Sport of stickball bringing together tribes, communities By LISA REED Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
The centuries-old game of stickball has always been the Choctaw national sport. Once used to settle disputes, it is played today strictly as a sport and is fast growing in popularity. All ages are picking up sticks to play the game of their ancestors.
Last year, the OK Choctaws team played in its first World Series of Stickball in Philadelphia, Miss., with 35 players. This year, 63 men followed Chief Gregory E. Pyle onto the field July 8, ready to meet the opposition, Nukoachi. The players, many with painted faces, raised their sticks in the air, yelling challenges and displaying no fear of the more experienced team as the beat of the drums and shouts from the crowds added to the intensity.
Cultural Services Executive Director Sue Folsom explained, “It’s more of a sports game now and played more for fun but we still take pride in the games and want to win. I am extremely proud of how they played.”
Each team is comprised of 30 players on the field, normally divided into 10 on defense, 10 on offense and 10 centers or “shooters.” After the opening ceremony, all but the 60 players leave the field and the game begins with four 15-minute quarters on the clock. It is usually played on a 100-yard football field with a tall pole (“fabvssa”) set as a goal post on each end.
The score at the end of the first hard-fought quarter of the late-night game was in favor of Nukoachi, 4 to 2. The OK Choctaws dominated the entire second and third quarters, tying it 4-4 and holding Nukoachi scoreless. The Mississippi team caught the Oklahoma team off guard in the last quarter, overloading their defense to stop the OK Choctaws’ control of the game. Nukoachi scored 2 more points, winning the game 6-4.
The game is very physical and very fast-paced. Few fouls for roughness are called and an injury has to be pretty serious for the game to stop. There are not any pads or helmets in the game of stickball but players are banned from hitting each other with sticks, tripping or pulling hair. Anyone on the sideline needs to stay there, well out of the way both for safety and to not be a distraction to the players who are giving everything they have to win the game.
The coaches made it a point to play every member on the team – first-year players and veterans – to build experience and confidence.
“We played tough and we earned the respect of the Mississippi Choctaw,” Folsom said.
“I could hear people in the stands cheering for our team, the Oklahoma Choctaws. We are bridging the gap, re-establishing a relationship with the Mississippi Choctaw through the games and other cultural activities. We gain their trust by showing we care about what we are doing,” said Folsom.
The team was so well-received in Mississippi, the game so exciting that Chief Pyle and Folsom discussed ways to build on that momentum back in Oklahoma.
“We will be having stickball camps next year for the youth of the Choctaw Nation, just like we hold football, softball and basketball camps every summer,” Chief Pyle said.
“These young boys and girls will acquire knowledge of the game and its cultural significance and we will eventually see it handed down more through the generations.
“The whole community turns out every night to watch the world series tournament in Philadelphia,” Chief Pyle added. “I see small children who are just beginning to walk picking up the sticks their mom or dad just laid down. They learn that passion early.”
The OK Choctaws meet to practice once a week and they are not only sharpening their skills, they are also learning the history of stickball, known as “ishtaboli” or “kapucha” in the Choctaw language.
Les Williston, defense coach for OK Choctaws, is teaching players to make their own stickballs and sticks, something that will also play a major part in the youth summer camps.
“Stickball is enjoying a major resurgence,” said Dr. Ian Thompson, tribal Historic Preservation Department assistant director. “This ancient and passionate game is bringing more excitement to more Choctaw communities than it has at any time in the past 100 years.”