by Alice C. Fletcher
INTRODUCTION—Indian ball games have one feature not found in the ball games as played by us; that is, with the Indian the ball is never pitched and tossed by hand during the play. At the opening of an Indian game the ball must be tossed by hand, but after that the ball is struck by a racket, stick or club and in that way sent from player to player and on to the goal. An exception to this general rule is found in an Omaha ball game given in the following pages.
The opening ceremony requires the ball to be handled and moved in a peculiar and ceremonial manner by the hand of the Umpire before he tosses it up for the beginning of the actual play.
The balls used by the Indians are of different materials—buckskin stuffed with hair; formed from roots, such as the wild-grape vine; wood; bladder netted with sinew; and in a few instances, of bone or stone.
INTRODUCTORY NOTE.—The game in which the ball is struck with a racket is almost exclusively played by men, but there are tribes where it is played by women, and one tribe, cited by Dr. Culin, where it is played by men and women together. The form of ball game where the racket is used was less widely distributed over the country than some others. It was most frequently found among tribes living near the Atlantic Coast and in the region of the Great Lakes. It had a limited range on the Pacific. There are two forms of the Racket Ball Game, one where a single racket is used and the other where two rackets are employed to catch the ball. The latter form is peculiar to the tribes formerly living in the Southern States. The game here given is presented as it is played among the Chippewa tribes dwelling in Minnesota.
Properties.—A ball, not too hard and the size usually employed for cricket. As many rackets as there are players. Red and yellow head-bands equally divided as to number and enough for all the players.
Directions.—The field should be as large as the camp ground will permit. At the extreme East of the field a tall pole should be set as a goal and a like pole at the West for the other goal. To the pole at the East a red streamer should be tied and a yellow streamer to the pole at the West. These poles should be practically in line and as distant from each other as it is conveniently possible to set them. The rackets should be made in camp. A racket can be made from a sapling cut at such length that when the racket is completed it will be 26 inches long. One end of the sapling is whittled fiat on one side for a sufficient length to be bent round to the shaft or handle so as to form the rim of the circular receptacle which is to receive the ball. Sometimes both sides of this bent portion of the sapling are made flat. The end of this flat end where it curls round upon the shaft or handle must be bound firmly to the shaft with thongs or heavy twine. Holes are sometimes bored through the rim and the thongs or twine are passed through them and woven into a loose netting to form a bottom to the coiled end, making a shallow cup-shaped receptacle in which to catch or hold the ball. The rackets are not difficult to make. Each lad should make his own racket and mark the stem with some device by which he can identify it should he drop it during the play. Care should be taken when making the racket to have the cup-shaped receptacle at the end of the shaft of such size as to hold the ball without its rolling about, in which case it would be easily dropped when being carried on a run; yet it must be large enough to catch and hold the ball as it is flying about. The players should be divided into two parties by casting lots. Those who belong to the east goal should wear red head-bands; those who have the west goal should wear yellow head-bands. An Umpire must be selected. The ball must strike one of the goal posts to make a point; the number of points that shall constitute the game should be agreed upon. Two players, one from each side, stand near each goal. One helps the ball for his side; the other hinders the ball when near the goal by tossing it back into the field again so that his side may catch it.
The four players stand at their posts beside the two goals; all the others gather in the field. The Umpire takes the ball and goes to a place as near the center of the field as possible. All being in readiness, he throws the ball with force straight up in the air. Every player watches the ball and makes ready to try and catch it in his racket when it descends. If one succeeds in catching the ball, he runs at full speed toward his goal, holding his racket so that the ball will not fall out. The other players rush after him, trying to strike his racket and dislodge the ball. If he is hard pressed he may try to toss the ball to a player on his side who has a clearer space; if the ball is caught by the player to whom it was sent, then all the players turn upon the new holder of the ball and try to block his progress. In this game care must be taken never to strike the arm or body of a player; only the racket should be struck. There is danger of receiving injuries if this rule is not strictly observed.
Perhaps one of the most difficult feats in this game is when a player has brought his ball near to the goal to so turn his racket while it holds the ball as to send the ball with such force that it will strike the post squarely and not miss the goal. The difficulty is owing to the horizontal position of the racket when holding the ball. Of course, the keenest playing is about the goal, where the guard of the side opposite to the player does his best to catch the ball on its way to the post and send it back into the field.
The ball should not be allowed to touch the ground from the time the Umpire throws it into the air until it falls at the pole after a point has been made by the ball striking the post. It is the duty of the Umpire to go to the pole, mark the score, return with the ball to the center of the field, where he again sends it up into the air, and the game starts afresh for a second point to be made.
This game is good sport; it develops and requires skill, agility and strength.