Stick ball as it is known today in the Choctaw community is a game that was played in one form or another across North America. It is the game that the modern day lacrosse evolved from. In early times the game had great social and ceremonial significance and carried with it a number of rituals and ceremonies.
The picture to the left above is by Gwen Coleman Lester
and is entitled 'Choctaw Stickball at Tuskahoma'. It depicts a modern day Choctaw stickball game set outside the council house at Tuskahoma. The picture to the right, also by Gwen depicts the costume that would have been worn by the Choctaws in an game in the early 1800s, consisting of a breechcloth, and a horse hair tail. Hair adornments might include an eagle feather, deer tail and rattlesnake rattle to call upon the spirits of all three worlds for help in the game. It is entitled 'Little Brother of War' which the game was commonly called. This title eludes to one of the historical reasons for the game. It was a sort of practice for war, a way of honing the skills that were required in war and it is believed that the preparations for the game were much the same as the preparations for war.
Early stickball games were held on a cleared stretch of river bottom that varied in size depending on the tribe and the time in history from about 500 yards long to as little as 100 yards. Goal posts also varied from posts oriented in a sort of V about 3 yards apart at the bottom to posts 4 feet apart with a cross bar about 20 ft up. The number of goals required to win the game also varied between tribes. Cherokee games required 12 goals to be scored where Creek games required 20 goals to win the game. Rules concerning the carrying of the ball also varied between tribes, however, it was generally the case that you must pick up the ball with the sticks. Players in the game also varied from as few as nine players to as many as several hundred. The object of the game was to throw the ball between the goal posts or to strike the post with the ball thus scoring a point.
The sticks used in the game were about 2 to 2 1/2 feet long and were made out of a piece of hickory or pecan wood that was bent over in a loop at one end and laced across with deerskin, squirrel skin or vegetable fiber to create a sort of basket. Various tribes would add to this basic design by adding some adornment intended to improve their skills in the ball game. For example it was believed that tying the feathers of purple martins or crested flycatchers to the sticks would improve their swiftness, and accuracy in the game and be deceptive to the opposing side.
The balls were made of deerskin and stuffed tightly with deer or gray squirrel hair. One of the rituals associated with the game involved inspecting the ball. The challenging team generally supplied the ball and the home team would inspect it to make sure that it wasn't made too small so that it would slip through the netting on their sticks. This was one of the last things that was done before game play began.
The early Indians harbored many superstitions regarding the 'game'. The players could not eat rabbit because it was believed that it might cause the player to become frightened and confused since that was a trait of the rabbit. Likewise frog is off the menu because frogs bones are easily broken and it is feared that it might cause the player to be susceptible to breaking bones. Also the sucker fish because it is known to be sluggish and the players want to enhance their speed. Hot food and salt are also forbidden as is any young animal. Most importantly they are forbidden to touch a woman for at least a week prior to the game because of the perceived heaviness and sluggishness of women. This prohibition goes even further to prohibit a pregnant woman's husband from playing due to the belief that some of his strength goes into the development of the baby. Women are also forbidden from touching a ball stick and one touched by a woman is then unsuitable for use in a game.
In the hours leading up to the game a variety of rituals are performed aimed at insuring success in the coming game. Players are required to fast from supper of the night before until after the game. Beginning just after dark on the night before the game a dance is held, the location of which is not announced until just before the dance commences to prevent magical sabotage by the oppononents. In fact the conjurer or witch had several functions during the preparation for the game and even during the game all designed to help his tribe/town win the game and to prevent the opposing tribe/town from winning. During this dance the conjurer will place black beads under a rock to represent the players of the opposing team. The women in the dance will step on this stone from time to time during the dance to weaken the players of the opposing team. The women dance near some posts where the ball sticks are hung. In their songs the women refer to the opposing players in terms that insinuated their weakness. Suggesting that they have slept with their wives or eaten rabbit or various other things that according to their beliefs would have resulted in weakening the opposing players. The men on the other hand will call on spiritual beings to enhance their skills for the upcoming game. A spirit guide known for strength may be called upon to enhance ones strength likewise one might implore another to make him elusive, and so on. The men dance around a fire while the women stay separate and dance near the poles holding the ball sticks. The rituals of both sexes are designed to insure victory in the next day's game based on their belief system.
The men's rituals continue through the night and the morning hours preceding the game. Several times they will go to the river to purify themselves. The priests will perform rites for each of the players several times. On the way to the ball ground in the morning the players take a round about route to avoid the magic of the opposing team's conjurer. With the fact that the the route is overly long and the fact that they stop several times along the way to do purification rites and be blessed by the priests, it is unlikely they will reach the ball ground before noon. Just prior to going to the ball ground the head conjurer will give an inspirational speech to the players telling them that all the omens are favorable for them to prevail in the upcoming game and that they should play to the best of their abilities, reminding them of the adulation that their friends and relatives will bestow upon them on their success. This speech is very emotional and is frequently interrupted by the exultant yells of the players. Just as they arrive at the ball ground they turn aside and the priest tells each man what position he will be playing by sticking sharpened sticks in the ground. A final ritual is the scratching, where each player is scratched with a comb like tool made from sharpened splinters of a turkey leg bone. Each player is scratched on his arms legs chest and back. After the scratching the priest gives each player a root to chew on. They will spit the juice of the root on the scratches and rub it in, then they will wash it off in one final trip to the water, where the priest will perform yet another rite. With the players facing upstream and east the priest stands behind them and takes out red beads to represent the players, black beads to represent the opponents. He then calls to the spirits of various animals to bestow on the players their individual strengths and qualities. Then the priest asks the player for the name of his most hated opponent. Then the conjurer mentions him by name and calls powerful curses on him to weaken him in the upcoming game. This is repeated for each player after which the players give forth a shout which they believe will carry them to victory and they proceed single file to the ball field. This is followed in some cases by rubbing on grease or slippery elm bark to make it difficult for the opponents to hold on to them during the game.
Once the players approach the playing field a flurry of betting on the outcome of the game proceeds for a time. Next the players from both sides come onto the field shouting and line up across from each other with their balls sticks laid out on the ground facing the opponent to be sure that the teams are evenly matched. Then the Ball Witch, an old man, comes onto the field carrying the ball. He reminds them to observe the rules of the game, sportsmanship and that the game should end peacefully. The game begins when he tosses the ball into the air. After each goal it is returned to the center of the field to start again. This game was very rough and players would often wrestle and attempt to injure each other. No broad team strategies were employed it was more of an each man for himself game although they did work together much as the would in war but not in the sense of planning special moves. Even though the game was rough it is expected that each player will be a good sport. It is unmanly to lose ones temper.
The information for this article was derived from an account of a game in 1889 observed by James Mooney and additional information found with this account in the book "The Southeastern Indians" by Charles Hudson (c)1976 Published by the University of Tennessee Press.