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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Choctaw Stickball: A Fierce, Ancient Game Deep in Mississippi
by Los Angeles Times
"[In stickball], almost everything short of murder is allowable." James Mooney, anthropologist, in the late 1800s

Mississippi: Last summer, 45 teams played in the 9-day Choctaw World Series of Stickball. On the final night, Beaver Dam and Conehatta, two bitter rivals, fought for the championship in front of 5,000 fans and a local television audience.

Stickball is an ancient, violent sport with few rules and defiantly true to its Native American roots. Each summer, a tournament is held to decide the champion of the game known as tolih in the Choctaw language.

Nearly 100 men in blood-red shirts, shorts and bandannas huddle around their leader in a high school parking lot beneath the golden glow of a floodlight.

"Big night!" shouts James Denson At a muscular 6-foot-3, the 31-year-old Denson plays for Beaver Dam and is the team's star player.

"Do y'all want it bad?"

His team answered by banging together pairs of concrete-hard hickory sticks with oblong netted loops at the ends.

The 200 or so sticks slamming together syncs up with a Choctaw drummer pounding about 60 beats per minute. That's the tempo of a healthy, beating heart at rest. And that is what the drumming represents — the game's heartbeat.

For centuries, tribes played tolih to settle disputes. In fact, stickball was often called, "Little Brother of War." At one time, Choctaw stickball imposed no limits on team size. Hundreds of players could compete at once.

Tolih was brutal and is still known for violence. Players wear no pads, no helmets and rarely shoes., Most veterans have multiple scars, often cutting through eyebrows because the 32-inch sticks tend to smack there.

For many, tolih is more than a game. "It's probably the only thing we've kept as a cultural property," says Olin Williams, 59, who grew up in Mississippi and played the game.

In tolih, two 12-foot-high wooden posts 4 inches wide stand at opposite ends of the field. Points are earned when players, using their sticks, or kobocca, hit the opposing post with the towa. A towa an egg-sized ball wrapped in woven strips of deer hide or leather.

Thirteen referees officiated. If the ball sailed out of bounds, a referee instantly threw out a new ball, so play never stops. But the referees focused mostly on the 60 players --- 30 from each team -- and on enforcing two rules: making sure players don't touch the towa with their hands, and if they tackle someone, they drop their sticks first.

The Beaver Dam drummer kept up his heartbeat patterns as the game continued at a furious pace. Meanwhile, a 10-member medical crew and two ambulances stood by.

"It's a good thing they hold [the tournament] once a year," said Allen Meely, an official for the tribe's Fire Department. "If they played it year-round, the hospital might be full."

At halftime the drummer, Jarrett Thomas, headed to his car and held his drum against the heater to dry out. The deer hide had gone flabby with the humidity. Thomas, 36, says the team needs his drum to be dry and loud if it's going to make a comeback.

When play resumed, Beaver Dam got the ball on offense and Thomas doubled his tempo -- 120 beats per minute.

"Like a heart beats faster, I guess," Thomas says.

In the end, Conehatta defeated Beaver Dam, 5-0.

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