Stickball is age-old Native tradition still played in WNC

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Teams in stickball include anywhere from nine to 22 players on each side, and parents decide how old their children need to be to learn and play the game.  Photography by visitcherokeenc.com

Deena C. Bouknight

Contributing Writer 

Each player in stickball carries one or two sticks, which are often made of hickory, with one end featuring a scoop that is made of leather or some sort of sinew webbing.

In “Last of the Mohicans,” a 1992-released movie filmed partly in Western North Carolina, “Hawkeye,” played by Daniel Day-Lewis, jumps in on a game of stickball. In the best-selling book, “Cold Mountain,” written by Charles Frazier – who for a while was a resident of Franklin – there is reference to the main character, “Inman,” playing stickball with his Cherokee friends. 

And, on Sept. 28, stickball was played to a crowd of onlookers at Western Carolina University’s annual Mountain Heritage Day event. Stickball, or Indian Ball, as it is also referred, has ancient roots, but is still alive and well in this area – especially in Cherokee during festivals and at various activities throughout the year.

According to Jessica Siegele, Ph.D., and Natalie Welch, Ph.D., who  recently presented “Making Her Story: Cherokee Women’s Stickball,” the game holds historic and traditional significance and, contrary to misconceptions, is also played by females. 

In stickball, players can and do tackle at any time as shown here during September’s Mountain Heritage Day game at Western Carolina University.

“I was encouraged to focus on stickball by my (and Jessica’s) advisor,” said Dr. Welch, explaining the reason for the presentation. “I am an enrolled tribal member [with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians] and grew up on the Qualla Boundary [in Cherokee]. I remember stickball being a big part of our culture – especially at the annual Indian Fair. The women played when I was in middle school and it was very intimidating. I think it’s important to do research with (not on) the native community and tell modern stories of our athletes and sports.”

Stickball is referred to in the Cherokee language as anesto. While it developed originally as ceremonial competitiveness among natives, it has survived modernity for three main reasons: 

­– Cultural preservation

– Sense of community

– Ethnic identity affirmation

According to Dr. Siegele and Dr. Welch, both college professors, stickball is a forerunner of lacrosse. Besides fun and play, stickball was sometimes used as a way to settle tribal disputes. 

The basics of the game, according to visitcherokeenc.com are: “… played on a field with two goal posts set on either end. Two opposing teams line up against each other in a game. Whichever team scores 12 points first wins. No time-outs are allowed. The ‘drivers’ are the referees of the game, and each team brings their own drivers. Drivers work together to determine and set the rules of play before the first ball is tossed up. They watch closely to make sure that the game is being played according to the rules they agreed upon.”

Some Cherokee stickball rules include: no padding or protective gear, no shirts (when men play), tackling can occur at any time, and, most importantly, it is illegal to catch a tossed ball or to pick it up off the ground with hands. After a player has used the stick to lift the ball above their knees, then he or she can transfer the ball to their hands.

A video snippet that conveys the intensity of the game is available on the visitcherokeenc.com site, which points out that rules for stickball are often somewhat different depending on the tribe. Even local rules may vary.  

“It is always a different game when you play it,” said Patrick Hill, a player for the Big Cove team.  “It is never the same. I’m always going to be able to keep learning something new out there.”

“Young children are allowed to play at their parents’ discretion,” said Dr. Welch. “Many of the parents I talked to said they instinctually know when it’s ‘their time’ for them to play. One mother had a son still in diapers get out on the field. There’s a very tight community feeling to the teams and they look after their youngest players.”

She added, “Most communities in Cherokee have their own team (Wolftown, Birdtown, Big Cove, etc.) and they have their own formal practices, meetings, and other gatherings. There are usually a couple of veteran players that are the closest things to coaches. And I think a lot of them use Facebook groups now. But I would say it’s still not as formal as football/baseball or other colonial sports.”

While men are known for playing the game, the first recorded instance of women playing occurred in 1762. Dr. Siegele and Dr. Welch’s lecture on the subject included this account by a Lt. Henry Timberlake: “I was not a little pleased likewise with their ball-plays (in which they show great dexterity) especially when the women played, who played one another about, to the no small amusement of a European spectator.” 

Because one historic account mentions a woman almost being killed while playing stickball, and another becoming so injured she could no longer bear children, women were discouraged and/or forbidden to play after 1870. However, in the fall of 2000, women began playing again, though not as consistently. The decision was not without controversy, however, because many deem stickball a man’s sport.  

Currently, Dr. Welch is working on a documentary that includes “the voices of” women who played stickball together in the early 2000s, as well as footage of the game played by children, men, and women. A “teaser” is included at https://vimeo.com/264535901 “We’re hoping to release the full doc (about 20 minutes long) in early 2020,” she said. 

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