Ballgames: North American Indian Ballgames

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Throughout what is now the United States and Canada, First Nations historically have engaged in a variety of games that incorporate a ball. Such activities often appear in narrative traditions, and many communities continue such games in the early twenty-first century. These include shinny, racket or lacrosse-type games, double ball, and ball racing and feature both single-gender and mixed-gender participation.

Given that for many people the term game carries with it associations with frivolity and leisureboth "not work" and "not serious"the nature of these activities must be stressed. Native American games can be quite serious endeavors, in certain cases requiring a great deal of preparation, and the outcomes can have economic, political, and social ramifications beyond the playing field. Games can provide opportunities for expressions of cultural values and ideals and may incorporate other traditional activities, and thus they can radiate potent symbolic meanings for participants and observers.

Because the activities of many cultures do not fit easily within the rubric of "religion" and because community members themselves may not isolate and identify particular activities as "religious," it is necessary to assert here that certain of the "games" discussed in this article should be understood as "religious," based upon commonly held definitions in the academic study of religion. Thus supernatural beings or "other-than-human persons," to use A. Irving Hallowell's term (1975) can be explicitly honored or referenced by the playing of certain games as well as beseeched for assistance in preparation for and during the contests (Hallowell, 1975, p. 145). Religious and medicinal specialists can be employed to prepare teams and influence the outcome, while certain games themselves are said to be ceremonial activities or rituals.

Shinny, Ball Throwing, and Ball Racing

Though there are a variety of ballgames, mention will be made here only of those that contain some religious referent. Shinny is a team game in which a ball is raked or propelled toward a goal with a stick not unlike that used in hockey. Although the hands may not be used, the ball may be kicked. According to Stewart Culin, author of the encyclopedic Games of the North American Indians (1975), the game was the most widespread of the ballgames and "frequently referred to in the myths" yet was "commonly played without any particular ceremony" (Culin, 1975, pp. 562, 617). Culin recorded the names of more than fifty groups that once played the game. Though most often played by women, it also has been played by men as well as by men and women together and against one another.

Shinny is known as tabegasi in the Ponca language, the root word tabe, or ball, being the same in the Osage and Omaha languages (Howard, 1971, pp. 10, 14). According to an account from the early 1970s, the Ponca version pitting teams of men against one another still retained some amount of ceremony having to do with the balls and the choosing of teams. The keeper of the game was an individual from the Nikapashna clan, members of which also supervised hunting and warfare activities at one time (Fletcher and La Flesche in Howard, 1971, p. 14). In some instances, for example, among California peoples such as the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, and Tolowa, this game is said to have been played by the first beings on earth and taught to humans (Gendar, 1995, pp. 1920).

The Lakota ballgame tapa wankayeyapi ("throwing the ball upward") was one of the Wicoh'an Wakan Šakowin (Seven Sacred Rites) given to the people by Ptehincalaskawin (White Buffalo Calf Woman). A young girl tossed a ball to participants standing at the four directions, with the ball symbolizing knowledge and the attempts of the participants symbolizing the struggle against ignorance (Powers, 1977, p. 103; St. Pierre and Long Soldier, 1995, p. 28). It is not currently performed.

Ball races were run by communities in the present-day southwestern United States and in adjacent areas of California and Mexico. Groups such as the Keres people of the Acoma community, the Zunis, and the Hopi people engaged in spring kick-ball or kick-stick races to secure rain (Culin, 1975, p. 668). These races pitted two individuals or teams against one another; the first to kick a ball or stick around a course and return to the starting point was the winner.

Racket Games

In North America ballgames that employ a racket and ball are the most prevalent of those that reference supernatural beings, employ religious and medicinal specialists, are part of ceremonies, are linked to other ritual activities, or are self-contained rituals. Many communities along the eastern seaboard of North America, across the inland southeast, in the Great Lakes region, and to the immediate west in what is now the United States once played the game along with certain communities in present-day California, Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Generally speaking, racket games are considered the precursors of the sport of lacrosse; versions played by peoples in the present-day northeastern United States and in southeastern Canada are routinely cited as the specific forerunners of that sport.

Historically, lacrosse-type activities commonly termed "ballgames" have been integral cultural elements for many Native American peoples, though they have functioned differently from community to community. Rituals in and of themselves for some groups, a part of religious festivals for others, and at the center of ceremonial complexes in still other communities, the ballgames almost always have been major social events. In some cases they have been instruments of healing, and in other cases they have been primarily social events.

There are two major categories of lacrosse-type activity: single- and double-racket games. These categories correspond broadly to regional areas, with the single-racket game being played throughout what is now the northeastern United States and to an area west of the Great Lakes. Nations in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy continue to play the single-racket version, as do surrounding nations such as the Huron and Passamaquody. The racket used is typically over a yard in length and is crooked at one end; webbing is fitted from here to the straight portion of the stick to form a large triangular pocket. It is the model for the stick used in the popularized sport of field lacrosse. Groups in the Great Lakes region, such as the Ojibwas, Santee Dakotas, Menominees, Potowatomis, and Winnebagos (among others), also used one racket; however these were shorter, straight pieces of wood curved at the end to form a small circle, which was webbed to create a pocket. Though information is somewhat limited on the Dakota version of the game, there are several accounts of Yankton and Santee games as well as paintings and drawings of players that support the conclusion that the game was a regular feature of life at least throughout the nineteenth century.

The double-racket game was and is prevalent in what is now the southeastern United States. It has long been standard among nations such as the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Yuchi, and Seminole and among those of the Muskogee (Creek) Confederacy. The rackets used in this game are usually two to three feet long and are formed from single pieces of wood bent and dried to form oval shapes at one end, which are then webbed with rawhide or other materials to form pockets. Despite individual particularities, broad regional similarities historically have resulted in ballgames between First Nations, such as those between Cherokee and Muskogee (Creek) communities or between confederated nations, for example, the Mohawk and Seneca (Mooney, 1890, p. 107; Culin, 1975, p. 591).

In both the single- and the double-racket versions, the object of the game is to score goals, which can be achieved by players crossing a threshold while in possession of the ball. This can be a goal line between two posts, some other goal marking, or a single goal post that must be circled completely. The rules of a particular contest dictate what actions are allowable; in some cases goals can be scored by throwing the ball over the goal line.

In all versions the rackets must be used to propel the ball, and players cannot pick the ball up off the ground with their hands; in certain versions, players can use their hands to carry or throw the ball once they have retrieved it. Games can feature rough play, including wrestling and body blocking. In the games between teams of men, players usually wear little or no protective equipment, and often, especially in the Southeast, players wear only short pantsno shirts or shoes. A distinguishing aspect of many versions of this contest, both single- and double-racket, is that the object is to bring the ball back to one's own goal, not penetrate the goal of the opponent, as is the case in other goal-oriented physical activities.

While for the most part this is a male activity, in some communities women's teams compete against each other. Selected versions of the game, such as those on Cherokee Nation dance grounds in Oklahoma, are played around a central pole, the object being to hit a target at the top to score points. Single-pole contests routinely feature teams of men wielding rackets against women who are allowed to use their hands.

Wagering on the men's games once was widespread. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century religious and governmental authorities discouraged certain Southeastern communities' ballgames (particularly those of the Cherokees and Choctaws). They objected to the wagering, the inherent violence of the contests, and the unruly crowd behavior that became more frequent with the influx of spectators from outside the participating communities. Wagering has been eliminated or much reduced in most contemporary contests.

Single-racket games

In 1636 the Jesuit father Jean de Brébeuf wrote about the Huron game in the area then known as New France. This account of a ballgame is the earliest written by a European yet located and appears in the Relations of the Jesuit fathers. Brébeuf noted that a Huron medico-religious specialist ("sorcerer") might prescribe a game of "crosse" for the benefit of the entire nation or for a sick individual, and that sometimes a person would dream that a game was necessary for their recovery (Brébeuf in Culin, 1975, p. 589).

The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy have maintained their specific ballgame traditions while participating in other forms of the game. Scholars generally agree that the sport of lacrosse derived from their games, and many of the early stick makers were members of confederacy nations. Haudenosaunee teams in the early twenty-first century participate both in field and box lacrosse as well as in the classic version.

The Onondaga term for the single-racket lacrosse-type ballgame is dehuntshigwa'es, meaning "they (men) hit a rounded object" (Vennum, 1994, p. 72). Onondaga games between clan groupings or teams of older and younger players last until a predetermined number of goals have been won and feature uneven teams; the number of players determines the length of the field (Vennum, 1994, pp. 67). They have been employed to heal sickness and comfort the sick and dying. This was the case in 1815, when Onondaga people held a ballgame for the dying Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, and accounts from the late twentieth century suggest the same use (Vennum, 1994, pp. 67, 222; Oxendine, 1988, p. 10). The game is played in the afterworld, and players make arrangements to bring sticks with them for those future contests (Vennum, 1994, p. 7).

A mid-twentieth-century account stated that the ballgame called gatci·'kwae ("beating the mush") was the central element of the Cayuga Nation's Thunder Rite, a one-day ceremony in the middle of the summer (Speck, 1949, p. 117). Games were played to honor the Seven Thunders, called "Grandfathers," for "continuation of the service which they render mankind as agents of the Great Spirit," and which team won or lost was not important (Speck, 1949, pp. 117, 118). At the conclusion of the game players sang the War Dance or Thunder Song and went into the longhouse, where they gave thanks to the Seven Thunders and other forces in the universe in a manner similar to the way in which the Thanksgiving Address was made during the Midwinter Ceremony (Speck, 1949, pp. 117, 118). According to one 1960s source, the players "personify the seven thunder gods"; on rare occasions when a sick person had dreamed of the game, Cayuga teams played it during the Midwinter Ceremony (Eyman, 1964, pp. 1819).

Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan rendered the name of the single-racket game as O-tä-dä-jish΄-quä-äge and recounted a tradition stating that the war that resulted in the Eries being expelled from New York around 1654 originated in "a breach of faith or treachery" during a ballgame against the Senecas (Morgan, 1901, pp. 280, 282). Other terms used by individual members of the Six Nations include Ga-lahs (Oneida) and Tewaarathon (Mohawk). Among the Oneidas it is considered a "rite sacred to the Thunders" and is said to have been played for Hayewat-ha, "to console him for the loss of his children" during the founding of the confederacy ("Lacrosse: An Iroquois Tradition"). The Mohawks consider it pleasing to the Creator, a means of thanksgiving, and a way "to call the Creator's attention to the efforts of the medicine people" (North American Indian Travelling College in Fisher, 2002, p. 23).

According to one source from the early twentieth century, the Menominee ballgame and warfare are related activities that came from the thunders; thus the "game was supposed to resemble a battle" (Densmore, 1932, p. 35). Traditional narratives detail the origin of the game and the implements, including the racket, which is shaped like a war club (Densmore, 1932, pp. 3637). A 1925 account reported that a Menominee man who dreamed of the thunders held a lacrosse game to receive help promised by them, a process termed "playing out a dream"; such dreams promised health or success, and medicinal specialists could prescribe games (Densmore, 1932, p. 27). In these games, one of which Frances Densmore witnessed in 1925, the dreamer did not play and the outcome did not affect the dreamer's chances of achieving what he sought. One source noted that to "cure illness, the Menominee still play the game in the spring, before the first thunder" (Vennum, 1994, p. 33). There also are accounts of Ojibwe and Potawatami games played to achieve similar results (Vennum, 1994, p. 33; Oxendine, 1988, p. 8).

Double-racket games

The Cherokee double-racket ballgame anetso (a:ne:tso ) is known also as "da·na·wah? u·sdi" (as rendered by the anthropologist Raymond D. Fogelson), or "little war" (Fogelson, 1962, p. 2). There is a similar term for the game among towns of the Muskogee or Creek Confederacy, rendered by the anthropologist Mary R. Haas as "hółłi icósi" ("younger brother to war") (Haas, 1940, p. 483). In the Cherokee language, the phrase "to play a ball game" has a figurative meaning of engaging in battle (Mooney, [1900] 1982, p. 384)

Anetso once was the occasion for a great deal of wagering, and the community at large participated in pregame activities, such as night dances. Currently members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continue their ballgame tradition with a series of annual games during the Cherokee Fall Fair. The Cherokee games match townships against one another or are scrimmage exhibitions between squads from the same township. The ballgame is a rough contest, with frequent wrestling and body blocking. The games are to twelve points, and teams usually consist of ten to twelve players who have undergone several weeks of training and preparation for the week's series of games.

In addition to a rigorous practice schedule, the training regimen typically includes amó:hi atsv?:sdi ("going to water," ritual bathing or laving) and interaction with a medico-religious specialist. Though not always employed, the following actions can and have been performed: scarification, ingestion or application of medicinal substances, dancing, fasting, avoidance of certain foods, and for men, avoidance of contact with women and children for specified periods of time. Movements to and from the field are ritualized as well. Finally, medico-religious specialists can perform a variety of activities, including some of a divinatory nature, before and during the match.

Teams of women have begun competing during the Cherokee Fair, and there are differing opinions as to whether this is a new innovation or a revival of a custom as old, or possibly even older, than the men's contest. The women's games follow the same rules as the men's; only their wardrobe differs, as they wear shirts. Many other communities have reinvigorated the men's ballgame as well; for example, members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians play their version of the game, kapucha toli, during annual fairs.

General Observations

Some commentators have suggested that there once was a formal link between ballgames and warfare for both southeastern and northeastern nations, and as noted above, there are several accounts of intertribal matches in both oral traditions and historical texts. While some evidence suggests that ballgames have been used to settle disputes, there is no definitive evidence to support the conclusion that such games once were surrogates for war. There is evidence that these activities once were training for warfare, and there are historical accounts of games being used to lure an enemy into a trap. One well-known example is a 1763 game of bagga'adowe between Ojibwa and Ottawa villages outside the British Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Michigan. The soldiers guarding the fort were drawn outside to view the contest, when suddenly the Ojibwa players attacked and captured the fort. On the whole, research suggests that ballgames have expressed a range of social, political, religious, and economic meanings dependent on cultural and historical contexts.

There are many Native American cultural narratives featuring games of ball between nonhuman beings and humans or in some cases between nonhuman beings in a time before humans inhabited the earth. For example, in the Cherokee narrative tradition there are accounts of ballgames played by supernatural beings (the Sons of Thunder) and games between teams of birds and four-legged animals as well as famous games between Cherokee teams and teams from other nations. There also are Choctaw, Muskogee, Seminole, Mohawk, and Onondaga narratives of similar games between birds and animals. In all of them the pivotal character, the bat, was rejected by one or both of the teams before being allowed to play. The narratives differ regarding such details as which team finally accepted the bat and why, but the team that did so always won in the end.

Though not as widespread as they once were, ballgames continue to be viable cultural traditions in many First Nations communities and are undergoing some amount of revitalization in others.

See Also

Sports and Religion.


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Michael J. Zogry (2005)

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Ballgames: North American Indian Ballgames

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