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June 22, 2013

"See it as we see it." Choctaw historian Olin Williams talks about stickball

Stickball table

Olin Williams meets with visitors during Choctaw Days 2013 at the museum. Mr. Williams, who was born into the Mississippi Choctaw and moved to Oklahoma when he married an Oklahoma Choctaw woman, brings together knowledge of both groups' stickball traditions. In the foreground are three pairs of stickball sticks and a ball.

Historian Olin WIlliams is one of the people taking part in the Native festival Choctaw Days: A Cultural Awakening this weekend at the museum. Hosted by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the festival offers visitors an opportunity to learn about Choctaw history and culture from people who are helping sustain and revitalize Choctaw language, music and dance, basketry, and other cultural traditions through research, writing, teaching, practice, and outreach.

Williams' particular interest is in studying objects of cultural patrimony. "I want to know how people thought in the past. These things can tell us," he says. At the festival, he's focusing on stickball, one of the oldest sports played in the Americas and one of many success stories of Native American cutural survival and awakening. Played in some form by the Native peoples of eastern North America from what is now southern Canada to Mississippi, stickball is described in European accounts dating to the early 18th century. 


George Catlin (1796–1872), Ball-play of the Choctaw—Ball Up, 1846–50. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 32 in (65.4 x 81.4 cm). 1985.66.428A, Smithsonian American Art Museum. "I have made it a uniform rule while in the Indian country to attend every ball play I could hear of—if I could do it by riding a distance of twenty or thirty miles," Catlin wrote in 1834Note that one of the keywords used to tag Catlin's account at the link is ruffianism

"We know what the Europeans saw—what they thought they saw,"  Williams says. "I'd like people to know, 'What do the Choctaw see?' It wasn't undisciplined. There was a sense of civility to it. Instead of going to war, people could play a severe game of stickball to settle disputes.

"To us, stickball is telling a story. My grandmother told me that each clan has its own perspective on what the game is about. For our clan, it is a symbol of a family's struggle. The two sticks are husband and wife, father and mother. They work together. The ball is posterity. All of life is the family's struggle for its posterity." 

If you can't go to the museum today to meet Olin Williams, or visit the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Capitol Museum in Durant someday, the Choctaw Department of Cultural Services has a wonderful collection of essays about the nation's history and culture online. Start anywhere and browse, and when you read the article on stickball, think of Mr. Williams's wish that we all could see stickball as the Choctaw see it.

Note: Iti Fabטssa—the name of the archive and the column in the Choctaw Nation newspaper that is its source—honors the sacred pole that guided the Choctaw on their original journey; fabטssa is also the word for the goal post in stickball.


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