The revival of chunkey,
an ancient Native American game, is played with two people
competing to land a spear closest to a rolling chunkey stone
and the closest spear to land without touching the stone received
a point. Cherokee Nation Native Games chunkey coordinator
Cole Hogner, center, watches as two competitors throw their
spears during a chunkey game at the 2019 Cherokee Nation Holiday.
The ancient game of chunkey has been revived in Cherokee communities
in recent years as a means to show another aspect of tribal culture
that is not well known.
It was played as far back as 600 CE and was thought to have started
in the Cahokia region. Southeastern tribes played chunkey for gambling.
Those who played risked their livelihoods and sometimes their lives,
said Cole Hogner, Cherokee Nation Native Games chunkey coordinator.
"Traditionally, it was taken very serious," he said. "People would
bet their house and everything they own on that game. From what
I've read, they said losers were known to have committed suicide.
After losing, I mean you lose everything. They didn't really have
anything to live for because afterward it was very shameful to lose
in that game."
Hogner said chunkey was popular and though Cherokees played it,
it did not belong to a specific tribe. "They believe it originated
in the Cahokia region, which is now present-day St. Louis, Missouri.
I read something recently that the game even traveled further down
into Mexico. The tribal people down that way in the Mexican region
they played a version of it."
According to research, chunkey equipment contained an 8-to-10-foot
spear, typically made from hickory or poplar, and a chunkey stone
or disc made of clay, sandstone or granite. Stone sizes varied but
were typically between 2 inches and 6 inches in diameter with concave
or convex sides and about 2 inches thick. Some stones had holes
in the middles of them for versions in which spears were thrown
through the openings.
United Keetoowah Band citizen Matt Girty has been studying and
making chunkey stones since 2005. "I'm just taking it from an artist's
standpoint. I don't know how they did it back in the day. I've been
trying to get as close as I can get to what I've been reading."
For today's chunkey, he makes stones from granite, steatite (a
soapstone) and sandstone at a medium size and thicker so they roll
Based on his research
of the game, United Keetoowah Band citizen Matt Girty makes
different sizes and types of chunkey stones. Girty said some
stones are concave on each side and some had holes drilled
into the center, based on the type of game played.
Though there are variations, historically, after the gambling occurred,
a chunkey stone was rolled down a flat clay-packed court with a
thin layer of sand. Spears were thrown or tossed, and whichever
spear slid and stopped nearest the stone when it stopped rolling
received a point, CN citizen and chunkey enthusiast Marcus Thompson
"They would roll the stone and they would throw their spears and
their spears would land and slide," he said. "They would play games
up to 12 points. They use trinkets and whatever possessions they
had to play the game and the loser would have to forfeit over his
Thompson said people are still studying how chunkey was played
because of its many variations. "We're trying to get the concept
of how it's played. Back then when they played it, it was on a hard
surface. It was almost cement-like. They packed the ground maybe
20 yards, 30 yards wide and maybe 70 yards long."
Point systems, court styles, spear styles and chunkey stones all
varied when played in ancient times. Each community or tribe had
its own version. But chunkey players today play as close to its
original form as possible with some alternatives.
Today, chunkey is played on a flat grassy area. The stone is rolled
and two players throw spears. Whoever's spear sticks in the ground
or lands closest to the stone after it stops rolling receives a
point. Games end when a player gets 11 points. Rather than gambling,
Cherokees of all ages now play for friendly competition.
Spears land in the grass
near a chunkey stone as it rolls. The closest spear to land
when the stone stops rolling receives one point. In the revived
chunkey game, players usually play to 11 points per game.
"The games can get lengthy, and it gets pretty competitive," Hogner
said. "I know people that practice at home. They practice throwing
their spears, and they make their own spears. It still holds a lot
of value as what it was intended for originally. The origin of it
was intended to bring everybody in the region (such as) Cahokians,
farmers, immigrants, visitors, all together... Just like stickball,
just like anything else, there's a lot of camaraderie and it's kind
of a brotherhood so to speak."
About the Author
Lindsey Bark grew up and resides in the Tagg Flats community in
Delaware County. She graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern
State University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in mass communication,
emphasizing in journalism.