Choctaw Games of our Ancestors
George Catlin made the classic description of a Choctaw ball game. This distinguished artist witnessed ball plays near Skullyville some thirty years before the Civil War and left vivid descriptions in word and picture of what he saw. The ball game which Catlin beheld involved some six or seven hundred players, with “five or six times” that number of spectators and aroused in his mind comparisons with the Greek Olympic games or contests of the Roman Forum.
The Choctaws continued to play this game until 1907. By that date the game had deteriorated into a diminished form with few participants, sometimes in nondescript baseball uniforms, performing as novelty entertainment. However, before 1900, “old-time matches were played regularly between districts or counties. Both teams, twenty-five or thirty players each, encamped with their supporters at the hitoka (ball ground) on the night before the contest.
Wagons, buggies, and Indian ponies of assorted sized, shapes and colors were scattered through the timber adjoining the clearing where the contest was to be staged. Spectators and players prepared to sleep out under the full moon of a summer night. Players with no experience would dress themselves in ball costume, and apokshiama (breech cloth) plus the tail of some animal, perhaps a horse or raccoon, attached behind in the belt. Each novice, endeavoring to represent some animal, a white horse, swift of foot, or a fighting “coon” did his best to make himself noticed by the leaders of his team in hopes that he would be chosen to play the next day. The managers and chief players, in the meantime, held meetings to discuss such matters as strategy, rules and regulations. Players normally ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-five. The veterans were often slightly crippled, “perhaps from former play,” but most of the players were “of splendid Physique, spare and wiry.”
Soon after sunrise on the morning of the contest, the managers would collect their teams and send them to dress inn the thickets. When they were ready, each player would charge back into the clearing trying by his actions to imitate the animal he represented. The playing field was customarily more than two hundred yards in length with improvised goal posts at each end. These might be two split logs lashed together and placed so that the broad sides faced the playing field. To make a score, the ball must strike a goal post. Balls were manufactured from rags covered with buckskin and several were always provided, since they were often lost in the tall grass.
Each player was equipped with two ball sticks (kapucha). These were made from hickory saplings about thirty inches long, cut flat at one end and curved around to make a spoon like hoop. The turned end was lashed to the handle with buckskin thongs, the dangling ends of which were then used to lace the inside of the spoon.
Each team had its conjurer or medicine man, which painted his face, wore an appropriate disguise such as a sheepskin beard and perhaps carried a leafy branch of hickory. The medicine men stood near their respective goals during the play, where they sang, clapped their hands and performed any other actions thought necessary to bring good luck for their team. Before the game began a “conjure dance” was sometimes held in which the women were allowed to participate. An evidence of the decadence that threatened Indian ways appeared as early as 1853, when the rhythm for a conjure dance was furnished by a “tin pan beaten with a stick.” Just before the start of a contest nine or ten players would march onto the field, each team led by its medicine man. As each team neared its goal posts, the formations would break with shouts and turkey gobbles, where upon the players “milled around” and battered the posts with their ball sticks “to scare the spirit of bad luck away.” The shout was shukafa, literally “to peel off.”
Just before the start of play, the participants would station themselves at appointed places from midfield to the goals. The ball would be tossed into the air by one selected for that duty and the rough scrimmage would be on. Nothing was barred except butting with the head, for which a five-goal penalty was prescribed. The ball had to be carried or thrown by means of the sticks. A player who obtained possession of the ball, shouted, “Hokli Ho!” an imperative signal to each of his teammates to seize and hold the nearest opposing player. While individual wrestling matches were staged, accompanied by many Hokli Ho’s, the player with the ball tried to run so that he could score easily or throw the ball to a teammate nearer the goal. Meanwhile, the players dropped their sticks, seized each other by the belts, and fought viciously. In one game, played in the 1890’s the altercation left five men crippled, of who two later died. Obviously, the game was not for the fainthearted.
This game was also similar to throwing dice. Played with a dozen or so corn kernels, seeds, or beans, which had been blackened on one side, the number of black calculated the score or white sides landing up after the grains were tossed. Cherokees, Creeks and Choctaws played this game.
There are six players on each team. The object is to guess under which shell the team has hidden an object. One player from the first team will start the game by hiding the object under one of seven shells. The person on the opposite team across from that player tries to guess where the marble is hidden. If the guess is correct, his team receives one point and that team continues guessing in turn. If the guess is incorrect, he scores nothing for his team and the opposing team begins guessing. The game continues until all of the twenty counters have been distributed. This game, like other Indian games, keeps score with small markers or counters, which may be a small pebble, a pottery fragment, a grain of corn, or a special disc made of stone. The team with the largest number of the points wins the game.
Chunkey was a popular game played by men in the Southeastern Indian tribes, a version of the hoop and pole game played by Native Americans all over North America. A wheel shaped disc made of polished stone or clay was rolled down the field. Two players held long poles, and just as the chunkey stone stopped rolling, each player cast his pole at the stone. The player coming closest to or touching the stone wins.