RESUMING THE GAME
FIRST ATTEMPT at using the ishtaboli sticks I venture into the Labor Day Festival in Oklahoma, the largest gathering of the Choc-taw Nation of Chahta, as they call themselves.
Ishtaboli dates back to before the arrival of settlers. Each team places thirty players on a large field with a 3.5 meter high pole on each side. All players have two handmade sticks with a hoop with leather straps at the top – a kind of racket, but with holes so that the small leather ball just fits through. With these sticks, players hit the ball across the court, aiming to hit the opposing team’s goal post and defend their own post. Hands are prohibited, but otherwise there are almost no rules.
When a couple of Chahtas want to teach me how to catch the ball at the festival, I’m going crazy. The one time I succeed, I am promptly tackled. Did I mention you play without a helmet and shoulder pads? And that some men don’t even wear shoes? Four guys gather around me. One reaches out and helps me up. “Now you’re a Choctaw for the rest of the day,” he says gently.
Previously, the game was played on an open field. Entire villages turned out for it. Players were sometimes so fanatical that ishtaboli was also called the ‘little brother of war’. Sometimes a match was played to settle a dispute. That roughness is still there. As the players bump into each other, the crowd starts booing and beating drums. And if someone catches the ball, the opponents jump with a couple of men on top. “I don’t know if I’m ready yet,” I reply.
The Chahtas originally lived in the fertile Mississippi River Basin. After the arrival of the Europeans, the Chahta leaders played off the Spanish, French and English; they traded with everyone and set up a chain of thriving arable and livestock farms. The first decades after the founding of the United States were more or less peaceful. In the War of 1812, Chahta even sided with the Americans in the resistance against Great Britain.
But despite the alliance, the Chahta were the first indigenous people to be driven from their land in 1830 to what was then called Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). This was the beginning of what would go down in history as the ‘journey of tears’. In exchange for giving up their land, the Chahtas put one demand on the table: autonomy. The treaty promised that “no territory or state shall ever have the right to impose laws on the government of the Choctaw Nation.”
That promise was not kept. In the following decades, much of the new Chahta territory was donated to other indigenous peoples. The rest of the common land came into private hands and was divided among the tribes, who sold it under heavy pressure to settlers. In 1907, Indian Territory became part of the new state of Oklahoma.
The government had envisioned it not only on the ground, but also on the tribes themselves: one by one their status as legal entities was ‘removed’. The Chahtas narrowly escaped that fate. Other nations were less fortunate.
But if you had to point to a moment that turned the tide for Native America, it would be the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975. Thanks to that law, which Native activists fought hard for, people could now create their own programs and, more importantly, manage them yourself. For the Chahtas, this meant that they could once again teach in their own language. And for the first time in decades, ishtaboli was allowed to be played again, which had been banned in US government boarding schools.
Meanwhile, indigenous peoples throughout Turtle Island attempted to evade state laws that prevented their actions, often making it difficult for them to build their own economies. After a long legal battle, it was determined that many local and state laws did not apply to indigenous people; in 1988 Congress passed a law allowing them to operate gambling dens.
Today, the Choctaw Nation operates seven casinos in southeastern Oklahoma. A booming economy emerged, providing employment to nearly a hundred thousand people. Work is also underway to expand the territory; about 24,000 hectares of land have now been purchased. The proceeds are used to build roads, improve schools, open clinics and build homes for the elderly.