knowledge is something that’s really important in life.

The population at the Laona School is largely non-Native, and I think of my demonstrations as a tool to bring us together in a good way. It allows those kids to experience our culture and realize we’re not these stereotypes that maybe they were raised to believe or think. Right now, I’m working with Indian Community School and making them a batch of sticks for the kids to use and play lacrosse with.

Just from talking with community members, I can tell there’s a lot of positive feeling about what I’m doing. When I do a workshop, I always hear people saying, ‘Oh, my grandpa used to play this,’ or other similar comments. There are always elders who want to play again. There was one young man in particular who sticks out to me. At first, he didn’t look very interested in making a lacrosse stick. He was just sitting there. But once he got started, he was working hard on his stick and doing very well. I thought that was cool, so I gifted him one of my sticks thinking that he wasn’t going to be back the next day to finish his. He just didn’t seem like he wanted to be there. Then the next day, he showed up and finished his stick, so he ended up leaving with two.

I have donated quite a few sticks because I have seen how people are just loving the game. I haven’t put together any big games, but sometimes, if I’m hanging out in the woodshop and I have my sticks with me, we’ll go out and play. I like teaching the kids the rules and everything. It’s not too hard, the one rule is just to not touch the ball with your hands. The kids go out and have a blast. At first, they struggle to pick up or catch the ball because the basket to hold the ball is quite small and it’s hard to pick up the ball and catch with, but they get the hang of it. It can get pretty competitive sometimes, especially with the older kids.

When I was younger I didn’t play lacrosse in any organized way, like for a school team or league. Growing up I heard stories from different relatives about how they used to play when they were younger.

I love the game. I feel like you get energy from playing, and I do believe in the healing energy around the game. Since I started making sticks, I have been around more people and have learned some of the different histories of the game in different communities. That was a big thing for me because I didn’t know those different origin stories, especially the ones from around this area. Each tribe has their own history with the game and so it’s great to learn those things.

Lacrosse is not just limited to this region, either. It’s all over the United States. I think it’s important to do this kind of work because lacrosse is something that we almost lost. Recently, I got to go to a big healing game event in Menominee, which was really fun. In the future I would like to see a traditional lacrosse league start up in Wisconsin. That would be cool. I have talked to several people in different communities about starting one, but finding money for that is hard. For me, though, the league is not what’s important. It’s more important just to play and learn about the game.

Source: Bringing Lacrosse Back to the Community – Love Wisconsin

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