Bending the Bow: Meditations on Craft Journeys with Sticks and Skin

By Denis Sivack

As I was preparing these materials, Steve Heinzerling wrote that the December SCC movie night feature would be Keepers of the Game, a documentary by Judd Ehrlich about the efforts of a Native American Mohawk group of high school girls to form a lacrosse team, a game traditionally played only by men.  As of now, I have seen only the trailer, but I believe you will find correspondences between the film and this article.

My introduction to the work of Alf Jacques came through an anthologized story by Syracuse writer Sean Kirst.  From there I was soon reading regional articles and lacrosse features on him and was struck to see an image of him at his shave horse – a woodworker’s device I knew of thanks to the construction of one by Chris Bickford, now at Sebago.

Alf Jacques is of the Onondaga Nation Turtle Clan, the nation that has given us the legend of the great teacher arriving in a stone canoe ultimately leading to events where warring peoples would bury their weapons in a hole out of which would grow a tree of peace.  He is indeed a tree worker himself.  As a child he went to his father, Louis, in need of a lacrosse stick and, not being able to afford one, his father made his first one by trial and error.  The stick making continued by both father and son, each of whom is also a master lacrosse player of fame.  What started out of need became a continuing growth in skill mastery.   Alf says that the best stick he made thirty years ago is now the one he has just made.

To find wood free of knots, Alf selects his own from living trees over a hundred years old.  He chooses shag hickory, known for its close grain, cutting his choice, and leaving a seedling in its place.  The spirit of that tree will be in the spirit of the stick he makes and in the user.  With an ax and wedges he splits the tree into eight long parts.  The remaining wood will be used to make soup ladles or will fire the steamer in his working areas.  Each long strip dries for two months, and then is steamed and bent by muscle power on a jig between two bars into the familiar lacrosse bend.  Alf secures the bend with a wire loop, letting the wood dry for another six to ten months before the final shaving, scoop shaping, drilling and netting work begins.  One tool he uses is a 186-year-old knife passed on to him by his father.

Each step is done with focus and purpose.  Lacrosse is a game given by the Creator and has been used to settle disputes, and as medicine it helps keep one alert and focused.  It reminds the Onondaga of who they are.  The Onondaga say we came into the world with a stick and we are buried with one across the chest to play before the Creator, to play with our ancestors.  The insignia logo that Alf imparts to each stick on its completion has not only the date but the symbol of his identity with the Turtle Clan and to the nation that showed us the tree of peace.

As we move from the making of lacrosse sticks through other variations of bending the bow and working with skin, we will briefly consider some skis and snowshoes, made not for the playing field but for crossing challenging snow terrain.  The ski illustration shown here, just because it appealed to me, is your heavy duty, waxless variety.  Don’t even think of taking a torch and tar to it as you would to your in-prep-for-waxing cross country skis.

Shown are two pairs of classic bear paw snowshoes.  One set is the “Improved Bear Paw” from Iverson Snowshoes in Shingleton, Michigan. The wood is Michigan white ash and the webbing and harness are neoprene which is low maintenance, does not become wet and sag, and does not need waterproofing.  The second set is “The Tubb Snowshoe” from Norway, Maine.  This is also made of ash but with rawhide webbing, “guaranteed not to sag,” and a neoprene harness. Ash is the wood of choice because of its ratio of weight to durability.  Unlike the pocket webbing of the lacrosse stick, made for ball use, the snowshoe webbing must be taut for stepping/gliding and not get clogged or trap what may be underfoot.  Both manufacturers still build snowshoes, but what you will likely find at a sports supply store or outfitter today will be from modern materials as I found a few days go with the Tubbs stock at an EMS store in Albany.

Going on to drum making, notice the illustration of the kayak frame atop the complete animal skin which will be used to cover it.  It seems primitive does it not?  Now notice the photograph of the young Alaskan guest signing the large thin frame drum made by Maliqiaq Padilla.  [Note: you may recognize Dubside in the background.] That drum is made of the same nylon material that would be used to wrap a skin-on-frame kayak.  One advantage of nylon, like the mylar of a Remo drum, over skin in drum making is that it is not subject to the humidity that ruins sound on skin drums that must be heated before playing to “dry up” damp skin.

The photographs showing sacred drums being made show traditional materials being used.  Interestingly the frame itself is very similar to the coaming on a traditional Greenland kayak.  The frames shown here might vary in diameter, from drum to drum, by choice.  So too does the skin choice, made considering the desired tonal sound of the finished drum.  Also does the choice of having dyed or undyed skin.  My drum is indigo dyed elk on an 18” frame.  While being applied to the frame by gut the skin is kept wet for the stretching and it dries tight.  The sinew or gut tying has its own similarities to the skill techniques used for the webbing in both the lacrosse sticks and snowshoes, each having a pattern relating to its purpose.

Mircea Eliade writes of the drum-making shaman going out to find a tree that has been struck by lightning for his drum wood and using horse hide for the covering to make a drum on which he will ride through sound to other realms.  In making our own sacred drums there is also ceremonial preparation and thanks to the spirits for this movement from ordinary reality to non-ordinary reality, from ordinary consciousness to shamanic consciousness.

With what we have seen being made and used here, there is a traditional path to new life that the wood and animal spirits have given us out of their strength, the wisdom of our elders, and the care of our Creator.

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