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Dan Ninham
Special to ICT

Thomas Howes’ traditional wooden artwork is not meant to be on the mantel of the fireplace or on the wall collecting dust.

Howes creates ornate wooden pieces, crafted from various trees throughout the Minnesota northlands that not only reflect tribal culture, but that are also fully functioning pieces. This includes a series of cradleboards, or dikinaagan, that he has been creating.

“Over the years I’ve learned to make things from the tree nation to care for my family and community,” Thomas Howes said. Howes also makes lacrosse sticks as well as knockers, clan markers for traditional burials, drum sticks, drum stand legs and snowshoes.

This type of artwork requires steam-bending sticks and slats of wood.

Howes said he got his start making cradleboards just over 13 years ago

“My wife was pregnant with twins at the time and we were visiting a birchbark canoe building project at Fond du Lac,” Howes said. There, he met Red Cliff Ojibwe band citizen Marvin Defoe, who was leading the canoe build and who nudged Howes to make his twins a set of dikinaagan.

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The dikinaagan was a team effort. With help from other tribal members finding the right types of old-growth cedar, ash tree and plane wood, as well as tapping into their bending techniques, Howes managed to create two new dikinaaginanak.

“After that I sporadically was asked to make dikinaaganan for people and even held one large workshop to teach techniques in the Fond du Lac community,” Howes said. “I grew up with a dikinaagan in our home that my parents got from a man near Grand Portage and I always found the bends beautiful so I made a clone of its shape for all the ones I make to this day.”

Thomas Howes, Eagle Clan from Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, his wife Nashay, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and family live in the historic village of Fond du Lac southwest of Duluth, Minnesota. He works for the Fond du Lac Band as the Natural Resources Program Manager.

Jerry Jondreau with a dikinaagan made for his family by Thomas and Nashay Howes. (Photo: Thomas Howes)

In addition to the cradleboards, Howes also makes lacrosse sticks. He has never played the game, but attended a match that included the Twin Cities Native Lacrosse team, which was visiting Fond du Lac to learn about forest management. Howes said he quickly fell in love with lacrosse.

“In our area and particularly Fond du Lac there were no players and certainly no stick makers,” he said. “I felt that it would be good for our community to revive the play of baaga’adowewin and to expedite that we needed sticks.”

Howes’ Native core values defined how he made his woodworking projects, and how he and others worked and used them in the traditional way they were to be used.

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“I believe in our people and I believe in the power of the natural world,” Howes said. “I believe that dikinaaganan make our children stronger and more observant. Part of that strength comes from those trees and the Earth it grew in, the water and the sun that fed its growth.”

Likewise, the lacrosse sticks help maintain a connection between people and the spirit of sport, he said.

“Baaga’adowewin and our sticks have so much to teach us about health and community,” Howes said. “I strongly believe in the spirit of the game and that in these times we need that spirit to navigate the modern world as indigenous people. Baaga’adowewin covers and strengthens all aspects of our spirit, mind and body.” 

Nashay Howes in front, Thomas Howes behind her on the left and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr. on the right were playing the traditional wooden stick game. (Photo: Jennifer Van Sickle)

Like with many wooden stickmakers, Howes had models that he looked at and played with. His brother, William, was gifted a stick that Howes remembers admiring. Howes also won his own stick in the second game he ever played.

“Our traditional games make us better individuals who can then serve our communities,” Howes said. “Baaga’adowewin is really making a resurgence at a time that I feel it is needed. The challenges we face with our collective physical and mental health are massive and I strongly believe that baaga’adowewin is a tool that the manidoog (the spirits) want us to utilize.”

He said the timing of a lacrosse resurgence and his interest in perfecting the art of woodworking is not a coincidence. “Whenever there is a game I feel our communities are stronger because of it,” Howes said. “Our collective identity is being rebuilt in some small way by picking the sticks up again.”

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The same goes for the dikinaaganan. Howes said resilient communities begin with each child. A traditional cradleboard should be just the first link a child should see in their life.

“If I had it my way everyone would have (a dikinaaganan) in their home and these babies would grow up seeing their families playing baaga’adowewin, hunting, fishing, speaking their language and being more balanced because they are living the healthy life the manidoog intended for us,” Howes said.

John Hunter, Winnebago/White Earth Ojibwe, co-founder and director of Twin Cities Native Lacrosse, met Howes helped connect Howes to the game.

“He was doing good work with the tribe around forestry and manoomin,” Hunter said. Hunter said he noticed that Howes had knowledge about how the different species of trees are important to the Anishinaabe and how climate change might affect tree growth. Howes was also very serious about winning the canoe races at language camp., Hunter said.

“Enjoyment of competition and understanding how we benefit from our knowledge of the forest are good qualities to have when you learn about baaga'adowewin. So it was great that he was interested in lacrosse,” Hunter said.

“Later I learned that he made dikinaaginanak or cradle boards, which was also great because that meant that he understood how to work with water and trees to make the curved pieces of wood,” said Hunter.“Now I see how much fun he has making sticks and teaching the game to others and has taught me things also which I appreciate greatly. There is a lot of generosity there, and doing the work to share his gifts with others.” 

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