BEMIDJI, Minn. – Maxwell Kelsey sharpens the blade of his simple, two-handled draw knife, then pulls it in long and careful strokes over a freshly split piece of ash wood.
Kelsey, 34, never breaks his gaze, even as wood shavings fly into his beard and torn flannel shirt. For hours without rest, he splits, carves and steams the long ash sticks and then, proudly, lifts his finished product in the air: A wooden lacrosse stick, made using the same techniques as indigenous peoples of centuries ago.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he says, hoisting the stick in the dim morning light of his woodworking shop in a quiet neighborhood of Bemidji.
“I’m peeling back history with every draw of that knife.”
That reverence for tradition, coupled with attention to detail, has turned Kelsey into one of the Midwest’s most famed makers of old-style, wooden lacrosse sticks.
As North America’s oldest team sport undergoes a historic resurgence, hundreds of Kelsey’s finely carved sticks are being used by young lacrosse players around the region. From the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota to the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, new lacrosse teams are sprouting up and competing — using the traditional sticks of the Western Great Lakes tribes.
Early in November, nearly 100 boys and girls gathered at a sports dome in Savage for the third annual Twin Cities Native Lacrosse Tournament. Young players came from as far away as Wisconsin, South Dakota and Michigan to compete using the old-style, wooden sticks. Before each game, young players and their parents prayed and sang traditional healing songs.
The original lacrosse stick, with its steam-bent stem and deer-hide netting, is at the center of this revival. Many older tribal members recall receiving such sticks as gifts when they were children. Ojibwe mothers are said to have once placed the sticks in their cradleboards, backpack-like wooden frames for carrying swaddled infants, because women played the game and the sticks were believed to have spiritual powers.
To the Western Great Lakes tribes, they were more than sports equipment: The deer hide netting is strung across the stick’s pocket like the four directions of the “Medicine Wheel,” a spiritual symbol of healing. The game itself is frequently called the “creator’s game” or “medicine game,” because of its power to heal and bring communities together.
“This game is bigger than just a sport or an amusement,” said John Hunter, a descendant of the Winnebago and Ojibwe nations and co-director of the Twin Cities Native Lacrosse league. “For Native people, the wooden-stick game is in our blood. The sticks are part of the soil and we are part of the soil and when we play, we are all connected.”
A coach, a friend
Kelsey, who is non-Native and makes a living restoring vintage airplanes, can still remember the moment when he became fascinated by lacrosse.
He was on a field trip with his third-grade class to an interpretive center in Deer River, in Itasca County, when he saw about two dozen Ojibwe children playing lacrosse with carved saplings. He recalls being transfixed by the curved shape of the wood and was assured by one of the elders that it was the “correct stick” of the region.
That day, Kelsey found his own sapling and began stripping away at the bark with a knife, determined to make his first rudimentary stick.
At Bemidji Middle School, Kelsey began playing modern lacrosse for a coach, Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida tribe, who was bringing traditional lacrosse to reservations across the state. Kelsey and Ninham struck up a lasting friendship. When Kelsey started making birchbark canoes by hand, Ninham took notice and asked him to make a batch of traditional sticks. Before long, Ninham was passing out the sticks to young players from Red Lake to the Lower Sioux Reservation in southern Minnesota.
Many of those early sticks were too thin and broke, sending Kelsey back to the drawing board. He began collecting 19th-century paintings of the Great Lakes tribes playing the game, as well as historical descriptions of how the sticks were crafted and the materials used.
“Being a white guy, I had to do everything wrong before I could do it right,” he said. “I had to really unearth how it was originally done.”
Today an 1857 painting by Seth Eastman, a military officer known for his detailed portraits of American Indian life, hangs above a workbench in Kelsey’s shop. The painting shows members of the Ojibwe tribe playing a game of lacrosse (“Baah-gah-du-an-nig” in Ojibwe) on the frozen banks of the Minnesota River. He also has photos of an Ojibwe stick once owned by explorer Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, now in a museum in Italy.
The scent of sap
Kelsey’s stick production is decidedly low-tech. He creates steam with his grandmother’s old soup pot and then filters the steam through a plastic pipe holding the ash wood. Most mornings, the smell of boiled sap wafts through his shop, filling the air with a pungent, sweet aroma. Apart from a wood drill and a chain saw to cut trees, Kelsey refuses to use power tools. (See photos on Instagram under the handle @bemidji_maker.)
“Max is one of the last, great purists,” said J. Alan Childs, author of a book on the history of lacrosse in Minnesota. “When you hold one of his sticks, you are holding a replica of what they used hundreds of years ago.”
Daniel Devault, 36, who grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation and works in Kelsey’s shop, has been tutoring younger members of his community on making the old-style sticks. He gave one to his son, Danny, when he was six months old; now 2, Danny can catch and cradle the ball in the deer-hide netting — a feat that older athletes struggle to master.
“For Native kids, it has become very important to have an identity,” Devault said. “This was a huge part of our lives at one time and it’s our responsibility to pass on that heritage.”