Stickball, also known as the “Little Brother of War,” is one of the oldest team sports in North America and remains deeply significant to many Native American tribes today. Often called the “grandfather” or “creator’s game,” it connects Indigenous peoples across generations and geography through cultural tradition, spirituality, athleticism, and strategy. While tribes have their own unique styles and rules, stickball is commonly viewed as a “medicine game” to promote unity, fortitude, and well-being among individuals and communities. Its revival in recent decades highlights efforts to preserve Indigenous heritage.
Indigenous North American Stickball History and Origins
The sport’s Native American origins date back centuries and span tribes across the continent. Historical and ethnographic accounts suggest widespread popularity long before European contact.
The powerful Iroquois Confederacy, especially the Mohawk and Onondaga nations, were known as exceptional stickball players. Jesuit missionaries recorded games in the 1640s between hundreds of warriors that lasted days and covered miles of terrain. Many tribes played annually at ceremonial events and to resolve conflicts.
Cherokee, Choctaw, and Other Tribes
Cherokee stickball was a celebrated “little brother of war” with its own rituals and mythic tales. Choctaw beva or “shinny” had spiritual overtones, with players abstaining from intimacy before games. Great Plains tribes like the Cheyenne and Arapaho played highly physical stickball variants. Beyond skill, supernatural powers, and magic charms aided players in some tribal games.
Beyond just athletics, stickball carries deep cultural meaning for many Native Americans as the “creator’s game” and a “medicine game” tied to wellbeing.
Lacrosse the Creator’s Game
Iroquois oral tradition traces stickball to divine origins. The sport was said to be a gift from the Creator to strengthen Native people and replace tribal warfare. Hence stickball is called Dehuntshigwa’es in Onondaga (“men hit a rounded object”) and Tewaarathon (“little brother of war”) in Mohawk.
Medicine Game and Spiritual Meaning
Almost all tribes infused stickball with ceremonial and spiritual purposes beyond competition. Games and practices promoted cultural values like teamwork, fortitude, and courage that benefited the group over individuals. Many viewed stickball as a “medicine game” that ritually restored health and harmony to communities when played properly.
Tribal variations of stickball have unique equipment, fields, and rules but share common gameplay elements. Games teach teamwork and test speed, endurance, and courage.
Equipment and Field
Equipment is simple, with a pair of handheld sticks made of wood, often hickory, and a stuffed deer hide or wooden ball. The ball can weigh around 9 ounces to over a pound. Playing fields vary in size and terrain but span an open area between two landmarks. Goals could be tall planting sticks or just natural landscape features.
Rules and Gameplay
Teams often have 12-15 male players who try to advance the ball across the field by passing it with racket-like sticks and scoring at the goal. Play is very physical; players can disrupt passes using body checks with the shoulders, hips, and sticks. Typical games lasted hours or days until one team scored an agreed-upon number of goals.
Modern Revival and Preservation
While stickball’s popularity waned due to 19th-century persecution of Native culture, tribes are reviving the sport today for cultural education and cross-community bonding.
Native American Community Efforts
Many communities promote stickball in schools and tribal events to pass down the tradition. Players demonstrate techniques during cultural festivals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and other venues. Some schools even organize student leagues.
Intertribal Tournaments and Championships
Various intertribal tournaments like the annual Choctaw Indian Fair World Series and the Navajo Nation Fair Championships attract skilled teams. The annual World Lacrosse Championship features over 100 Native American teams. These games strengthen cultural pride and cross-community ties.
In summary, stickball has been vital to North American tribes for centuries as more than just a game. Its deep history as the “creator’s” and “medicine” game shows stickball’s ongoing importance to Indigenous cultural heritage and resilience today.
What Native American tribes played stickball traditionally?
Many tribes across the continent played their own traditional versions, especially the Iroquois Confederacy nations (Mohawk, Onondaga), Cherokee, Choctaw, Cheyenne, and Arapaho among others.
How do Native Americans view stickball culturally?
It is considered the “creator’s game” gifted to tribes to promote unity and well-being. The sport holds deep spiritual and ceremonial purpose as a “medicine game.”
What are the basic rules and equipment for stickball?
Teams use long wooden sticks to pass a ball and score goals on a field with natural boundaries. Play involves physical checking with the shoulders, hips, and sticks. The equipment is simple – just the sticks and the ball.
How has stickball been preserved in modern times?
Many tribes promote the sport culturally teaching youth skills and history. Intertribal tournaments bring together Native teams and fans. Some tribal schools organize leagues.
Why has stickball been revived as an important part of Native culture?
Playing stickball strengthens Indigenous identity, especially among youth. The sport’s ceremonial nature also reconnects communities to ancestral traditions and values.