Choctaw Games

Bishinik February 1981 Page 6 & 7

Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends

By Len Green

The ancient Choctaws played a number of games, and apparently each one of them was fanatic about gambling on the games that they played. Far and away the most popular of the ancient games was the one they called “Ishtohboli” (it would later be called “tahli” or “kapucha,” after the sticks used in play). Ishtohboli was so prevalent a game that generally each village had its own stickball team, with the best of the village teams graduating to play on a clan team or perhaps a district team.

We know from stories that the game goes back into antiquity and was being played hundreds of years before any descriptions of the game were recorded by white historians. There are historical records which indicate that often ball play was utilized to settle disturbances between the Choctaws and their sister tribes, the Chickasaws and the Creeks. Perhaps, letting the steam out in a spirited ishtohboli game served to dampen the desire for war, and for sure the losing group went home probably too broke and strapped to finance an immediate war.

According to a French memoir, the author of which is lost to history but who is quoted extensively by John R. Swanton: “These people are very great gamblers in a ball game which is like the long rackey game (LaCrosse). They place about twenty of one village against as many of another, and put up wagers against each other to very considerable amounts for them. They wager a new gun against an old one which is not worth anything as readily as if it were good, and they give as a reason that if they are going to win they will win as well against a bad article as against a good one, and that they would rather bet against something that not to bet at all. When they are very much excited they wager all that they have, and when they have lost all, they wager their wives for a certain time, and after that wager themselves for a limited time. They count by nights, and when they wish to play with another village, they send a deputy, who carries the word, and who delivers the chief a number of little sticks. Every day one is thrown away, and the last which remains shows that the next day is the day chosen.”

Another description, almost as old as that offered by the French memoir is offered by the French historian Bossu. He also describes the game and makes these comments: “It is fine to observe the players with their bodies bare, painted in all sorts of colors, with a tiger tail fastened behind and feathers on their arms and heads which flutter as they run, giving a remarkable effect. They push. They tumble over one another. He who is skillful enough to catch the ball sends it to the players on his side. Those on the opposite side run at the one who has seized it and try to return it to their own party, and they fight over it, party against party, with so much vigor that shoulders are sometimes separated. The players never become angry. The old men present at the games constitute themselves mediators and consider the game is only a recreation and not something over which to fight. The wagers are considerable; the women bet against one another. After the players have finished, the women whose husbands have lost assemble to avenge them. The racket which the women use differs from that of the men in being bent. They play with much skill. They run against one another very swiftly, and shove one another like the men, being equally naked except for the parts which modesty dictates they will cover. They merely redden their cheeks, and use vermilion on their hair instead of powder.”

Another writer who visited among the ancient Choctaws, Romans, describes Ishtohboli and also describes a similar game which he says is played without “battledores” (ball sticks). Their play at ball is either with a small ball of deer skin or a larger ball of woolen rags; the first is thrown with battledores, the second with the hand only…….. Romans says. The women play among themselves (after the men have done), disputing with as much eagerness as the men; the stakes or bets are generally high. There is no difference in the game with the large ball, only the men and women play promiscuously, and they use no battledores.”

Speaking of the men’s game Hodgson says, “All violence on these occasions is forgiven; and I was informed that it is the only case in which life is not generally required for life.” Other evidence indicates that this was true, but there were occasions when this proved not to be true.

There is one old story that a Choctaw team was in competition against a team of Creeks, with the outcome of the match to determine which tribe had control of a certain area of land along the borders of the two nations. Having lost, members of the Choctaw team ambushed the Creek team, killed them and threw their bodies into a small creek which flowed near the ball play ground. When the district chief heard what had happened, he gathered up the members of the Choctaw team, delivered them to the Creeks for punishment and decreed that henceforth the creek into which the bodies was dumped would forever be called “Stinking Creek.”

The most famous description of the game is that by George Catlin, the noted western artist and historian, who illustrated his text with three sketches. One of these, his sketch of He-Who-Drinks-the-Juice-of-the-Stone, a champion Choctaw stickball player, has undoubtedly become the most famous painting of the ancient Choctaws. A copy of that painting accompanies this article. Catlin goes into much detail, describing the activities of the people the day before the game, the all-night vigil on the ball grounds and the betting that proceeded the game. Apparently, the Ishtohboli game to which Catlin was taken must have been an important one as his description tells of more activities that were usually associated with ball play. It is believed that perhaps Catlin saw a championship bout either between two Choctaw districts, or perhaps viewed a “war settling” go-round between the Choctaws and their neighbors, the Chickasaws.

There are later descriptions of the game, probably the best of which are by H.B. Cushman in his “History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians” and H.H. Halbert.

A more recent description of the game, after it came to be called “tahli” has been offered by Sidney White, 92, of Tuskahoma, Ok.

The game is being revived, after a hiatus of almost half a century and several tribes, including the Choctaw, having stick ball teams and often play in competition between the tribes. During its heyday, an expert stickball player was much admired by all who knew him, and he was petted and pampered much as are today’s big league baseball players or an NFL star quarterback. In fact, here in the old Choctaw Nation in the West, we have one town and a county which can trace its name to one of the star stick ball players. A short ride north of Boggy Depot, one of the earliest Okla Hannalli or Pushmataha District towns, was a highly popular “hitoka,” which is the Choctaw word for ball field. The team which claimed the site as its home field developed an outstanding stickball star. (One family history identifies him as Joshua Folsom, a relative of the extensive Folsom family which contained the first all-Choctaw Presbyterian minister and missionary Israel Folsom.) However because of his dashing play and his ability to shrug off injuries and continue the battle when a lesser man would have taken to the sidelines, our star ball player became known as Captain Hitoka . . . or captain of the ball field. Thus, when the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad was was built through the Choctaw Nation, one of its stops became an Americanized version of the star ballplayer’s name … they call it Atoka.

The game survived into modern times, and as late as 1940, “stick ball” games were still being played. Among the well known sites were “hitokas” at Tishomingo, Wapanucka, Bokchito, Spencerville, Hochatown and Eagletown. For about 25 or 30 years after World War II the game was not much played, but in the 1970s, the Mississippi Choctaws revived the game and it spread among the tribes who played the game in antiquity.

Currently, the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles have programs through which young men and youths can once again learn to play and engage in competitive stick ball games. The handball game mentioned by Romans evidently survived into modern times, especially among the Louisiana Choctaws.

Historian David I. Bushnell, Jr., in his monograph, “The Choctaws of Bayou Lacomb, Saint Tammany Parish, Louisiana,” refers to the game as “Tole” and gives a description of how it is played.

John W. Swanton in his “Choctaw Social and Ceremonial Life” devotes four pages to describing the game and again underlining the Choctaw habit of gambling heavily on the outcome of such games.

Another favorite gambling game played by our Choctaw forefathers was called “alchapi” or “achahpi” and resembled, after a fashion, an European game known as “Chunke. Roman describes the game thus: “They make an alley of about 200 feet in length, where a very smooth clay ground is laid, which when dry is very hard; they play two together having each a straight pole of about 15 feet long. One holds a stone, which is in the shape Of a truck (circular or round) , which he throws before him down this alley, and at the instant of its departure they step off and run; in running they cast their poles after the stone. He that did not throw it endeavors to hit it (the stone), the other strives to strike the pole of his antagonist in its flight so as to prevent it hitting the stone. If the first should strike the stone he counts one for it, and if the other by the dexterity of his cast should prevent its hitting the stone, he counts one. But if both should miss their aim the throw is renewed. In case a score is won, the winner then casts the stone and eleven is up; (apparently meaning that a winning score is 11). They hurl this stone and pole with wonderful dexterity and violence and fatigue themselves much at it,” Roman concludes.

Cushman and Halbert also offer descriptions of this game, and Halbert notes the game “became practically obsolete in the early years of the 19th century, though it was occasionally played by the Six Towns Indians as late as 1842. Halbert also mentions the so-called moccasin game, which was called Naki Lohmi (the hidden bullet) by the Choctaws. However, Bushnell is the only writer to describe the manner in which the game was played. “Twelve men.were required in playing this game. They knelt or sat on the ground in two rows, or sides, facing each other, six players in each row. Seven hats were placed on the ground in a line between the two rows of players. The player who was to start the game and who always was at one end of his row held in one hand a small stone or shot. With his other hand he raised all of the hats in order, placing under one of the hats the stone or shot; during the entire performance he sang a particular song. After the stone or shot has been placed, the player sitting opposite him guessed under which hat it lay, if he did not succeed in three guesses, the leader removed the object and again hid it under either the same or another hat. Then the second player on the opposite side had three guesses. If a player guessed under which hat the object was hidden, he in turn became the leader. Apparently, a system of points was used to determine the winning team, and on this, as well as their other games, the Choctaws were known to bet heavily.”

According to both Bushnell and Stewart Culin, the Choctaws had a game which resembled dice, and was called by the Choctaws “tanche boska” (or corn game). Bushnell’s description says in part: “This (game) was played with either five or seven kernels of corn blackened on one side. Holding all the kernels in one hand, the player tossed them onto the ground, each player having three throws. The one making the greatest number of points in the aggregate won. Each ‘black’ turned up counted one point; all ‘white’ up counted either five or seven points, according to the number of kernels used. Any number of persons could play, but usually there were only two.”

Culin, in his description of the game, insists that it was played with eight grains of corn; so we can assume that the number of grains used were variable.

Culin also describes two other fairly trivial games which were played among the Louisiana Choctaws. of one he says: “During the hot months of the year a favorite pastime of the boys and men consisted of trying to swim blindfolded a wide stream to a certain point on the opposite bank. The first to reach the goal was declared the winner.

Of the other, Culin says: “A somewhat similar game played by the boys and young men consisted in rolling down hills while wrapped and tied in blankets or skins, the first to reach a certain line being the winner. As there are few hills in the vicinity of Bayou Lacomb, they resorted to the sloping banks of streams or bayous, but avoided the water.”

The women had their own special form of a gambling game which was not indulged in by the men of the tribe and probably not even well known by most of them as it was played only by women. In cooking venison and certain other meats, the women would recover from the leg bones a certain platelet type bone that is found in the joint of the animal. This bone is circular in shape, more or less resembling a slim, round football. When left in the sun to dry for a day, these bones become white and were small enough that up to a dozen could be concealed in a woman’s hand. After she had gathered a goodly number of the specially shaped bones, the Choctaw woman was ready for a good round of gaming with her neighbors the first time the man of the house was out hunting or warring or at a council.

Most common form of the game was much the same as the old game of “hully gully.” One woman held a number of the bones in her cupped hands, shook them vigorously and the other woman attempted to guess the number of concealed bones. If the other player faded to guess the correct number of bones, she had to give the difference between her guess and the actual number to the first player. Then it would be her turn to rattle the bones. Should a player be “lucky” and amass an extra large number of the bones, she could boil them in her favorite dyes and bore holes in the center of each bone with a bamboo or stone awl. She could then string them into a necklace, or affix them in a decorative pattern upon the dress she planned to wear to the next festival or community gathering. Such a decorated dress or necklaced woman attracted attention and was widely hailed among the other women as a “skilled” player at the game of “Ana foni” (bones).

Also among ancient Choctaw youngsters, foot-racing, chase and an elaborate game of “hide and seek” were highly popular as through these games the youngsters learned the skills that would stand them in good stead when they grew old enough to become hunters or warriors. In each game, as well as playing against his friends, the Choctaw youth also played a game against himself. For example, if he were in hiding, he fought himself to determine how long he could remain absolutely still without a single movement, how long he could hold his breath or how far he could run without stopping to grab a breath. This type of self-training was necessary, because of the nature of the Choctaw Society.

The Choctaw girl remained her mother’s daughter until she was taken in marriage. A Choctaw boy was his mother’s boy until about the age of six years. After that, he was his own boy until he reached the age of 12 or 13. Only when he had reached puberty did his father deign to recognize him as other than another face around the cooking pot or treat him as other than a small child. When the boy reached puberty, he might first be recognized by his father through the present of a small bow and quiver of arrows or of a blowpipe with a supply of darts. This signaled the youth that he must begin or sharpen his skills in preparation for becoming a hunter, a warrior, a tool carrier or whatever profession he hoped to practice as an adult.