Cave Wall Markings Show Stickball is More Than Just a Sport

22 May, 2019

On April 30, 1828, a group of Cherokee men met inside a cave near the present-day city of Fort Payne, Alabama. The men went there to take part in a ceremony before they played a game of stickball. To record the event, team leaders wrote words and expressions on the cave's stone walls. They used a writing system for Cherokee that Sequoyah, a member of the tribe, invented.

Cherokee and non-Native researchers have now studied the wall inscriptions and explained the importance of the game. They wrote about it in a report appearing in the British publication, Antiquity.

Beau Duke Carroll belongs to the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. He also wrote part of the report.

"The early Cherokee were really smart," he said.

Carroll is an archaeologist with the tribe's Historic Preservation Office. He explained why people have called stickball "the little brother to war."

"They would recognize that if somebody was killed in war, whatever skills he had, whatever service he was to tribe and family, wouldn't be provided anymore," he said. "They realized they would rather find another way to solve conflicts over land or other disputes—and I'm sure opposing tribes and communities felt the same way."

That 'other way' was stickball, one of the most violent sports on the planet.

How to play the game of stickball

The rules sometimes differ from one game to the next, but follow these general lines: Team members used to wear only loincloths but today they wear shorts. Each player carries two long wooden sticks with woven cups at one end. They use a stick to gain control of and move a small ball toward goals at either end of the playing field.

In one version of the game, played by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, players get points by striking the wooden image of a fish which tops a 7 and a half meter high pole at the center of the field.

Soldiers from the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion, headquartered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, play stickball, 2004. Camp Taqaddum, Iraq, Sept. 17, 2004. (US Defense Dept.)
Soldiers from the 120th Engineer Combat Battalion, headquartered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, play stickball, 2004. Camp Taqaddum, Iraq, Sept. 17, 2004. (US Defense Dept.)

Players may not use their hands to catch the ball, but they may use them to block and take down opponents. Because players wear no shoes or protective equipment, small injuries are common.

"Stickball isn't just a game," Beau Carroll says, "it's a ceremony itself."

A ceremony comes before the game

Before a game, a religious leader leads the players in prayer. They pray to weaken their opponents and ensure victory.

Carroll only describes part of the ceremony in the published report because the tribe thinks of other parts as spiritual. They do not want to talk about those parts in detail.

"Basically, they performed the same rituals as they would before going to war," he said. Part of the ceremony, called "going to water," involved cleaning the body and mind by water before, during and after the game.

"It's a ritual that's part of everyday life--even today," he said.

The video above shows the Wolftown team of Eastern Band Cherokee at Baggataway At the Mounds, part of Angel Mounds' Native American Days, September 28, 2013

Oppression meant ceremonies must be secret

By 1828, when the players wrote on the cave's walls, the Cherokee were being pressured to give up traditional beliefs and ceremonies. The pressure came from the U.S. government, Christian religious workers and Christianized tribe members.

There was punishment for people who performed ceremonies. "If they decided that you weren't being Christian enough, then they'd pull their support and your whole family would starve," said Carroll.

Alabama's Manitou Cave was the ideal place to perform banned ceremonies. It was far away from big cities; it had spiritual meaning to the tribe's members, and they thought of it as a doorway to the underworld. The underworld was a place where it was thought the spirits of the ancestors and other supernatural beings lived.

The writing on the cave is done in burnt wood or cut into a dark surface. One set tells the date of the game. Another tells about the players. It says some of them are "those that have blood come out of their nose and mouth," suggesting the team was playing poorly. This set of writings is signed in English, by the team leader, "Richard Guess," who was probably Sequoyah's son.

Importance of native understanding

The inscriptions in Manitou Cave are important, say the writers of the report, because they offer a window into a time when Cherokee culture was trying to survive. They are also important because, while it was non-Native researchers who first discovered the inscriptions, it was Cherokee researchers who could really understand and explain them.

Two years after the game, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. In 1838, government agents forced thousands of Cherokee living east of the Mississippi River westward to what is today Oklahoma. Several thousand people died along the way, which is now known as the "Trail of Tears."

Carroll's family was part of a small group who were able to stay in North Carolina. Today, they are known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians are the only other Cherokee tribes that the federal government recognizes. Both are based in Oklahoma—and both play stickball today.

Europeans learned how to play the game, which has changed into the modern sport of lacrosse. Today's lacrosse team members wear heavy protective gear.

"They had to change it," said Carroll, "to better suit people who couldn't stand getting hurt."

I'm Jill Robbins.

Cecily Hilleary reported on this story for VOA News. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

inscription – n. words or expressions written on a book or other object

smart – adj. demonstrating or showing intelligence

loincloth n. a small piece of cloth that covers the part of the body between the lowest bones in the ribcage and the hipbones

cupn. a small container, often used for drinking

ritual – n. a religious ceremony; the order of performing a religious ceremony or observance

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