Art Coulson, Cherokee, is an award-winning writer and editor, and owns Redbird Media & Design with his wife, Laurie, in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Because his father was in the U.S. Navy, Coulson traveled with his family around Europe, Asia and North America when he was growing up.
The majority of his career was spent as a newspaper journalist; The Creator’s Game: A Story of Baaga’adowe/Lacrosse is his first middle school level book. The story focuses on a family from Ball Club, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake Reservation, that moves to the Twin Cities.
It follows the trials of a young Ojibwe boy, Travis Skinaway, as he struggles to become a lacrosse player. At first, he’s ready to toss in the lacrosse stick and give up, but his grandparents encourage him when they teach him about the game’s connection to his Anishinaabe heritage. He gives lacrosse another try.
Indian Country Today spoke with Coulson about his newest book.
ICTMN: How did you come to be a lacrosse player?
I’ve been playing my whole life, basically. I didn’t play varsity lacrosse in high school, but I played for fun… then went to college and played for fun.
I still play both the modern game and the traditional game with a local team here in the Twin Cities [that is] affiliated with the Minnesota Swarm (a professional lacrosse team). It’s called the Minnesota Stingers and we play once a year for charity.
ICTMN: You play modern lacrosse, Cherokee lacrosse and now, Ojibwe lacrosse. They’re all different styles, right?
Oh yes, totally. We (the Cherokee) use two sticks. They are hickory sticks, about 2 ½ feet long with a small head. We play a Choctaw-style – the posts are a little different and we play with the Choctaw-style ball, which is about the size of a golf ball, but is woven leather. It hurts like heck when it hits you. I played goalie, so I was getting dinged with it all over my body.
When we play the traditional game, we don’t play with pads or gloves or helmets. I have quite a few welts that are still healing.
ICTMN: How are the different styles connected?
A lot of us were taught that we were given the game of lacrosse to play for the Creator’s amusement. But in reality, if you look at it and think about it, the Creator gave the Ojibwe a certain style of lacrosse to play. He gave the Cherokee a certain style of lacrosse to play. He gave the Choctaw a certain style of lacrosse to play and the Iroquois. So, we all have a different version of the game. It’s just like when we look at our songs and our dances that were given to us. We believe those were given to us because they fit us in the Creator’s eyes.
To Cherokee people, we look at the stick as having a spirit in it. So, there are certain things: Certain people can’t touch the stick; when a stick breaks, if you’re playing a traditional game, you’ll stop the game and have a ceremony for the broken stick because it’s got a spirit in it. Then, you have the traditional game that’s played like a religious ceremony.
ICTMN: Your heritage is Cherokee, but you wrote this book with an Ojibwe point of view. How did that come to be?
The [Minnesota] Historical Society Press approached me about writing a historical book about Native American lacrosse. I wanted more of a fictional story to give the kids something more to read. They said sure. I sent them a rough outline of the story.
They liked it and said, “We have some historical photos that we can run with it.”
“No, no, it’s a fictional story,” I said. “You need an American Indian illustrator, and I know just the guy.”
I called Robert DesJarlait, [who] was one of the first people I met when I moved to the Twin Cities. I knew that he was a wonderful artist and that he’s illustrated children’s books. He was definitely up for it.
The beauty of the whole book was that it was such collaboration with Robert. He did a lot of the research on the traditional Anishinaabe lacrosse. He would say, “Hey, you describe it this way in the book. Could you change that description a little bit because here is how I drew it.” It was a lot of fun.
ICTMN: The book just came out, but have you spoken to any young people about it?
I was at a book signing two weeks ago. A family came in and a young Ojibwe boy, probably 10 or 11 years old, came up and had me sign the book. I said, “I hope you enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed writing it.”
“Oh, he already read it, and he loved it,” his dad said. “He bought it a week and a half ago, and they gave us a flyer saying you were going to be here, so we came over from St. Paul to get it signed. Can he get his picture taken with you?”
The boy had just started playing lacrosse and he had a very similar experience to the young man in the book, Travis. He walked out into the field with a bunch of kids who had been playing for a while. He felt really out of place, and he didn’t know how to play the game that well. I told his dad, “This is why I wrote the book.” That made my whole year.