It’s Native American Heritage Month, so I thought I’d write an article about my favorite sports game. Coincidentally, my favorite sports game also happens to be an important and historical element in Cherokee culture — Stickball. If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch a modern Stickball match, I highly recommend it. But first, a little history of the game.
Stickball is a very old and traditional activity within many Indian tribes, primarily among the eastern Woodlands tribes of the US and Canada. A precursor to the game of Lacrosse, Stickball is the oldest team sport in North America. In centuries past, the game was used as a way of resolving disputes, a last resort before going to war. Games were played between opposing tribes or villages, could last from sun up to sun down, and included hundreds of players. These games were very violent, and serious or fatal injuries were not unheardof. On game day specific regalia, diet, and dance rituals were observed, and those rituals were similar to those observed before going to war. In fact, the game’s Cherokee name (A-ne-jo-di) translates to “Little Brother of War.”
Today, Stickball is a recreational activity, all in good fun, thought it’s still a fairly rough game. Stickball matches are often played before Stomp Dance or other traditional ceremonies, and increasingly tribes are incorporating public recreational games or demonstrations into their tribal events. The Cherokee Nation hosts a Stickball game every year at Cherokee National Holiday, and members of the Eastern Band often perform demonstration games in and around North Carolina. The photos in this article were taken at the Cherokee National Holiday Stickball Game in 2013.
The playing field for Stickball varies depending on the location or event. At traditional grounds, the field consists of a single central 25 foot pole with a wooden fish on top. Players try to hit the fish in order to earn points. For larger public recreational games, the game is often played on a modified football field, where each team has a goalpost and these are placed in each endzone. The players carry a pair of handcrafted sticks with small hoop baskets on the ends. They use these sticks to capture, carry, and fling the small ball. The goal is to hit the opposing team’s goalpost with the ball.
The game moves very quickly and can get rather intense. It requires several types of players to compete — those whose talent is protecting the goal with their size and brute force, those who can run the ball using speed and agility, and those who have the quickness and excellent aim needed to shoot the goals. And all positions require toughness. There is no padding in Stickball, no helmets either. Players wear shorts and a t-shirt and are often barefoot. When the game gets heated, players can and do tackle and take down their opponents. But the clock doesn’t stop for bumps and scrapes.
Stickball is quite a sight to see, and one that should not be missed should the opportunity arise.
So I ask you again: are you ready for some Stickball?!?