Choctaw Stickball

Stickball

Choctaw stickball, or Ishtaboli, is historically known for its aggressive play. The game was used as a method of mediating social relations, village conflicts and tensions between tribal members as well as other towns or districts. It served as an alternative to war in diplomatic concerns between tribes when actual weapons could be avoided. Stickball was a competitive contest within a tribe to keep warriors in shape for warfare, sharpen the defensive skills of the tribe and hone hand-eye coordination for successful hunting.

Preserving Our History

Stickball stands as an enduring part of Choctaw culture not only as a sport but also as a way of teaching traditional social structure and family values. Today, we continue to use the equipment as a way to teach children about working together.

Choctaw stickball was played often in Oklahoma until the early 1900s. A particularly intense semi-annual game of stickball between the Choctaw and Chickasaw took place in 1903. The game ended in a riot-like brawl involving 300 spectators. U.S. Marshalls and the Choctaw Lighthorsemen had to intervene. After the incident, the semi-annual games were abolished. Play continued, but not to the extent it had in the past.

Revitalization efforts by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma began in the mid-1970s. Through these efforts, the game has continued to grow and prosper. Play is very similar to that of the past, but dress has changed from breechcloths and paint to t-shirts and shorts. Players still wear no protective gear, pads, or helmets. A few more rules have been added, such as no more than 30 players can be on the field for each team at any given time, no touching the ball, no slamming or clothes-lining, no swinging sticks at other players, no hitting below the knees, and tackling is only allowed against the person who has the ball.

In 2009, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma formed its first official stickball team. Later that year, the team traveled to the World Series of Stickball in Mississippi. This was the first team outside the state of Mississippi to compete in the series.

Tvshkahomma ohoyo team started in 2017 and began playing in the World Series in Mississippi. In 2021, the women had got their first win against a Tucker Women’s team and advanced to the semis and played against
Bok Chito.

The traditional game had very few rules. In the late 1800s, American Anthropologist James Mooney declared, “Almost everything short of murder is allowable.” Play took place on a natural field with players wearing no padded clothing or shoes and wielding two Kapucha, or stickball sticks. The sticks were made of hickory or other hard woods cut from the trunk or made of saplings. The ends were thinned and bent into flared cups with leather lacing inside to hold the ball, or Towa, which was made of woven strips of leather. A goal post called a Fabvssa was set at each end of the field, and teams scored by hitting the post with the ball. Full-contact games with limitless players could last for days until either a certain score or time limit was reached.

Tribal social customs were an important part of the game. Players went through rigorous mental and physical preparations, including fasting, dancing, meditating and rubbing their bodies with traditional medicines. Drummers worked to set the pace of the game and highlight key plays. Alikchi, or Choctaw spiritual leaders, provided guidance from the field and sidelines. Spectators, especially women, actively supported their team and celebrated the game by dancing, singing, feasting, cheering and gambling.

Legacy

Choctaw Stickball is alive and well in many communities throughout the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Teams play regularly and compete with each other and neighboring tribes, but they also play in exhibition games across the country to educate audiences about the history and vitality of the game. Choctaw community teams come together yearly to compete in a number of tournaments such as the Choctaw Labor Day Festival Stickball Tournament, the Kullihoma Stickball Tournament, hosted by the Chickasaw Nation, the Mississippi World Series of Stickball. Additional revitalization efforts continue through the Youth Summer Stickball Camp and Youth Outreach services. The Choctaw Nation Cultural Services Division also hosts workshops to demonstrate the art of making Kapucha (sticks) and Towa (balls).

Choctaw Stickball in Oklahoma

Stickball is one of the oldest organized sports played in America. Part celebration, part ceremony, part physical test of endurance, stickball lives on as a unique and distinctive part of Southeastern Native culture. Stickball, similar to the modern game of lacrosse, also shares aspects of many modern field sports, such as American football and soccer. As a full-contact sport, stickball is thrilling and played with intense emotion. Players are trained to exercise strict control over those emotions, however, and leave all rivalries behind on the field.

The first written account of Choctaw stickball was recorded in 1729 by a Jesuit missionary in the Choctaw homelands of the southeastern United States. In the 1830s, artist George Catlin captured the excitement and ritual of the game in Oklahoma through a series of paintings. Today, modern Choctaws participate in heated games of stickball at local and regional tournaments, including the Choctaw Nation’s Annual Labor Day Festival Stickball Tournament and the World Series of Stickball, hosted by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians at their Annual Choctaw Fair.