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Choctaw stickball: A fierce, ancient game deep in Mississippi

The sport is violent, with few rules, and defiantly true to its Native American roots. And each summer, a tournament is held to decide the champion of the game known in Choctaw as tolih.

October 18, 2011|By Baxter Holmes, Los Angeles Times
  • After the final game of the Choctaw World Series of Stickball in Choctaw, Miss., James Denson, No. 9, and his Beaver Dam teammates greet their opponents from Conehatta.
After the final game of the Choctaw World Series of Stickball in Choctaw,… (Baxter Holmes, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Choctaw, Miss. — Bum, bum, bum, bum …

As the Choctaw drummer settles into his cadence, nearly 100 men in blood-red shirts, shorts and bandannas huddle around their leader in a darkening high school parking lot beneath the golden glow of a floodlight.

"Big night!" James Denson, the team's star player, shouts three times. At 6-foot-3, he's taller than most, a muscular 208 pounds and square-jaw handsome. His team, Beaver Dam, is just minutes away from playing in the championship game of an ancient and violent sport known as stickball, a cousin of lacrosse that is defiantly true to its American Indian roots.

"Do y'all want it bad?" Denson asks.

They answer, bouncing foot to foot on the warm asphalt, banging together pairs of hickory sticks outfitted with oblong netted loops at the ends.

The 200 or so sticks slamming together create a high-pitched clatter like simultaneous pistol fire that echoes off the asphalt and syncs up with the drum being pounded 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.

The players begin shouting and whooping, loud and louder, drowning out the crickets chirping in the nearby skyscraper pine trees.

"Then let's go get it!" Denson shouts, and they crash down a tunnel toward the football field, bashing their sticks on concrete walls, on metal poles, screaming mad, wild-eyed.

For centuries, tribes played to settle their disputes without weapons, hence stickball's nickname, "Little Brother of War." But the game still was brutal. In the late 1800s, James Mooney, an American anthropologist, declared: "Almost everything short of murder is allowable."

It's still known for violence. Players wear no pads, no helmets and rarely shoes. Most veterans have multiple scars, often cutting through eyebrows because the nearly 32-inch sticks, usually carved from concrete-hard hickory, tend to smack there.

The nine-day Choctaw World Series of Stickball tournament this summer featured 45 teams, most from central Mississippi, the tribe's ancestral home. But on this night, only Beaver Dam and Conehatta, two bitter rivals, remain. Beaver Dam is trying for its fourth straight championship.

Before 5,000 fans, the teams march single file onto the field, Denson in the middle of Beaver Dam's pack and the drummer out front, always out front.

Bum, bum, bum, bum …

Denson was 9 when his father took him to watch a stickball practice. Now 31, he's arguably the best player in Mississippi and one of the most recognizable figures at the tribe's fair held each summer near the town of Philadelphia.

As he walks the fairgrounds, friends and fans call out: JD! James D!

He smiles and replies in Choctaw. Few can speak it back. Time, assimilation and efforts by the government to "civilize" American Indians have contributed to its decline.

But stickball holds on. For many it 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, played the game and works at an Oklahoma Indian museum.

Though the championship game will be broadcast on local television, the sport isn't covered by mainstream media. Henry Williams, the series' commissioner, likes it that way. Should there be national attention, he says, "they'll take it away from us."

In tolih, as the game is known in Choctaw, 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, an egg-sized ball wrapped in woven strips of deer hide or leather.

Thirteen orange-shirted referees officiate. If the ball sails out of bounds, the nearest referee instantly throws out a new ball, so play never stops. But mostly the referees focus on the players, making sure they don't touch the towa with their hands and that if they tackle someone, they drop their sticks first. Those really are the only rules.

One rule never enforced but certainly long understood here was that non-Choctaws weren't welcome to play, especially in World Series games. "They told me I was the first white guy to play," said Duane Reinhardt, 52, a pastor at the nearby Pearl River Mennonite Church, who was watching the tournament.

Reinhardt was playing for Beaver Dam in the 1986 series when he went for a ball that had landed just in front of him.

"Get that, white boy!" he remembers hearing from behind. Within seconds, he said, about five Choctaws flattened him.

To begin tonight's game, 60 players take the field, 30 from each team. An official tosses the ball up, like a tipoff in basketball, above a cluster of them at midfield.

They leap high, arms and sticks outstretched. The crowd roars.

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