Tribal ‘war game’ gains fans at Oklahoma colleges

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Tahlequah, Oklahoma (AP) April 2011

Northeastern State senior Kinsey Shade emerged from the dogpile and streaked toward a pole, heaving the ball at a wooden fish near its top.

The ball missed the fish by inches and another melee quickly ensued.

Cries filled the air at NSU in Tahlequah as a faded red ball the size of a child’s fist flew through the air and landed with a thud, a swarm of sticks and hands trying to grab it.

Crack. Plop.

“Get it! Get it!”

As traditionally played by the southeastern tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw, stickball was once used to settle conflicts.

Now the “little war game” is bringing Native American students together at area colleges.

It’s been a staple of area tribes’ national holiday celebrations for years, but social stickball is seeing a resurgence at some Oklahoma colleges.

At NSU, six Native American student groups on campus host anywhere from one to three stickball games a semester, said Asa Lewis, the interim student coordinator for the school’s Center for Tribal Studies.

Recently, the groups hosted a stickball exhibition for students visiting from Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois State University. Another game is planned for April 13 as part of the school’s annual Symposium on the American Indian.

“It’s fellowship and part of our culture,” said Shade, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “You just go out there and play.”

After getting a crash course on the rules, many of NSU’s guests from Chicago joined in. Within the small space, observers were forced to take cover more than once from errant throws.

“It looks like they’re having a blast out there,” said Veronica Rangel, one of the group’s chaperones. “It’s like watching lacrosse’s more rugged cousin.”

In Stillwater, Oklahoma State University’s Alpha Pi Omega Sorority, a historically Native American sorority, hosts a monthly stickball game in front of Edmon Low Library.

“We wanted to foster a greater cultural awareness on campus,” said political science senior and chapter president Tabatha Harris. “This game originated with the Five Civilized Tribes and this is an interactive way for us to introduce our culture to students who might not have grown up around it.

“And it’s just fun.”

The chapter’s monthly games usually attract about 20 players, including students from Oklahoma City University and the University of Oklahoma. The Stillwater stickball players, in turn, send teams to tournaments, including a recent one at OU.

“I got hit in the head with a stick and broke my thumb at that tournament,” Harris said. “I’ve had (sorority) sisters hurt their knees, ankles and elbows in stickball games. Have to be tough to play.”

Student Jake Roberts didn’t pick the game up until college.

“It’s all-inclusive,” he said. “Yes, it’s a part of my culture, but it’s also got men, women and children all out there at once, playing and having fun.”