Like people in societies everywhere, southeastern Indians enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, a variety of games of skill and chance. Historic accounts indicate that Native American children and adults regularly played dozens of games, including the forerunner of the shell game. Two games—chunkey and stickball—served important social and cultural roles, and some athletes even became celebrities and were a source of community pride. Generally it was young warriors who received such attention because the status gained from athletic prowess was closely associated with the status acquired from success in battle. Gambling on the outcomes of contests was common, and bets could reach very large sums. Both men and women wagered on these games, betting virtually any kind of material possession, sometimes everything they owned. Stickball continues to be popular today among Indians and non-Indians alike.
Throughout the Mississippian period (1000–ca. 1600 AD), the most popular and important game among Native Americans of the Southeast was chunkey. A contest between two players, the game featured a wheel-like object about the size of a modern hockey puck, known as a chunkey stone, or discoidal as it is referred to by anthropologists, as well as a long pole carried by each player. The game began when a player rolled the chunkey stone down a prepared, smooth dirt surface by alternating contestants. Each contestant then hurled his pole after the chunkey stone. The winner was the player whose pole landed closest to the chunkey stone after it came to rest. These contests between men sometimes went on for hours until the participants were literally exhausted.
Many of the intricacies of chunkey's rules and scoring have been lost, but historic accounts make it abundantly clear that chunkey played an integral role in southeastern Indian societies of the time. In many ways chunkey and other early games of the region played roles similar to those in contemporary societies, but they differed greatly in one important aspect—most included ritual or religious components.
Each town featured a chunkey field of well-packed and carefully maintained soil or sand. Chunkey stones, some magnificently crafted and polished, were the collective property of clans and sometimes whole towns rather than of individuals. Several historic accounts of the game suggest an association between chunkey and the Mississippian ruling elite, and images of chunkey players are commonly included in Mississippian imagery, an honor bestowed on no other type of athlete. After the arrival of Europeans, chunkey declined in importance (perhaps as a result of changes in tribal political structure in the region), and there are no records of it being played in the historic period. (Cherokees in North Carolina have begun to play a reconstructed form of the game, however.) In tribal folklore, chunkey was created by the Gods and played by mythical culture heroes who in the oldest stories are portrayed as a chiefly elite. It seems chunkey was an integral part of the ideology that helped legitimize the ruling elite, and during the Mississippian period, chunkey stones may very well have belonged exclusively to the chiefly lineages.
As chunkey declined, stickball grew in popularity among southeastern Indian groups. The game likely rose in prominence as intertribal warfare declined during the early nineteenth century because it offered young men a way to gain the status they normally would have received through bravery in battle. The skills they needed in warfare—strength, speed, endurance, and agility—were also valuable assets for stickball players, and the game was often referred to as "younger brother to war" and "little war." Early observers, including U.S. Bureau of Ethnology anthropologist James Mooney, described the games as extremely chaotic and quite violent, not unlike a battle. At the turn of the twentieth century, he spent several months among the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina and photographed and documented tribal practices and games.
Unlike the lacrosse players elsewhere in North America, who played with one stick, southeastern Native Americans played stickball with two sticks. Their cups on the rackets were also a good bit smaller. Most tribes used sticks made from hickory that averaged between two and two-and-a-half feet in length with cups made from woven strips of leather or rawhide. Most players knew how to make sticks, but many preferred sticks made by acknowledged stick-making experts. The balls were made from stitched hide stuffed with deer hair, often with a small stone or other solid object in the center. Balls were quite hard and capable of inflicting injury as the competitors flung them back and forth to one another at high speed. Players generally went barefoot and wore only a breechcloth.
Stickball fields varied in size depending on the number of players. Team size did not matter as long as the two sides were evenly matched. Goal posts were of three types: a single post, paired posts, and paired posts with a crossbar. Goals varied according to the type of post being used, but generally players had to strike the single post with the ball or pass through the paired posts while in possession of the ball. Each goal was generally worth one point, with varying numbers needed for a win, and this in turn determined the length of each game. Each team had at least one leader, whose role was comparable in some ways to that of a modern coach: he was paid, gave advice at practices, and often gave inspirational talks before games. These men tended to be shamans, or spiritual leaders, as well and performed rituals calling for skill and strength for their team and protection from the actions of rival shamans. Players were also expected to avoid certain foods and activities in the days leading up to a contest. For instance no one was to eat rabbit because it was thought the rabbit's tendency to become frightened and run about in a confused manner would be passed on to the player. The most important prohibition, however, was avoiding women whose power it was believed would diminish a man's martial capabilities.
In addition to the standard stickball game, most southeastern Indian groups had a version in which a team of men competed against a team of women. This type of contest often featured a single goal in the middle of the field and modified rules. For example, women were permitted to pick up the ball with their hands, an action that constituted a severe foul in men-only versions of the game. These co-ed ball games were a socially acceptable way for unmarried young men and women to interact, and the men generally let the women win. Other less important games included arrow toss, kickball (probably similar to modern-day hackeysack), and dice games played with dice made from fruit pits or animal teeth.
Stickball is still popular today and continues to be a source of community solidarity and pride among southeastern Indians
who remained in the region after removal. It is also popular among those who now live elsewhere and took the game with them
after removal. Most of these games take the form of exhibition matches played annually at tribal fairs, but the Mississippi
Choctaw hold what is known as the World Series of Stickball during the Choctaw Fair each July. During this event Choctaw teams
from each of the several communities on the reservation compete for the honor and prestige of being champion. The week-long
single elimination tournament is the highlight of the fair. Contemporary Native Americans often play stickball and other games
during annual tribal fairs.
Culin, Stewart. Games of the North American Indians. New York: Dover, 1975.
Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Vennum, Thomas. American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Eric E. Bowne
Wake Forest University
Published June 20, 2007
Last updated May 23, 2013