Stickball: How the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Play the Game Known as The Little Brother of War8.2.2018
Stickball has always been much more than a game to the Cherokee people. Though once this ancient sport served a judicial or diplomatic function by settling tribal disputes before they led to war, today it’s a living cultural tradition. Stickball games are regularly played across the Cherokee Nation. Here in Western North Carolina, there are many opportunities throughout the summer and fall to watch teams made up of members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians play the game. This October you will be able to see local teams the Hummingbirds, Wolfetown, Birdtown, and Big Cove competing against each other at the 106th Annual Cherokee Indian Fair, October 2–6, 2018.
Before you get the opportunity to watch stickball played live in Cherokee, you may want to understand the rules of the game. The thing is, if you look online, you’ll find that there are many different versions of stickball rules posted. For example, Choctaw stickball rules are different from those followed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
More than that, according to Patrick Hill, a player for the Big Cove team, local rules can vary slightly from game to game. “It is always a different game when you play it. It is never the same,” he says. Because the rules can vary from game to game, even experienced players have to keep learning and practicing new styles of play. “We could practice one way but it is not necessarily going to be played that way. You’ve got to figure out ways to prepare for each game.” As a player, Patrick enjoys the fact that the game is always changing. When asked what his favorite part of stickball is he says, “learning how to play. I’m always going to be able to keep learning something new out there.”
Though the sport of Lacrosse came from stickball, there many big differences between the two games. For one, Cherokee stickball players do not wear any sort of padding or protective equipment. They don’t even wear shirts. Stickball is not a game for the faint of heart. We talked to Patrick recently to understand how the game is played today in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Cherokee stickball, also called Indian Ball, is played on a field with two goal posts set on either end. Two opposing teams line up against each other in a game. Whichever team scores 12 points first wins. There are no time-outs allowed.
The “drivers” are the referees of the game, and each team brings their own drivers. drivers work together to determine and set the rules of play before the first ball is tossed up. They watch closely to make sure that the game is being played according to the rules they agreed upon.
Each player carries one or two sticks. The sticks are typically made of hickory and one end features a scoop made of leather or sinew webbing. (The drivers will determine whether one or two sticks will be used by players in a game.)
The ball, which is about 3” in diameter, is made of leather and sinew. Each stickball team brings their own balls to a tournament, though typically the ball used in a game will be supplied by a team that is not currently playing in that game.
Team sizes vary from game to game. Twelve is an average number for a stickball team, but Patrick has seen anywhere between nine and 22 men on each side. The drivers agree to the number of players on each team, and ensure that both sides have an equal number of men.
If a player is injured and must leave the game, the driver of the opposing team then picks one of their team members to step out of the game to keep the sides even.
Exactly how points are scored is determined at the start of the game by the drivers. Some teams were taught to run past the goal with the ball to score, others to throw it past the goal, whereas others circle the goal post with the ball to score, and there may be other variations. Before a game begins, the drivers agree upon which scoring method both teams will follow.
Players can (and do) tackle at any time. Each player is assigned a member of the opposing team to guard.
Handling the Ball
Once the ball is tossed up into play, players scramble to scoop it up off the ground with their sticks. It is illegal to catch a tossed ball or to pick it up off the ground with your hands. Typically, once a player has used the stick to lift the ball above their knees they can then transfer the ball to their hands. (The drivers agree at the start of the game on how and when the ball can be picked up.) The player with the ball then runs for the goal while trying to avoid being tackled and losing the ball to their opponents.
If the ball is illegally caught or otherwise touched, or if it goes out of bounds, it is called a “dead ball.” Once a dead ball has been called, the drivers determine which person is allowed to toss the ball back into play.
After a team scores 11 points, that team has the option of putting down their sticks and playing with their hands until the end of the game.
Passing On The Stickball Tradition
Like many stickball players in Cherokee, Patrick was first introduced to the game in childhood. He was ten years old when he first started playing with a team at the Indian Fair. He has played off and on throughout his life since then with the team in Big Cove. Recently he has noticed a surge in interest in the game, especially from children.“We’ve gotten the kids involved...as young as three that come and run around.”
Patrick has greatly enjoyed learning and teaching stickball over the course of his life. He says that being a player has been “life changing at times” but that passing it along to the younger generations is what keeps bringing him back to the field. “Keeping it alive and respecting it is really what’s keeping me out there.” In fact, over the last five or six years, Patrick has noticed that many of the kids in Big Cove are more eager to play stickball than football, or soccer, or any other sport. “We’ve got the football coaches calling us and asking for kids… They are really into this sport.”
With no protective padding to wear, stickball can be an especially intense game for players of all ages. Patrick says that mental preparation before the game is necessary, but that each team knows exactly what they are getting into. “It’s called the medicine game and little brother of war. Each team has their own ways to prepare… When we go out there we are not afraid.”