Stickball Descriptions

Bishinik, unknown dates

Two Articles on Choctaw Stickball

Stickball games taken seriously

The classic description of a Choctaw ballgame was made by George Catlin. This distinguished artist witnessed ball plays near Skullyville some thirty years before the Civil War and left vivid descriptions in word and picture of what he saw. The ball game which Catlin beheld involved some six or seven hundred players, with “five or six times” that number of spectators, and aroused in his mind comparisons with the Greek Olympic games or contests of the Roman Forum. The Choctaws continued to play this game until 1907. By that date the game had deteriorated into a diminished form with few participants, sometimes in nondescript baseball uniforms, performing as novelty entertainment.

However, before 1900, “old-time” matches were played regularly between districts or counties. Both teams, twenty-five or thirty players each, encamped with their supporters at the hitoka (ball ground) on the night before the contest. Wagons, buggies, and Indian ponies of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors were scattered through the timber adjoining the clearing where the contest was to be staged. Spectators and players prepared to sleep out under the full moon of a summer night. Players with no experience would dress themselves in ball costume – an apokshiama (breech clout) plus the tail of some animal, perhaps a horse or raccoon, attached behind in the belt. Each novice, endeavoring to represent some animal – a white horse, swift of foot, or a fighting “coon” did his best to make himself noticed by the leaders of his team in hopes that he would be chosen to play the next day. The managers and chief players, in the meantime, held meetings to discuss such matters as strategy, rules, and regulations. Players normally ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-five. The veterans were often slightly crippled, “perhaps from former play,” but most of the players were “of splendid physique, spare and wiry.”

Soon after sunrise on the morning of the contest, the managers would collect their teams and send them to dress in the nearby thickets. When they were ready, each player would charge back into the clearing trying by his actions to imitate the animal he represented. The playing field was customarily more than two hundred yards in length with improvised goal posts at each end. These might be two split logs lashed together and placed so that the broad sides faced the playing field. To make a score, the ball must strike a goal post. Balls were manufactured from rags covered with buckskin and several were always provided, since they were often lost in the tall grass. Each player was equipped with two ball sticks (kapucha). These were made from hickory saplings about thirty inches long, cut flat at one end and curved around to make a spoon-like hoop. The turned end was lashed to the handle with buckskin thongs, the dangling ends of which were then used to lace the inside of the spoon.

Each team had its conjurer or medicine man, who painted his face, wore an appropriate disguise such as a sheepskin beard, and perhaps carried a leafy branch of hickory. The medicine men stood near their respective goals during the play, where they sang, clapped their hands, and performed any other actions thought necessary to bring good luck for their team. Before the game began, a “conjure dance” was sometimes held in which the women were allowed to participate. An evidence of the decadence that threatened Indian ways appeared as early as 1853, when the rhythm for a conjure dance was furnished by a “tin pan beaten with a stick.” Just before the start of a contest – nine or ten o’clock – the players would march onto the field, each team led by its medicine man. As each team neared its goal posts, the formations would break with shouts and turkey-gobbles, whereupon the players “milled around” and battered the posts with their ball sticks “to scare the spirit of bad luck away.” The shout was shukafa, literally “to peel off.”

Just before the start of play, the participants would station themselves at appointed places from mid-field to the goals. The ball would be tossed into the air by one selected for that duty and the rough scrimmage would be on. Nothing was barred except butting with the head, for which a five-goal penalty was prescribed. The ball had to be carried or thrown by means of the sticks. A player who obtained possession of the ball shouted, “Hokli Ho!” an imperative signal to each of his teammates to seize and hold the nearest opposing player. While individual wrestling matches were staged, accompanied by many hokli ho’s, the player with the ball tried to run so that he could score easily or throw the ball to a teammate nearer the goal. Meanwhile, the wrestlers dropped their sticks, seized each other by the belts, and fought viciously. In one game, played in the 1890’s, the altercation left five men crippled, of whom two later died. Obviously, the game was not for the fainthearted.

Stickball was (and is) important social gathering

It is well documented that of all community activities, the Choctaws entered most heartily into their native ball game, or ishtaboli. The ball was made of deer skin and was handled by means of two kapucha, or hickory sticks about three feet long, with one end trimmed flat and bent back into an oblong loop across which a web of raccoon skin thongs was laced to form a sort of cup. Two goals were erected at a distance of about two hundred or three hundred yards from each other; each consisted of two halves of a split log planted in the ground about six feet apart with the split side toward the playing field, and held in position by a transverse pole.

The players scored by scooping up the ball with the kapucha and tossing it against their own goal post; and the score required to win was sometimes fixed as high as one hundred points. Games were matched against neighboring settlements or even neighboring tribes, or two men were selected as champions with the privilege of choosing the players alternately through the whole tribe. Almost any number of players could participate, and almost any means of stopping an opponent was legitimate.

The match was planned a long time in advance, and runners were sent over the country with bundles of sticks to assist in calculating the date; one stick was discarded from the bundle each day, and when only one remained the eve of the contest had arrived. People assembled at the appointed place from all directions, and much excited betting took place, especially among the women.

The night before the contest was spent in the wild and picturesque ball play dance, with the players dancing, singing, and rattling, their sticks around their respective goals, while the women who had participated in the betting formed two lines between them and danced encouragement to their men. The old men who were to act as referees took their places in the center of the field; all night they sat impassively smoking, strongly impressed with the importance of their responsibility. The stake-holders sat to one side and guarded the articles that had been put as wagers, which usually consisted of all the movable possessions of both parties. During the whole night the medicine men of the opposing sides pitted their magic charms against each other, striving to bring the unseen forces to the assistance of their party.

The players were gorgeously painted and entirely naked except for a belt and breech-clout and a fantastic tail and mane. When it was time for the game to begin, they took their places, and one of the judges tossed up the ball in the center of the field. White observers were invariably impressed with the savage beauty of the spectacle, in which the players ran together, literally leaped over each other’s heads, and tripped and dodged and foiled their opponents in every possible combination of agility and grace. When a point was made, the successful players taunted their rivals by gobbling like a wild turkey, a sound which is even yet a characteristic Choctaw call of defiance. The medicine men worked as hard as the players, frantically invoking the powers of magic by their occult signs and formulas.
Serious injuries, even resulting in the death of the contestants, were not uncommon, and the wagers often involved all the earthly possessions of the defeated party; but although poor sportsmanship was not unknown, it was very unusual. The losses were accepted with an absence of the vindictive feeling which the Choctaws were want to show on other and less important occasions.

From The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic by Angie Debo, pages 8-9, Copyright © 1934, 1961 by the University of Oklahoma Press.