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'Little brother of war' brings people together

The Chickasaw Nation hosted a 12 vs. 12 stickball (Itti' kapochcha to'li') tournament this year during the 2023 Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.

It was a social event where men and women took to the field as part of eight teams. Players and officials from many tribes and from across the country came together to share their love of stickball and Chickasaw history and culture.

The championship team, Salty Necks, consisted of players from the Ada and Sulphur areas. Players on this team were comprised of both the Chickasaw Nation Chikasha Toli (men's) and Toli Ihoo (women's) stickball teams.

Tvshka Imponna, with competitors from the Durant area and affiliated with the Choctaw Nation's Tvshahoma stickball team, were runners-up at the competition.

Two other teams of note included Impa and the Honey Badgers. Team Impa included players from the Chickasaw Nation's youth stickball league, Bak Bak. Placing a respectable fourth overall, team Impa was the crowd favorite.

Players from both the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations' stickball teams made up the Honey Badgers.

Chickasaws, Choctaws and other Southeastern tribes have a long history of playing the traditional game of stickball. In the past, Southeastern tribes often settled land and political disputes with a game of stickball in lieu of fighting wars.

A stickball game was a serious event that often-left players with severe injuries. Stickball earned the monicker of being "the little brother of war." With so much at stake, stickball became rife with ceremonial traditions to enhance the chances of winning and honoring players.

Stickball games were often accompanied by stomp dances, singing, fasting and other rituals by the players. Men would paint their faces before the game as if they were going into combat. Games could last for days and were played with as few as a couple dozen people or numbering into the hundreds.

Bound through shared customs

Stickball is an ancient part of tribal culture and an evolving sport. The game has progressed to include players who are both men and women, along with children. Stickball is a common thread between many tribes. It is played by the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee and Seminole Nations of Oklahoma, among others.

With this shared tradition, First Americans from these tribes come together today to keep the game alive. Participants and referees traveled from as far as Mississippi to take part in the most recent tournament.

"They were short of referees, so we were asked to help," Tim Comby, Mississippi Choctaw elder, said. "Four of us came up from Mississippi to officiate this tournament. A couple players came too. I have been here (the Chickasaw Nation) once before to officiate. There aren't many local officials, but the number is growing."

Comby was one of six referees on the field during the games. He has played stickball for more than 40 years and has nearly 20 years of experience officiating games.

Among the six referees who took to the field was Chickasaw citizen Rick Miller. Miller has played stickball most of his life. With stickball players forming a close-knit community, he also devotes time to coaching stickball to the Choctaw Nation's youth.

"Everyone (who plays) wants to keep the game going beyond all of us," Miller said. "A few years ago, there weren't that many playing. Now with the small tournaments, along with the big ones, everyone has a chance to play."

"I am the Choctaw Nation's head official (for the youth league)," Miller said. "I've been involved with the league since the beginning in 2014. I was asked by Choctaw Councilman Joey Tom if I was interested in helping to get the league up and running. My youngest daughter Cyndee (Chickasaw/Choctaw) started playing at (age) 10 with the Southeast Thunder team from Broken Bow. Cyndee is still playing, she is 19 years old now."

Three types of stickball games are currently played within the Chickasaw Nation. The first is the social game between men and women around a single pole, where men use sticks, and women use their hands. The second is the ceremonial east-west game, played only by men.

The third type of game, which was played at the tournament during the Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival, is the modern field game. It is played between men and women, both using sticks, with a specific set of rules and field dimensions.

"I started officiating the games with Tim 'Spanky' Comby," Miller said. "He has shown me the ropes. I also play the game still, so I know that side also."

"All the tournaments currently play by the World Series (of Stickball) rules," Miller said. "Some may have modified rules due to the type of tournament, but the same basic rules are used. There are 12 on 12 games, 15 on 15 coed tournaments, along with the 30-player games."

The tournament was a daylong event. Hundreds gathered throughout the day to spectate and root for family and friends. Chickasaw citizens from across the U.S. came to experience the event, including first time Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival participants, elder Linda Jefferson, daughter Shauna Tomlinson and granddaughter Spencer Williams. Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, the family traveled more than 850 miles to experience the 2023 Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival.

"We were at last month's Listening Conference in Oklahoma City (a meeting where at-large citizens provide feedback concerning programs and services)," Tomlinson said. "We had such an amazing experience. We talked with other Chickasaws, and they told us we should attend Annual Meeting and Festival. With the conference feeling so much like home, we had to come back."

Jefferson gets her Chickasaw heritage from her mother, Ivory Gant Watkins of Milo, Oklahoma. Jefferson moved from Oklahoma to Wisconsin at an early age but came back home to attend the University of Oklahoma. This was Tomlinson's first extended visit to the Chickasaw Nation.

"I was born and raised in Wisconsin," Tomlinson said. "My only experience with Oklahoma is with Chickasaws. I feel like I needed to bring Spencer here. That way she can learn the history and culture. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming. We feel like family."

The stickball tournament was one of many cultural events witnessed by the family during Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival. They attended the stomp dance at Kullihoma (Red Springs) Grounds near Allen, Oklahoma, the night before the stickball tournament.

Leading up to the Chickasaw Annual Meeting and Festival, the family eagerly looked forward to the many events that took place during the week of the festival, with the capstone being Governor Bill Anoatubby's State of the Nation Address during Chickasaw Annual Meeting in Tishomingo.

 

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