Published on June 8, 2012 by Amy
Stickball has been a part of Choctaw life for hundreds of years. Opposing teams use handcrafted sticks or kabocca, and a woven leather ball, or towa. Each team tries to advance the ball down the field to the other team’s goalpost using only their sticks, never touching or throwing the ball with their hands. Points are scored when a player hits the opposing team’s goalpost with the ball.
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The earliest historical reference to Choctaw stickball was a Jesuit priest’s account of a stickball game around 1729. During that period, the Choctaws lived in towns and villages scattered across the area that is now southern Mississippi . When disputes arouse between these communities, stickball provided a peaceful way to settle the issue. These games were hard-fought contests that could involve as few as twenty or as many as 300 players.
In his book The Mississippi Choctaws at Play: The Serious Side of Leisure, anthropologist Kendall Blanchard describes how an 18th century game might have looked:
“The nature of the playing field was never strictly defined. The only boundaries were the two goalposts at either end of the playing area and these could be anywhere from 100 feet to five miles apart, as was the case in one game in the 19th century…”
“There were no boundaries on the sides of the playing field, and the game’s action simply followed the ball. Many times spectators were rousted from comfortable vantage points as the fleet-footed, fast-swinging … athletes scrambled after a far-flung pass … ”
“The rules, like the layout of the playing field, were ambiguous and limited to only three or four stipulations. Of primary importance was the restriction that no player was to touch the ball with his hands, using instead only his sticks to carry and throw the small ball. At no time were spectators allowed to interfere with the process. If they did, a penalty was assessed against their team … ”
“While players could tackle, block, or use any reasonable method to interfere with the other team’s movement of the ball, there were implicit limits to acceptable violence.”
Mississippi Choctaws continue to play stickball. When the first Choctaw Fair was held in 1949, stickball was an important event, but only a handful of teams took part. Today, anywhere from 8 to 10 teams meet during the fair in a single elimination tournament. The championship game closes out the fair, with the fans filling the Choctaw Central High School football stadium to cheer their teams on.
Modern stickball has a few more rules than its historical predecessor. The rules are printed and distributed to all players before the fair begins. The game is played in four fifteen-minute quarters. Players still score points by hitting a post set up in the middle of the football goal post. They still advance the ball without touching it, using only their kabocca.
The appearance of the players is different, too. For most of the 20th century, players wore handmade uniforms consisting of pants hemmed just below the knee and open-necked, pullover shirts. These were made in the community colors and decorated with the diamond patterns found on traditional clothing. In the late 1970′s, those uniforms gave way to gym shorts and team t-shirts, but many players now wear headbands with the diamond design in community colors.
The resurgence of interest in stickball keeps several Choctaw craftsmen busy, since the kabocca and towa used by the players have to be handmade. The kabocca are carved from hickory and bent at one end to shape the cup of the stick. Leather or deer hide thongs are tied to make the pocket in which the players catch and carry the ball. The towa is made from cloth tightly wrapped around a small stone or piece of wood. Once it is wrapped to the desired size, the maker weaves a leather thong or deer hide over the cloth.