Sunday, April 8, 2012

Take Me Back to the Ball Play!

With baseball season about to open, I wonder what we would do without our ball games?  What did Native Americans do?  Well, they had their own ball game and it was every bit as important to them as baseball, football, and soccer are to us today. All across North America, Native Americans enjoyed a ball game that we might identify as LaCrosse today.  That’s because LaCrosse came from that Native American game!

Generally, the “anetsa”, ball play, was the same all across the country with a couple of exceptions.  Northern and western tribes used one ball stick, while the Gulf States preferred to use two and trap the ball between the two nets.  Another exception was that along the west coast, both men and women played together, but most other tribes considered it a manly game and believed that defeat was assured if women even touched a ball stick!

It is said that ball play was invented to replace war.  The Cherokee have a legend that after many years of fighting with the Iroquois, the two chiefs got together in council and decided to replace the fighting with the anetsa.  After that, every year the two tribes faced off in a national game and peace was maintained.  In another legend, the border between the Tsalagi (Cherokee) and the Kusa (Creek) was a point of contention and was settled when the Tsalagi defeated the Kusa in a ball play.  James Mooney tells of another important anetsa, “On the fourth of June, 1763, the birthday of King George of England, the warriors of two great tribes assembled in front of the fort, ostensibly to play a game in honor of the occasion and to decide the tribal championship. The commandant himself came out to encourage his favorites and bet on the result, while the soldiers leaned against the palisades and the {women} sat about in groups, all intently watching every movement of the play. Suddenly there comes a crisis in the game. One athletic young fellow with a powerful stroke sends the ball high in air, and as it descends in a graceful curve it rolls along the ground to the gate of the fort, followed by four hundred yelling {Native Americans}. But look! As they run each painted warrior snatches from his {wife} the hatchet which she had concealed under her blanket, and the next moment it is buried in the brain of the nearest soldier. The English, taken completely by surprise, are cut down without resistance!”

The equipment needed for the game was simple -- one or two netted sticks and a small deer skin ball.  The rules were also simple.  Each team had to have equal number of players.  So, if one team showed up with more players, the extra players sat out the game.  Two poles were placed at each end of the field and a team scored by tossing the ball between the poles.  The first team to score 12 points was the victor.

James Mooney also described some of the restrictions:

“In addition to the athletic training, which begins two or three weeks before the regular game, each player is put under a strict gaktûnta, or tabu, during the same period. He must not eat the flesh of a rabbit (of which the Indians generally are very fond) because the rabbit is a timid animal, easily alarmed and liable to lose its wits when pursued by the hunter. Hence the ball player must abstain from it, lest he too should become disconcerted and lose courage in the game. He must also avoid the meat of the frog (another item on the Indian bill of fare) because the frog's bones are brittle and easily broken, and a player who should partake of the animal would expect to be crippled in the first inning. For a similar reason he abstains from eating the young of any bird or animal, and from touching an infant. He must not eat the fish called the hog-sucker, because it is sluggish in its movements. He must not eat the herb called atûnka or Lamb's Quarter (Chenopodium album), which the Indians use for greens, because its stalk is easily broken. Hot food and salt are also forbidden, as in the medical gaktûnta. The tabu always lasts for seven days preceding the game, but in most cases is enforced for twenty-eight days--i. e., 4 x 7--four and seven being sacred numbers. Above all, he must not touch a woman, and the player who should violate this regulation would expose himself to the summary vengeance of his fellows. This last tabu continues also for seven days after the game. As before stated, if a woman even so much as touches a ball stick on the eve of a game it is thereby rendered unfit for use. As the white man's law is now paramount, extreme measures are seldom resorted to, but in former days the punishment for an infraction of this regulation was severe, and in some tribes the penalty was death. Should a player's wife be with child, he is not allowed to take part in the game under any circumstances, as he is then believed to be heavy and sluggish in his movements, having lost just so much of his strength as has gone to the child. At frequent intervals during the training period the shaman takes the players to water and performs his mystic rites, … They are also "scratched" on their naked bodies, as at the final game, but now the scratching is done in a haphazard fashion with a piece of bamboo brier having stout thorns which leave broad gashes on the backs of the victims.”

In many cases, the players had no other responsibility in the tribe or village -- sort of professionals like today.  There were even special songs and dances for the anetsa not unlike “Take Me Out to the Ball Game!”


  1. Baseball season has definitely been around for a long time--it just had a different name.

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