Maxwell Kelsey has never been a man of many words to me, but rather a man of specific words that he chooses to use to describe his life. Journey, love, create, and maker are the main ones he recycles through with an audible smile that can be heard over the phone. The simplicity and purity of how Max decides to approach life, and his craft of traditional Ojibwe lacrosse stick making, is similar to the feel of a Mom & Pop style Italian bakery. There is a precise ease Max wields that he uses in order to know that forcing is too much, while never sacrificing quality for a second.
From start to finish, seed to stick, Max believes in clarity that isn’t muddled by power tools or mass production. His wood is even harvested by his own hands so that there is no disconnect from the natural element that the tree came from. This is his preferred method that he has used for the past several years in Northern Minnesota to hone his stick-making abilities and redirect his life into spreading an original version of the game of lacrosse with others. Just as Max loves to reuse descriptors to reinforce the value he places on them, he also loves being able to recycle the love of lacrosse that he has received. For Max, this is done by making sticks that can be used to give children a chance to play; however, Max is still a child at heart when it comes to stick-making.
Miikana- Maxwell Kelsey’s Journey through Lacrosse
Max really brings a whimsical passion and applies it to his journey through life as a stick maker and as a lacrosse player by keeping his heart involved. Much like how a child can become absorbed by a task or activity without warning, Max similarly dives into his projects with a full immersion process. His devotion to making lacrosse sticks goes well beyond the actual carving of wood, and his heart must be present in his work in order for it to be properly completed. On a vacation, a child will put time, and more importantly love, into making a sandcastle with imaginative detail on the beach for hours. On a beach chair nearby, their parents groan over expense reports in order to pay for the vacation that lets their child build the sandcastle.
For Max, he is spending his days sitting in the sand and lining out his moat on his own dime. His added bonus is that after the sawdust and wood shavings have cleared, Max and his lacrosse sticks still have plenty more left in their journey to help preserve the historical roots of lacrosse. He is constantly making huge strides with his stick-making to get more natural wooden sticks onto fields where the game can be appreciated for all it has to offer the maker, the player, and the creator.
Open for Business, and for Friendship
I smile when I get to refer to Max as a friend of mine. This is likely because it’s nice to be able to affiliate yourself with someone who you consider a great artist, but it’s definitely because I think the company you keep can be a reflection of yourself.
Being genuine is so undervalued, but overused, in so many industries; yet, Max keeps it as real like Sargento cheese. At times I’ve had trouble with people questioning the legitimacy of my lacrosse site because there are plenty of people trying to just make a quick buck or exploit a good idea, but Max was happy to share his ideas for anyone willing to ask for his number. Even if I had a ploy of trying to find out his social and credit card number over the phone, I would’ve gotten an earful of intense lacrosse education far before I got close to anything else.
His willingness to share, and openness to learn from anyone trying to converse won me over instantly. I’m just glad that Max reciprocated and we were able to find out we shared so many of the same values we learned from lacrosse. There’s a homegrown love of the game and its history that Maxwell Kelsey will never be able to shake from his soul because it’s what has carved and shaped him.
A Time to Plant, and A Time to Uproot
While Max has had the pleasure of making sticks for some of the most well-known ambassadors of the game, he is still a “young gun” when it comes to making sticks and he puts more sticks into the hands of children than pros. Besides his youth, Max is also white; which sets him as an outsider in the traditional stick making realm. Max is basically the equivalent of a white rapper who people could see as venturing into an art form outside of his culture.
Lacrosse is an incredibly inclusive sport, but it’s also a sport that is sacred to an entire race of people who have been horribly mistreated by American colonialism. It’s not like white people can’t appreciate the game or see the real value in playing it; however, the game will always have a connection to natives that no other group of people will be able to fathom. Lacrosse is truly a medicine game that is played for both sport and healing, but our modernized world is more focused on sport than healing in almost all situations. This is exactly where Max differs from the norm.
Before becoming a stick maker, Max was your run of mill post-lacrosse player stuck in a routine job that wasn’t fulfilling Max’s expectations. Having to spend his days laboring away at achieving the dream of another person didn’t sit right with Max, and he couldn’t commit himself to wasting his life on something that he didn’t see value in. After some soul searching and finding that rock bottom is quite short on sunlight, he found he was putting his effort and time into many parts of life that would never bring him to the happiness he felt he deserved. Max then decided to return to the roots, which would become a routine of his when harvesting.
Home is Where the Heart is
He had taken a sip of life outside of his home and found that his little rumspringa held a sour taste of greed. After his decision to return home he had to accomplish one particular task in order to show his commitment to a new way of living and processing the experiences he would encounter, so Max dedicated himself to building a canoe using the natural Ojibwe method. This laborious and painstaking project was a form of rebirth for Max as he was able to shed the discomfort of his previous self and open himself up to become a whole new man who is devoted to using his hands to breathe life back into split wood for the sake of learning and growth.
On a journey of my own to Baltimore, I met Max and finally was able to really put a face to the voice I’d been talking to and writing about. It’s sometimes awkward when you meet someone who you’ve talked to extensively, but never actually seen in person; however, I got a hug before I was finished introducing myself to Max. He is a fair skinned man of a medium build with an aggressive beard and kind eyes that ignite at a moment’s notice. These eyes possess an unfiltered vision of growth and that is why he has found himself so connected to an ancient art form of a culture that is not his own. Like a kitten lured by the smell of warm milk, Max finds himself immersed in the lacrosse world lapping up knowledge in any way he can.
By learning as much as possible through conversations with others, exposing himself to the culture, and continuously working on perfecting his craft, Max is working to bring his vision to life. If he could take the heartwarming and serenity-inducing experiences that he had with the natural form of lacrosse and use it as a tool to spread happiness everyday then Max would be making his vision into a reality. His home of Bemidji has provided him with a base of family and friends that have helped Max learn the craft of stick-making in the traditional Great Lakes style; but, as a man looking to hone his skill and spread the joy of lacrosse as wide as he possibly can, Bemidji can’t provide Max with the outlet he needs to expand this vision to a larger scale.
Seclusion for Sanity
I can somewhat relate to Max’s situation because the home that I’ve spent most of my life living in is rather immediately distanced from civilization, while still being close to a large city. Max is clearly far deeper in the sticks than I am, but I still live six miles from the closest gas station and we don’t even have our own postal service or police force.
This gives me some perspective into Max’s life and we shared some laughs about how secluded we can be in our hometowns. There’s nothing like being able to be in your backyard and not be seen by anyone, with just enough freedom to do whatever you want without the intrusion of a neighbor. Max is just making lacrosse sticks in his and I’m usually just playing lacrosse, but the lack of peering eyes makes all the difference when it comes to peace of mind.
“Solitude is the house of peace.”
– T.F. Hodge
Since Bemidji is where Max has spent his entire tenure as a stick-maker, it’s understandable how he would be reluctant to leave in order to learn more; yet, Max had to take on the challenge of crossing the country to visit LaxCon2018 in Baltimore, where Max and I first met. LaxCon is similar to ComicCon, but for lacrosse, and it provides the same level of exposure that any convention can for those who have the potential to create change within their field of passion.
The convention floor is flooded with fans willing to spend and vendors eager to sell, but in between the dollars being exchanged, there are wise words that flow like water over Niagara. An excursion from peaceful Bemidji to the manic Baltimore Convention Center could be the spark that propels Max’s vision to the next step in his journey, but first Max would have to face LaxCon head on.
The Edge of Acceptance
This quagmire of excess, extravagant spending, and cutting edge innovation is the complete opposite of Max’s usual workshop where he uses his hands as his most versatile tools for creating. At LaxCon, he would instead see thousands upon thousands of dollars that were poured into foreign manufactured products and people paying huge upcharges for the newest gear. Max was well aware of what to expect as far as the convention’s retail aspect is concerned, but he still was wary of making his first trip to LaxCon because of personal doubts in what to expect from his own appearance.
Besides the products and pros at LaxCon, there are also legends of the game that make their faces and voices remembered well after the weekend is over. Max took the trip to Baltimore because he felt that in the end, he needed to go to LaxCon in order to affirm his status as a stick-maker on his journey, but also to meet a personal hero of his, Alf Jacques.
A King Among A Crowd
Alf is also a stickmaker, but he instead specializes in the native Iroquois style from the area of New York where he was born. For over forty years Alf has been crafting sticks for players, coaches, collectors, and enthusiasts from all over the world who share a passion for lacrosse. Within the tight-knit community of the creator’s game, he is affectionately seen as a Picasso of stick making, both ahead of and behind his time, the GOAT, and the strongest connection to original stick making. His status as a legend is carried by word of mouth from lacrosse tournaments to practices to lacrosse stores, and so on, all over the country.
Syracuse and other notable powerhouse programs have even taken team trips to learn about Native lacrosse from Alf because he is such a trustworthy source when it comes to his style of stickmaking and preservation of history. Max has taken great pride in trying to emulate many qualities of Alf in his own creative process over the years, and he has been deeply inspired by the resilient devotion that Alf has for creating the stick of his people. It was through his very first journey on his path of life that Max was able to actually meet Alf face to face and finally be able to connect with this complete stranger in such an intimate way over their passion for carving lacrosse sticks.
Legends In Their Own Rite
Comparing Alf to Max is a very literal apples to oranges situation. They both are stickmakers in the same way that apples and oranges are both fruits, but they differ on style and region. The two stickmakers also are years apart in experience and age. Alf’s seasoned hands have been working on perfecting his craft since before Max’s birth and he has a much more recognizable face.
The cameras filming several collegiate and international lacrosse games have taken the chance to display Alf in between quarters in order to discuss the sticks he makes. His strong connections to many players have helped increase the awareness of Alf’s incredible craftsmanship that makes him a very well-known face in the lacrosse community, even among those who aren’t very familiar with traditional lacrosse. The increased discussion and display of Alf’s work is great for helping players learn about the history of lacrosse and understand the Native American roots of the sport.
The Lacrosse Connection
Now, Max had clearly known about Alf for quite some time before his trip to LaxCon, but their connection had been in the making for years. Lacrosse has this magical reaching quality that allows it to permeate different communities all over the world and create bonds between people long before they ever meet. Any lacrosse player can attest to the fact that the “lacrosse connection” is real and that you can find someone who knows someone you know at almost any lacrosse event. Through a tournament in Wisconsin, Max met his friend Dan Devault who later introduced Max to John Parsons and this is how the “lacrosse connection” really works. Dan is a native Ojibwe speaker who has helped Max gain his great appreciation of Native history and lacrosse stickmaking, and he is also a friend of John Parsons’ who is a native of New York.
John grew up very close to Alf, and at one point was being considered to be Alf’s apprentice. In their Native community, men are buried with a traditional wooden stick when they die and so there must always be a stickmaker to provide the community with traditional sticks in order to keep the tradition alive. John and Alf, unfortunately, didn’t push the apprenticeship, and John ended up in Minnesota spending his weekends in Max’s woodshop telling him stories about Alf.
It Starts With A Push
After meeting each other through their mutual friend Dan, and being able to connect over their love for the game, John kept insisting that Max needed to meet Alf. He encouraged him to take the chance to travel to LaxCon and to spread his reach within the lacrosse world in order to fulfill his goal of helping the traditional game grow. This is clearly easier said than done, but Max took the advice from John about traveling to meet Alf, while also learning as much as he could from someone who had just spent time with Alf.
John was involved in the production of a documentary that featured Alf’s creative process in his workshop, and he wanted to share all that he was able to learn about life and lacrosse with Max. Through John’s guidance and encouragement, Max decided to take the opportunity to travel to Baltimore in hopes of meeting Alf so that he could learn from him as well. Immersing himself in the game is invaluable to Max’s process and appreciation for what lacrosse has to offer outside of the competitive game; but, being able to actually get some guidance from another stickmaker who has traveled a similar path could show Max what he should expect or hope to encounter.
The Labor of Love and Lacrosse
Sadly for anyone who’s really trying to get involved in traditional lacrosse stickmaking, this isn’t something you just dive right into. Becoming a stickmaker, or even just making one traditional lacrosse stick, takes just as much effort as it does time. The steaming of the wood for sticks alone can also take several weeks for those still considering. This isn’t meant to deter, but instead educate so people can understand exactly what Max, Alf, and others go through in order to make these masterpieces.
With such an involved process having to take place in order for one stick to be made, becoming a maker takes an apprenticeship of observation and practice. Currently, the worst part about having to go through that apprenticeship would be finding a mentor to actually teach you and provide you with an opportunity to make sticks. Much like oral traditions, stickmaking is taught and handed down, not learned independently. This makes stickmakers an elite group that have the power, and responsibility, to grow the use of traditional lacrosse stick making or let it become a part of history. They also possess a connection that fosters mutual respect among all the makers. This bond got Max the skills he currently has, the chance to connect to Alf, and his trip to meet Alf too.
The Freedom to Create
Through a partnership that Max has been able to procure from WoodLacrosseSticks.com he was able to join a booth and LaxCon and actually sell his sticks there as well. This company is run by another stickmaker named Justin Skaggs, who tried to secure Max with a contract for stickmaking. Max isn’t a contract person and he expressed that he would never sign a contract for stickmaking because he isn’t and hasn’t ever been in stickmaking for the money. Max is instead a stickmaker for the joy he is able to get out of it and give to others. He has also been very adamant that if he wasn’t enjoying stickmaking that he wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
“If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it.”
– Charles Bukowski
Without his passion for making the sticks, the sticks wouldn’t be of the quality that Max demands. His sticks are meant to be used and are crafted with quality. Max simply doesn’t make wall hangers and he would never want to be known for that.
The dedication to the stick is what makes Max such a great stickmaker, and after traveling across the country with all of his nerves and doubt he was able to finally have a section on the floor to display his craft. He was stuck assembling what he lovingly called his “piece of sh**” stand when Alf approached Max on the very first day of the convention. This was a moment that Max not only didn’t expect, but one that he wishes he could redo. Like a giddy fanboy, Max admitted to me he began to gush with Alf. He even made a deliberate point of bringing up how as a white stickmaker, he felt his opinion and knowledge were devalued in the conversation. This wasn’t any fault of Alf’s, but instead just part of the incident.
As a white stickmaker Max faces the challenge of walking a very thin tightrope of respectful admiration and cultural appropriation. His heart is always in the right place and his intentions are as pure as can be, but that is not what defines appropriate in our current world.
The Fine Line Between Bro and Brother
There are still plenty of people who only think of the Duke lacrosse rape incident when you bring up lacrosse, and most other people who aren’t really connected to the sport picture rich white kids with old money enjoying Long Island Spring evenings playing lacrosse at a prep school. Hopefully one day, the commonly pictured image associated with lacrosse is once again of the proud Native tradition that the game stands for, but that is an uphill battle still being fought. Blending current culture with the past isn’t always accepted.
Max is giving his all to the fight each time that he makes another stick, yet the battle against a negative perception can be one that people see as not being his to fight. It’s respectable for Max to want to stand up for the historical and cultural significance of Native peoples, but as a white stickmaker is it really his place to be doing so. No matter how genuine Max might be, and no matter how dedicated he may be to the principles, it will not stop him from being a white guy that’s specializing in someone else’s culture.
Now is Max’s skin color really a problem? Is it so bad that Max loves lacrosse to the fullest and puts his soul into making lacrosse sticks like it’s his sole purpose in life? I say no, but I can see how Max’s whiteness could cause issues for him as he proceeds with his career. Max is as authentic as you could hope, but that will never make him a Native. Being white and being an authority on a Native subject can take that authority away from Natives when Max is spreading awareness, even when he is doing so for the right purpose.
Can Talent only Be Skin Deep?
I’ve worked for a few pizza shops in my day, and they have never been amazing experiences; however, I did get to see some interesting things take place while tossing dough and spreading sauce. One of the shops had come under new ownership about six months before I got a job there and it had gone from being Italian owned to being Asian owned during that transaction. The transfer didn’t really alter the pizza quality, but the lack of hairy forearms and rosaries must have changed the local appreciation of the pizza.
Customers complained frequently about suspecting there was a difference in the recipe, yet the recipe was sold along with the shop. The new Asian owners also weren’t even buying from the original owners, so the authenticity had already been long gone from the flour caked walls; but, the customers still showed they were uncomfortable getting their pizza from an Asian couple instead of an Italian woman. Customers would even treat me like I was in charge because of my olive skin and wavy Italian hair, as if that made me the in-house pizza expert. This “subtle” racism and attention to my appearance didn’t go unnoticed by the owners, who would tell me to refuse to admit they were the owners to customers who asked. I found myself being considered higher in eyes of the customers because of how I looked, and the owners only saw it as a benefit to their authenticity problem the short time I was employed
Avoiding Being “The White Guy”
Max is like the Asian couple of the pizza shop, but he is far more competent and well taught in his realm of expertise. His appearance can limit his reach, just like how his reluctance to travel was hurting his ability to connect with others. Max can’t change his skin, and if he could it wouldn’t be the right answer to remedy this situation either. Truthfully, the only way he will be able to overcome awkward situations, assumptions from others, and the problems that could arise from cultural appropriation is with patience and time.
Taking in the experience should be no problem for Max, considering he is always living fully in the moment, and learning to compile all of the knowledge he picks up along the way should be a breeze as well. The issue that Max will have to deal with is having to wait through all of the time when he should be listening.
After very deep breath and a befuddled few remarks, Max had to remind himself to calm down and listen more than he spoke. He was approached by Alf. Max was recognized by Alf. He was complimented by Alf. All of these are massive milestones in Max’s career; and as a stickmaker, the greatest confirmation can only come from another stickmaker. This also means that the only true critiques can come from other stickmakers as well. Some of the critiques that Max was hearing from Alf were pretty harsh, and several were mistakes Max has learned from over time; but, as stated before he knew he needed to hold his tongue and just absorb what Alf had to say.
It’s not Alf’s fault that the only videos he had seen of Max crafting sticks were from the earliest part of Max’s career. Alf also can’t be blamed for using completely different woodworking techniques on his sticks that are made with a different wood that Max’s. The difference between these two artists is just as great as the difference between Alf’s hickory and Max’s Black Ash, or Alf’s Iroquois stick and Max’s Ojibwe stick, or Alf’s Onondaga and Max’s Bemidji.
Picasso vs. Duchamp
The difference in age, style, experience, and background only go so far because on the most basic level these men are both artists and stickmakers, lovers of the game and lovers of growing it, and givers of what they have been given. What was said between these two will never be appropriately dialogued or documented because words won’t be able to convey the passion Max and Alf bring to stickmaking. We might as well just give them their own language to speak in when they speak about creating sticks.
As people who have never labored in the month long process, we will never appreciate certain aspects of the stick in the very same way that Max will never be able to get the fullest experience out of the creator’s game as a non-native. That won’t stop Max from doing everything in his power to get as close as possible to transcendence within the game of lacrosse, but it will ultimately limit him despite his relentless passion.
Max was able to spend some time with Alf each day that they were both at LaxCon, and even though there were people who would come up and interrupt their conversation on a routine basis they were able to converse about how one another can continue their craft. One major take away was being able to know yourself, and being able to be ok with that reality. There are massive amounts of unknowns and variables in our world among our certainties. Both Max and Alf knew that if they attended LaxCon the other would be there and they would meet, but they were both unsure about how their journeys would converge. They met with a hug instead of a handshake and left each other as equals in the other’s eyes despite Max seeing Alf as a hero to him before and after the trip concluded.
The Cost of Creating
It was on this journey that Max had to sacrifice his time, energy, and opportunity in order to meet Alf, just as Alf sacrificed the same to meet Max. It was more destiny than serendipity when the two put forth the effort to meet, and Max gained a great appreciation for the way that their contrasting statuses were able to become level through the game of lacrosse.
Just as Max finds it to be a true labor of love to handcraft his sticks and then drive far out of Bemidji to the reservations hidden in the backcountry of Minnesota in order to teach young natives about the historic and beautiful game of traditional Ojibwe lacrosse, he recognizes how he was in the very same position when he was learning from Alf in Baltimore. Being a student and a teacher at the same time is what Max’s journey has become as a stickmaker and he is just as thrilled about it now as he was when he started. Every time he is making a stick or playing with one he is either learning or teaching, and that is exactly where he wants to be on his miikana.
His trip concluded with a flight back to Minnesota that caught a magical moment in time, and Max was able to digest all he learned from Alf while staring at an emerging sunrise as he flew against the rotation of the Earth back to Bemidji. Time stood still as Max moved through it on his miikana in a similar way to how he has reached into the past and been able to ensure that an incredibly rich part of lacrosse history is able to survive through his hands and continue to spread joy among children, parents, coaches, players, makers, and creators.