The Cherokee
Ball Game

By Lowell Kirk

   When the long, hot days of dry, dusty summer begin to give way to the cool,
crisp, colorful days of autumn, “Footballmania” sweeps through the American
landscape like a wildfire rushing up a mountainside.
   All across the United States, excitement for the game consumes Little
League moms and pops. Friday nights are filled with local civic pride for high
school games. Saturdays bring us festivities, ceremonies and tail-gate parties on
college campuses. On Sundays millions of Americans focus on professional teams
and many continue the “mania” with Monday Night Football. Millions of us have a
obsession for the “ball game.” It is as American as apple pie and motherhood.

   However, many centuries before the hoards of European invaders came flooding
to America upon the heels of Christopher Columbus, for the original Americans, the
ball game was as American as cornbread, beans, pumpkins and pristine rivers. The
Cherokee, and all other Native American tribes, were just as obsessed with the ball
game as any present day weekend warrior. The Cherokee name for the ball game
was “anetsa.” It meant, “little brother of war.” Much of the village pride depended
upon winning ball games with rivals. Great players were sought after in much the
same manner as Peyton Manning and many concessions were made by villages to
obtain them. And the Indian ball game was a far more dangerous game than foot¬
ball. The entire village turned out for a ball game. Large wagers were made. The
Cherokee once won an entire Creek village in Georgia by winning a ball game.

   The rules of the game were simple enough. The ball itself was about the size of a
golf ball, made of deer hide and stuffed with hair and tightly sewn. Two goal posts
made of small saplings were stuck up about ten feet apart and located at each end
of the field, The field was usually about three or four acres. It had no marked
boundaries and side lines. It was usually located on level ground near a creek or
river which flowed eastward. Ideally it would be located about half way between
the rival towns, so there was no home team advantage. The Ball Play community in
Monroe county was a popular spot because of its location between the two villages
at Tellico and those on the Little Tennessee River.

   The game day was preceded by a night long ceremony of dancing and ceremony
by all the villagers. About every hour, the players would go through a ritual of
“taking of the Gdog G.” This consisted of the village Shaman or medicine men taking
the players to the water. There they applied “medicine” to improve the player’s
skills and improve their confidence. Spells were cast upon the opposing players to
make them weak.

   When morning came, each team would proceed to the playing field followed by
their adoring fans. The rules were few, but each team had to be evenly manned and
usually consisted of from 12 to 22 players, although occasionally there were many
more participants. There are some accounts which describe more than 300 players
on a team! Each player was assigned a specific opponent. From the ends of the
field, the teams would shout and hurl insults at their opponents. After this each
team would proceed to the middle of the field to begin the game. Each player was
equipped with two short sticks made of hickory with a small cup woven at its end.
There were two officials called “drivers.” One of the drivers would toss the small
deer hide ball into the air and the game began. (However, no one ever recalled
hearing John Ward shout, “Its football time in Tennessee!”)
A player had to catch the ball with his playing stick or scoop it from the ground
with the stick. Then the ball could be carried in the hand or even in the mouth. The
ball carrier would attempt to get the ball through the goal posts located at the end of
the field--any way he could! it could be carried, thrown to teammates, or even
kicked. Teammates tried to clear a path to the goal any way they could. There were
no “illegal” blocks. There were no “illegal” tackles. The first team to get the ball
through the goal posts twelve times won the game. The job of the defense was to
stop that from happening---any way they could! There were no protective pads.
Each player was stripped to a loin cloth and covered with a lavish coat of bear
grease. There were no penalties to prevent “holding.” That was what the bear
grease was for. Offensive players would attempt to grab and throw the defensive
players to the ground and hold them there. Sometimes fights would break out be¬
tween two players. The drivers held long switches or sticks and would beat the two
fighters to get them to stop fighting.

   Many times the ball carrier was flung to the ground and a “pile up” occurred. If
the ball stopped moving, a driver would stop the action, take the ball and throw it
into the air again to begin play anew. Injuries such as broken arms and legs fre¬
quently happened and sometimes players would be killed If a player were injured
so badly as to be removed from the game, the other team had to drop a player out of
the game, to keep the sides even in number. If a player was killed on the field, the
death could not be revenged by the usually “Blood Law” of a life for a life. That
was all a part of the game. On occasions, even some spectators were injured. If the
ball were tossed into the spectators, all of the players would make a mad rush for it
and the spectators would be forced to flee. Sometimes the crowd could not get out
of the way in time.

   There are many accounts of games lasting all day, and on some occasions, games
were called because of darkness and renewed the next day, until twelve goals were
scored by the winning team. The greatest players were honored as heroes “Little
brother of war” was a very appropriate name for this sport. The importance of a
ball game can be compared to the medieval European joust festivals. And just like
the medieval joust festivals, war between tribes was occasionally interrupted by a
temporary truce to engage in a ball game. It was a violent game and brings to mind
a modern combination of football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse. In fact, the game
of lacrodde is generally believed to have grown out of the Native American ball

   The Indian ball game had ancient origins and was played by all American tribes
with only slight variations. In 1676 the Spanish Friar Juan de Paiva described in
detail the game which he was told was played in North Florida since “Pagan Times.”
Friar Paiva strongly supported the Spanish efforts to end the game, as it strongly
supported the Spanish efforts to end the game, as it interfered with Christian beliefs.
Clearly the ball game had religious overtones. Friar Paiva also pointed out that
sometimes prospective players were not eager to participate. “They often had to be
cajoled into playing by entreaties or by a gift of something with which to wager.
{Early day Pete Rose types!} Skilled players were especially pampered. To keep
them in the village, they were given a house, their fields were planted for them, and
their misdeeds were winked at by the village authorities.” Friar Paiva pointed out
that the players frequently took “liberties” with the ladies. This mid l7th descrip¬
tion by the Spanish Friar Paiva sounds very similar to descriptions of late 20th Cen¬
tury athletes, and is good evidence that the more things change, the more they stay
the same!

   During the Civil War, Union soldiers attempted to burn the railroad bridges in
East Tennessee. There is an account which describes a unit of Cherokee warriors of
the Thomas Legion who were assigned to defend a bridge on the Holston River at
Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. Being bored with their duty, the Cherokee engaged
in a ball game. While the Confederate Cherokee were playing the game, Union
troops came in and burned the bridge!

   The Cherokee still make efforts to preserve their ancient culture. Each year
during the first week of October in Cherokee, North Carolina, a Cherokee fair is
held. One of the many traditions displayed at the fair is a Cherokee ball game. Its
worth seeing.

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