For centuries, stickball has been an important custom of Mississippi’s native Choctaw. Stickball (ishtaboli) is the forerunner of lacrosse and served as an early means of recreation as well as strengthened Choctaw identity. In addition, stickball was used to resolve conflict among different Choctaw communities and among neighboring Chickasaw or Creek. These games could often avert war while venting passions.
Games sometimes lasted from around nine in the morning to sundown or longer. The ballfield (hitoka) could vary from one hundred feet to several miles, and between twenty and seven hundred people could play at a time. Entire communities from many miles around came to watch and participate.
Players use two types of stick, the kabocca and kapucha, both carved from hickory about 2.5 feet long and ending in an oval hoop tied with buckskin thongs to make a cup. Players use only the sticks, never their hands, to move the leather ball (towa) to the goalposts. A team scores by hitting the other team’s goalpost with the ball. In early games, the victor was the first team to reach a preselected number of points, often up to one hundred, and rules about prohibited behavior were lax, with only head butting prohibited. Play was violent and often resulted in broken bones.
The night before the game Choctaw women made their family’s bets, placing some of the family’s belongings on the line, while elders set up the goalposts. Players and others would gather around the team’s goalpost to sing and perform the Stickball Dance all night to invoke the Great Spirit to help the team win. The players wore their game costumes, which consisted of breechclouts, beaded belts, and manes and tails that represented strong animals. Medicine men also sent smoke to the Great Spirit all night and throughout the game stood at their team’s goalpost, beating a drum, chanting, clapping, and singing to influence the team’s luck.
Stickball games dwindled in the early 1900s but were revived by the Choctaw Fairs starting in 1949. Stickball is currently played in four fifteen-minute quarters, and additional rules exist about play. Choctaw craftsmen still create handmade sticks and balls, and players wear traditional Choctaw patterns on their uniforms. An important part of the Choctaw Fairs, contemporary stickball preserves an ancient and significant Choctaw tradition.
- James H. Howard and Victoria Lindsay Levine, Choctaw Music and Dance (1990)
- Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians website, www.choctaw.org