For the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians women’s team, Ittibah Achafah, the game might have come down to just one point. One score. One satisfying thud of the woven leather ball against the wooden pole.
At halftime on this Labor Day weekend in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma, the huddled players panted and reminded each other to communicate. The championship game of the inaugural women’s stickball tournament held in the capital of the Choctaw Nation was still scoreless; it was anyone’s game.
Ittibah Achafah, whose name means “Come Together” in Choctaw, was already down one match against MBCI, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ other women’s team, in the double elimination tournament. Despite the pressure, despite the fatigue, despite the fact that they started tournament play with only 27 players on the field, not the 30 required, defender Kristin Josh, her dark hair tightly braided, was smiling.
Josh, 23, a member of the Choctaw Nation from Carthage, Mississippi, grew up with stickball and had cobbled Ittibah Achafah together via Facebook barely a month before. Now, here they were, tied with the tournament’s favorites for the championship game. As one of the defenders whose job it is to guard her team’s pole, Josh prepared to shut MBCI down. “Once one person scores, the team will get into a groove, and that’s hard to stop,” she said.
The first point could easily be the last in the game, and Josh knew the MBCI team to be good shooters. Whether Josh and her teammates clacked their sticks together out of anxiety or adrenaline was hard to tell: Many also carried grins.
“I know we can beat them. I know we can do it,” said Josh, eyeing the field, a palpable sense of hunger in her gaze.
They had 16 minutes left to prove it.
Stickball is the national game of the Choctaw Nation and an integral sport among the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole and other tribes. Like lacrosse, it is a team sport played with a ball and netted sticks, but the similarities end there. The game varies from tribe to tribe, but one aspect is universal: its physicality. Any player who has the ball in their possession can expect to be tackled, pulled to the ground by their jersey or brightly colored breechcloth, or hit full force by a shoulder charge. Players often leave the field with bruises, deep gashes, even broken bones. And many play barefoot, which can cause unique, and painful, injuries.
Many Choctaw say the game was created to resolve intertribal disputes in lieu of going to war; in fact, stickball is nicknamed “the little brother of war.” Yet the game also represents an almost sacrosanct honor whose roots stretch back hundreds of years. Honor – and bragging rights.
The sun had finally set on the fans gathered in the stands to watch the tournament. In the first and second quarter, Ittibah Achafah and MBCI remained tied at zero-zero. Then, late in the third quarter, a scrum of players crowded the ball in a corner near the Ittibah Achafah pole. The game got heated, and the players’ sticks clacked together in a frenzy.
After several seconds clawing at the ground, an MBCI player managed to snatch the ball and chuck it over her shoulder, connecting with the pole and delivering a loud THWOCK!
The quarter ended. The teams walked to their sidelines for one last huddle. Ittibah Achafah had eight minutes left to score at least two points.
Perhaps the hardest part of stickball is the scoring. Each player carries two handcrafted sticks, often made of smooth hickory and rounded at the end, with a net the size of a half-cupped hand. The ball is made of leather woven around a stone and then dipped in bright orange paint, and players may only touch it with their sticks. To score a point, players must hurl the ball and hit the opposing team’s wooden pole, a 4-by-4-inch beam that stands about 12 feet high. The field is similar in size to a soccer field, quarters last only eight minutes, and no time-outs are allowed, even for injuries. Whenever the ball goes out-of-bounds, a referee, one of a dozen, immediately throws a new ball into play.
Players treat their sticks with great respect; many regard the stick as an extension of their hands. “I know some people that, when they sleep, they keep them right next to their bed,” said Harold Comby, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians who has been announcing games from his perch in the press box for decades.
Even though tournament play at the annual Choctaw Holiday Festival in Oklahoma is in its sixth year, the Mississippi Choctaws have hosted what is regarded as the “stickball world series” for decades. The Mississippi Band is considerably outnumbered by its cousins in Oklahoma; it has about 11,000 members compared to the more than 220,000 in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. But its teams are disciplined and often include players whose families have competed for generations. Being a player is a great honor, Comby said: “They may not have a job, but if they play stickball they are respected in the community.”
On the first day of tournament play, MBCI managed to beat Josh and her teammates 4-1, and the final score had become a point of contention on social media. “Look, they’re saying online that they beat us 9-1,” one player told her head coach, Fabien Tubby, before vowing to set the record straight and running off to show her teammates.
Tubby smiled when he heard the rumor that his team had lost by eight points, rather than the actual three. He didn’t really mind; it meant that his players would walk into the championship game with a chip on their shoulder. “There’s a whole bunch riding on this,” he said.
Held up by a pair of crutches, Tubby stood on the sidelines watching his team play, the defenders standing next to their poles holding their sticks high as others chased after the ball and took turns throwing it their way. Tubby, who had taken a hard hit in a men’s game earlier that day, could barely walk, and he grimaced in between yelling words of encouragement. Though Tubby hails from Mississippi, he has played for the local Oklahoma Choctaw team, Tushka Homma, for years now; his team has lost to his kin, the men’s MBCI team, for five years in a row.
Yet despite the odds faced by the women’s team that day, Tubby was confident. “If they play the way I know they can, it shouldn’t even be a game,” he said through a wince.
Communication is key in stickball. From a spectator’s vantage point, it might seem like a mess of clashing sticks and colliding bodies, but on the field there is a conversation taking place, sometimes barely audible above the steady drumbeat from the drummers at the corners. Other times, it is unmistakable, with screams of “Defense!” “Sideline!” and “Hit her!” ringing out above the field. Tubby had reminded his players to speak to each other constantly. As Billy Curtis, a coach for the Tushka Homma women’s team, told his players the day before, if you don’t communicate, “It might as well be 35 versus 25.”
Although this was the first women’s tournament in Tuskahoma, Choctaw women have been playing stickball for hundreds of years. Les Williston, who played an integral part in bringing the game back to the Choctaw Nation in the form of tournament play, knew a women’s bracket would eventually be needed. He wanted Choctaw children, regardless of their gender, to carry on the honor of the game, just as generations of their forebears had. He couldn’t help grinning at the young children who raced around the edges of the field with sticks in hand or at the thought of those who carry theirs to school. “That’s honor that kids can carry with them every day,” he said. “They’re proud to carry their sticks and say, ‘I’m a stickball player.’ ”
Another place of honor belongs to the drummers. Typically, two drummers representing each team stand at opposite corners of the field, keeping the beat of the game in unison. In a time before social media and telephones, the drums marked the beginning of a match for the surrounding communities, Comby said. One of each pair of drummers often pounds a steady rhythm, while the others fills in the empty spaces. A string bound by a metal clasp on the underside of the drum creates an unmistakable buzz that fills the air, balancing the deep, low beat. The steady rhythm hums through the metal seats in the stands and adds a cadence to the action on the field.
Back on the field, it was down to the final eight minutes. The first score by MBCI, was, according to the Ittibah Achafah players, a lucky shot, and in the last quarter, Josh and her teammates got fierce: The hits came harder; the running more frantic, and each shot taken by either team caught the collective breath of the crowd.
For the first several minutes of the quarter, it felt as if Ittibah Achafah could even the score at any second. The smacking of sticks within a mass of bodies and a quick pitch of the ball toward the MBCI pole happened once, twice, then a third time, before a defender threw it nearly the length of the field and back into Ittibah Achafah territory. That’s where the ball would largely remain until the final minute of play, when it once again neared the MBCI pole.
But MBCI’s defense held on as the final whistle blew, and the tired but smiling players walked off the field.
Ittibah Achafah huddled at the sideline, and Tubby made his way to the center of the circle on his crutches. If the Ittibah Achafah players were crestfallen, it didn’t show. They compared scratches and wounds, and their eyes glistened with the thrill of the game. “I’m not even mad,” said one of Josh’s teammates, a wide smile on her face. “Who’s coming back next year?” yelled another.
The team gathered together and put their sticks in the air, Josh leading the chant: “One, two, three: ACHAFAH!”
Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. This article first published Sept. 10 on hcn.org.