Indigenous North American stickball is a team game played on a big field. In this game, teams with players holding two sticks each try to control a ball and shoot it into the other team’s goal. It’s like lacrosse.
In Choctaw Stickball, the teams use special handmade sticks called “kabocca” and a woven leather ball called “towa.” The players move the ball down the field using only their sticks, not their hands. They’re not allowed to touch or throw the ball with their hands. They get points when a player hits the other team’s goalpost with the ball.
Native American groups like the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole, and Yuchi play this sport. Sometimes, elders of these groups would organize stickball games to solve problems instead of fighting.
Lacrosse is a similar game but is more common among tribes in the Northern United States and Canada. Stickball, however, is still played in places like Oklahoma and parts of the Southeastern U.S. where it started. People wrote about stickball for the first time in the 18th century, but there’s proof that the game existed and was played many years before.
Let’s learn about Indigenous North American Stickball!
Indigenous North American Stickball Games: A Historical Overview
Indigenous North American Stickball games held immense significance in the past, often spanning several days. These events brought together as many as 100 1,000 men from different villages or tribes. Played on open plains between these communities, the goals could be spread out over distances ranging from 500 yards to several miles. The rules for each game were established just a day before the match. Notably, there were no boundaries, and players couldn’t touch the ball with their hands. Goals were typically large rocks, trees, or wooden posts in later times. The games would begin at sunrise and continue until sunset.
The game’s commencement involved throwing the ball into the air, with both sides rushing to catch it. Due to the large number of players, the field would be swarmed by participants, slowly advancing with the ball. Passing the ball was considered a skill while dodging opponents was discouraged. Medicine men acted as coaches, while women mainly served refreshments to players and placed bets on the sidelines.
This historical game played a crucial role in promoting peace among participating tribes. Beyond settling disputes, it toughened young warriors, provided recreation, enriched festivals, and involved betting. Terms were often agreed upon before the game, and the losing side must accept the outcome. Refusal of the game’s terms often led to conflicts.
While the entire historical timeline remains incomplete, documented instances have left a mark on both tribes and the nation. In the mid-17th century, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf wrote about the Native American game after witnessing the Wyandot people play. Though he criticized its violence, English colonists were intrigued and started playing it themselves.
In 1763, the Ottawa tribe employed a stickball game to gain access to Fort Mackinac. Chief Pontiac invited Fort Soldiers to witness a game for the king’s birthday, distracting them while Ottawa players attacked and massacred them.
In 1834, Caughnawaga Indians showcased a stickball game in Montreal, Canada, sparking Canadian interest. In 1856, William George Beers standardized the Aboriginal game into modern lacrosse.
Around the mid-to late-20th century, stickball revived in the southern North American region. Concurrently, it evolved into a street game in the Northeastern United States.
Tribal Stickball Teams: A Traditional Game Uniting Communities and Resurging in Popularity
In the past, the stickball game might have become smaller in scale, but it’s strikingly similar to its historical version.
Imagine a stickball match at the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, 2007.
As our tribal ancestors played, stickball continues to bring together tribal people and communities across schools and colleges in the southern United States. The southeastern tribes are witnessing more games at tribal festivals and tournaments. This modern version of stickball is making a strong comeback, with various tribal tournaments happening annually all over the country, including events like the Jim Thorpe Games and the Choctaw Labor Day Festival. The Mississippi Band of Choctaws hosts the notable World Series in Philadelphia, Mississippi, considered one of the nation’s most fiercely contested Indigenous ballgames.
Today’s game is on a field about a hundred yards long, featuring poles at each end for goals. Points are scored by hitting the poles with the ball or the game sticks or running through the poles while holding the ball. The audience or a few players usually keep track of the score in friendly matches.
Every game, both historically and today, starts with a jump ball thrown into the middle of the field. Players from each team scramble to gain possession of the ball and launch it toward their goal using their sticks. The beginning of the game is often described as players tumbling and grappling in the dust, striving to get the ball.
While the number of players involved isn’t a big deal, both teams need an equal number of players on the field. Typically, there are around thirty players on each team. They’re divided into three groups:
- “Pole men” guarding their goal.
- A middle group is moving the ball down the field.
- “Returners” around the opponent’s pole to help score points.
Injuries are bound to happen due to the nature of the game and the crowded field.
Stickball is a full-contact sport played without protective gear like padding, helmets, and shoes. In the old days, there were very few rules, and fatalities occurred since it was sometimes a substitute for war. While stickball injuries still happen, rules are in place to prevent serious harm. Some standard rules include no touching the ball, no swinging sticks at other players, no hitting below the knees, and only the ball carrier can be tackled, with the tackler dropping their sticks first.
In modern stickball games, it’s not uncommon to see women participating. Female players can pick up the ball with their hands, unlike male players who must use sticks. Social games often have teams divided by gender, with men facing penalties for overly aggressive play against women. However, women don’t have the same restrictions on their playing style.
Ancient Pre-Game Traditions: A Glimpse into Tribal Rituals
Before the start of the game, ancient tribes had special ceremonies that resembled the rituals connected with war. These rituals were essential to prepare players and the community for the upcoming stickball match.
On the night before the game, the community engaged in a tribal ball dance. Everyone participated, singing, dancing, and seeking divine support. This dance was a part of conjuring ceremonies and spiritual songs, believed to bring good luck to the team. Players dressed in ceremonial clothing, and sacrifices were made. Sacred chants were shouted to intimidate opponents.
A medicine man led rituals to prepare the players and their sticks. The shaman took each player aside to perform a mystic rite called “going to the water”. During this ritual, the shaman blessed the game, and players received ritualistic scratches that were thought to enhance their performance by making their blood flow more freely. Winning the game often meant settling disputes with other tribes or communities.
Players painted their bodies with paint and charcoal and adorned their sticks with objects representing desired qualities for the game. In addition to physical training, strict food taboos were followed before the game. Players fasted and avoided certain foods, believing this would boost their mental, spiritual, and physical abilities, increasing their chances of victory.
On the game day, teams walked to the field and performed constant rituals. Before the game, each player had to make a wager. Items like handkerchiefs, knives, trinkets, horses, and even family members were at stake. These bets were displayed near the spectators, and items were awarded based on the winners of each quarter. After the game, another ceremonial dance took place, followed by a feast for the hungry players.
An eyewitness account from 1892 provides more insight into the intensity of these rituals. The tribes preparing for a ball game camped near each other, with a strip of land separating them, guarded by Indian Braves. The tribes would taunt each other, creating an atmosphere of anticipation and rivalry. The Braves participating in the game consumed a particular medicine to fuel their intensity.
Everything from ponies and blankets to food and beads was bet on the outcome during the game. The gameplay itself was both impressive and brutal. Players skillfully handled the ball with handmade clubs, but aggression was vital. Biting, hitting over the head, and other fierce actions were seen during the game. The intensity was such that injured players were tended to by squaws near a pool of water. The game often ended with a side being chased off the field.
This game marked the end of such brutal play, as the government intervened to prevent such cruelty. Deputy marshals were sent to oversee the games and prevent excessive violence.
Frank Grall’s eyewitness account offers a vivid glimpse into these historic ball games’ intense and sometimes ruthless nature, highlighting the intertwining of sports, competition, and tradition in tribal cultures.
Essential Equipment for Stickball: Sticks and Balls
Depending on the tribe that played the game, stickball could be enjoyed with one or two wooden sticks crafted from sturdy hardwood trees like hickory or saplings. These sticks were uniquely designed to form a loop at one end, thinned and attached to a handle. Leather or electrical tape was used to hold the loop together. Leather strips were stretched across the loop’s back, creating a netting to catch and hold the ball.
In various regions, different stick designs emerged. For example, in the St. Lawrence Valley, a version existed where the stick’s head was two-thirds of its length. In the Southwestern United States, a double-stick variation was popular, featuring sticks around two and a half feet long.
Early stickball sticks were sometimes reminiscent of large wooden spoons, lacking netting. More advanced versions had one end bent into a circle about 4 to 5 inches in diameter, equipped with netting made from materials like wattup or deer sinew.
Players often personalized their sticks by adorning them with animal hair, such as from horses or raccoons, in hopes of emulating the animals’ desirable qualities like speed or agility. Some sticks even had intricate carvings meant to assist players in the game. These sticks held such significance that some players wished to be buried with them.
Like the sticks, the game ball was handmade using tightly wadded cloth and wrapped with woven leather strips. Early versions of stickball balls were sometimes made from wood or deerskin stuffed with hair. They generally had a diameter of about three inches.
This combination of distinct sticks and handcrafted balls formed the core equipment for engaging in the energetic game of stickball, reflecting the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the tribes that enjoyed this traditional sport.
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