Monday, August 27, 2012

Indian Ball Games

                                        Choctaw Ball Player, by George Catlin, 1834
I apologize for neglecting my blog site. Three of our children have come through town with their families so we have been enjoying visiting with them. I have been spending whatever writing time I have had to post on the Lone Tree Hiking Club Facebook site, trying to drum up interest in our club, and also to work on my book, which I'm beginning to think will never be finished.  

I could post several more entries about the Furniture Catalogue, which continues to fascinate me, but I thought I would get back to the Chickasaws instead. My daughters have recently visited the Chickasaw Culture Center down in Sulfur Oklahoma, which is worth a visit for anyone, whether a history buff or not. It looks like there have been several additions to the experience there since I visited it a couple of years ago.

For one, there have been several buildings added to the Chickasaw village. Also there was a craftsman making flutes. He also had drums, bows and arrows display. He let the kids accompany him with rattles and drums while he played the flute. I hope I get to see his display sometime. I've always been fascinated by the making of arrowheads out of flint stone. I tried when I was a boy, but was a miserable failure. I think it involves heating the stone and then dropping water on the edges. Maybe some day…

The other thing the kids got to see was an Indian ball game. They took a video and it showed both men and women playing. The men use sticks but the women can use their hands. There was only one goal in the demonstration, a pole with the image of a bird on top. The object was to hit the bird with the ball.

The game of stickball has a colorful history. It was originally called the "little brother to war" by the southeastern tribes who played the sport for recreation and also sometimes to settle disputes between tribes. The ball is a little larger than a golf ball and is made of cow or deer hide. Each player has two sticks with a cup on one end. The object of the game is to trap the ball between the sticks and carry or throw it through the goal posts. The French copied the game and called it Lacrosse because of the resemblance of the sticks used to a bishop's crosier.

In the old days teams were blessed and refereed by the tribes' medicine men. The goals were set about a mile apart and there were hundreds of players. About the only rule was that the players had to use the sticks to move the ball. Weapons were left on the sidelines, but players could use their bodies or their sticks to hit each other. Tackling, tripping, and hair pulling were allowed. Fights between individual players were tolerated, but other players were not allowed to interfere. Serious injuries and even death occurred.

Women also play ball, but they use their hands instead of sticks. A ball game between men and women of the Creek tribe was described by Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock in his memoir, edited by Grant Foreman, and published as "A Traveler in Indian Territory." According to Hitchcock, the women were winning in the game he watched.

Fans have always been enthusiastic in Indian ball games. In a game between the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in 1903 a fight broke out among the fans and the Lighthorse (Indian) Police had to be called in to break it up.

The famous western artist George Catlin was a Indian ball fan, and he attended games whenever he could. He wrote a detailed description of a game that is quoted on the Chickasaw Nation website in an article by Robert Perry. 

Indian ball or stickball is still played and although serous fights and attempts to injure an opponent are penalized, it is still much like the old game. I saw a game when I was nine or ten and it was really violent. Opponents hit and tackled each other and hit each other's sticks to knock the ball loose. I'll never forget it. 

I found some video of Indian stickball on YouTube. It shows excerpts from several games, and you can see what an exciting, challenging game it still is. See "Real Choctaw Stickball."

                          Choctaw Ball Play Dance at Skullyville, Indian Territory, 1834

                                                          George Catlin