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Revitalization of Choctaw Stickball in Oklahoma

Ancestral game once again bringing families, tribes together

Iti Fabvssa

   This December, the writers of Iti Fabvssa would like to take another look at the game of stickball. In July 2010, Iti Fabvssa presented a little bit about the history of Choctaw stickball. This month we want to make a tribute to the recent revitalization of Choctaw stickball in Oklahoma.

   Stickball is still played by many of the southeastern tribes. In Choctaw, we call our version of the game "ishtaboli" or "kapucha;" it is also known as the little brother of war. The game is played with two sticks, one in each hand. The sticks, or "Kapucha," are made from hickory or other hardwoods, and are either cut from the tree trunk or made from saplings. The sticks have cups at one end, which are used to hold the ball. The cups are formed by thinning the wood of the stickball stick at one end, and then bending this thinned portion around to form a loop. The lose end is attached back to the handle of the stickball stick with leather or electric tape. The cup is then flared out, which pitches it forward slightly. Leather strips are used to make a lacing inside the cup, so that it can hold the ball. Sometimes players attach hair from a horse or other animal, to their sticks, so that they will be able to duplicate the desirable qualities of that animal on the stickball field. The ball, called a "towa," is generally made of tightly wadded cloth wrapped in a laced pattern of leather. The size of the ball varies, but is usually close to that of a golf ball.

   To score a point, a player must either hit the goal post with his sticks, while holding the ball in them, or throw the ball against the post. The game can be played in one of two ways: either a time limit is used, as in football, or the teams agree to play to a certain score. The rules can be altered and the play style changed to meet the needs of the environment and the players. Due to this flexibility the game can be played inside or outside, with only one pole, and with any age or sex.

   In a tournament setting the Choctaws of Oklahoma play in their own individual way. Usually the game is played on natural field that is measured to the approximate dimensions of a 100-yard football field. At either end of the field is a goal post, called a "fabvssa." The goal posts are made from a 4x4 set vertically that extends no more than 12 feet into the air. The posts are placed in the center of the field with 10 to 15 yards of space left behind. No limit exists on the number of players that a team can have, however only 30 of them can be on the field at one time. Players usually wear T-shirts, sometimes with sleeves cut off, and shorts. Traditional forms of dress such as breach cloths and the use of paint are also acceptable. The game can be played barefoot or in shoes; cleats are not allowed.

   Today's Choctaw stickball is full-contact and played without protective padding or helmets. Because many players work and have families there are rules in place to protect them from major injury. Some common rules: no touching the ball, no slamming or clothes lining, no swinging sticks at other players, no hitting below the knees, and no late or early hits. Tackling can only be done to the individual who has possession of the ball.

   During the 2011 Choctaw Nation Labor Day Festival the Nation hosted its first Stickball Tournament. Curtis Billy and Josh Willis were recognized at the event for their contributions to stickball. Curtis Billy is a language teacher at the Choctaw Nation Language Department. Curtis doesn't just teach Choctaw language, he has been involved in promoting Choctaw history and culture his whole life. Josh Willis is the cultural coordinator for stickball at the Choctaw Nation Cultural Events Department. He has been head coach for the Choctaw Nation stickball team since late 2009.

   Revitalization of stickball in Oklahoma started as far back as the 1970s in Broken Bow. Curtis had been working for the Broken Bow Public Schools when a number of students from Broken Bow High School asked if he could help them learn the game of stickball. Curtis contacted his uncle, Clelland Billy, who worked for the Nation helping to revitalize culture and language. Curtis and Clelland both decided that making stickball sticks would be the first step. Curtis, Clelland, and the students gathered at the Indian Development Center in Wright City one weekend. The students were taught what tools to use, how to split the wood, and how to make the sticks. Now with sticks in hand, the students started to practice and learn the rules of the game. During the next few years, the group did demonstrations at tribal events and cultural events for schools, demonstrating the game but also teaching it to others.

   In 1975 Curtis and the youth did their first exhibition game at the Choctaw Nation Labor Day Festival in front of the Capitol Museum.

   In 1980 they added Choctaw Social Dance. Every year since then, stickball is played and dances have been performed on the same field at the Labor Day gathering. Today Bryon Billy, Curtis's son, has taken over for his father and continues the tradition of teaching game and dance.

   Since 1949 the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has played stickball at their Choctaw Fair in Philadelphia, Miss. They started the World Series of Stickball where eight to 12 teams compete every year to see who will win.

   Taught by his grandfather, Josh Willis has been playing stickball since he was a child. Josh and his family moved to Oklahoma in 2008. Seeing the potential of the Oklahoma players Josh and his wife, Malesia, wanted to form a stickball team in Oklahoma. With the support of Chief Gregory E. Pyle, Assistant Chief Gary Batton, and Executive Director Sue Folsom, Josh was approved to form a team just in time to compete in the 2009 World Series of Stickball. In early 2010, Josh attended the first coaches meeting in Philadelphia in order to enroll his team of 47 players under the team name OK Choctaws. However, no team outside Mississippi had ever played in the series. Josh worked with the stickball committee over the weeks and with the support of the late Henry Williams, the stickball commissioner, the team was approved.

   Dressed in turquoise and black the OK Choctaws with Josh as the head coach and Bryon Billy, Jay Mule and Steve Jacobs as assistant coaches, headed down to Philadelphia. The team that they were to face was a veteran Mississippi group known as Unified. The OK Choctaws lost to Unified by a score of 12 to 2; however, the team gained respect and support from a number of fans in Mississippi.


Picture provided by Choctaw Nation: LISA REED
The OK Choctaw team at the 2011 World Series of Stickball.

   For the 2011 season, the OK Choctaws started practice in March. Determined to do better, they practiced every Sunday expanding their player count to 83. In July, at the World Series of Stickball in Mississippi, the team had the honor to be led onto the field by Chief Pyle.

   With Josh Willis as head coach and Joey Tom, Les Williston, Steve Jacobs and Kerry Willis as assistant coaches, they made their way onto the field to play against Nukoachi. The young Mississippi team learned the hard way not to underestimate the Oklahoma players. The OK Choctaws lost 6 to 4, but they played hard.

   Josh told the players "Everyone did their job, did their part, did what they were supposed to do. We might have lost the game, but we gained the respect of the Mississippi Band." The Ok Choctaws are expected to play again at the World Series of Stickball in 2012.

   In July of 2011 Josh was hired as the cultural coordinator for stickball in the Cultural Events Department. A stickball committee was soon formed and it was decided the Choctaw Nation would host its first Stickball Tournament during the 2011 Labor Day Festival. The Tvshka Homma stickball team was formed to represent the Choctaw Nation. The team was made up of Chickasaw players as well as Oklahoma and Mississippi Choctaw players. Once word got out about the tournament, three other teams immediately signed up. The Muscogee (Creek) team registered. Players from Unified and Bok Cito arrived from Mississippi, and temporarily merged in order to meet tournament requirements. Before the tournament, Tvshka Homma had the honor of being led onto the field by Chief Pyle, Assistant Chief Batton and the Tribal Council. After introductions were made, Chief Pyle honored Curtis Billy with an award showing recognition for his cultural activities with the youth.

   All three teams played hard, but there could only be one victor. Unified left the tournament as the winner; taking with them a trophy, prize, and one year's worth of bragging rights. Tvshka Homma had lost on their own ground, but when the players made their last huddle, they saw Josh Willis with a huge smile on his face. Josh had seen all the players who participated. He told his team "We made history tonight."

   The Chickasaws, Oklahoma and Mississippi Choctaws, and the Creeks all came together to play their ancestral game. This, Josh thought, was the next step in revitalizing the game of stickball and a medium to bring together the tribal people of the southeast once again. Without Chief Pyle, Assistant Chief Batton, Executive Director Sue Folsom, the Billy Family, the Willis family, the coaches, and the players and their families, none of this would be possible.

Picture 3

Picture provided by Choctaw Nation: LISA REED
Chief Gregory E. Pyle, right, presents Curtis Billy with a gift of appreciation for all that Billy has done to revitalize stickball in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more history please refer to the following sites.


Sounds of Choctaw - Social Greeting
Sounds of Choctaw - Weather
Lesson of the Day