He was doomed to die

Talk to Jerry Wolfe about the bruising traditional sport of Native stickball, and you’ll soon realize why it goes by the Cherokee name that means “little brother to war.”

“It’s a good game. It’s a rough game,” notes Wolfe, an elder in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who played the sport as a young man. “I’d get slammed and rolled and I’d get up and keep going. It didn’t bother me at all. I liked it.”

The gentlemanly Wolfe laughs at the memory. At 78, he no longer runs the field (or suffers whacks from ball sticks) for his Big Cove Township team. Yet he’s still recognized in his community for his efforts to sustain a sport that’s acknowledged as the forerunner of lacrosse.

Wolfe still carves the spoon-shaped sticks out of hickory (a nearby school recently placed an order for 30 sets); these are then laced with webbing. Plus, he serves as a “caller,” offering play-by-play commentary at games, including those featured at the annual Cherokee Fall Festival. He’s also known for recounting the legend of the ball game, which tells the story of a mighty contest between the birds and the animals.

On Wednesday, April 23, Wolfe will be among those honored at the North Carolina Arts Council’s Folk Heritage Awards for lifetime contributions to the state’s traditional culture. The highly competitive awards are given once every two years.

“These stories he learned and preserves really help the Cherokee know their identity as Cherokee people,” says Wayne Martin, director of the Folklife program at the N.C. Arts Council. “Those stories are kind of cultural identifiers for people in the tribe, [giving] them a sense for what it means to be a member of the Eastern Band.”

“A very serious game”

With a storyteller’s cadence, Wolfe graciously explains the specifics of stickball, taking great care to describe the traditions, rituals and meaning of a sport that dates back more than 500 years.

At The Museum of the Cherokee Indian where Wolfe tells his stories and has served as a consultant, he directs me to a display about the sport featuring a black-and-white photo from the late 1800s. Seven barechested, muscular young men wearing eagle feathers and knee-length shorts stand off to the right, while seven young women wearing long print dresses dance in place. Wolfe points out the team’s all-important shaman, who sits under a rack that holds the stickball sticks. Spectators can be seen off in the distance.

“It was a very, very important game and a very serious game in the beginning,” notes Wolfe.

Back before his time, stickball games were used to decide contentious community issues. The winning side would also win the argument, explains Wolfe.

With a playing area roughly the size of a football field, players score by driving a small leather ball through a goal at either end. Unlike modern-day sports, however, there are no boundaries, no time limits and no substitutions. Twelve points wins a game.

Stickball, Wolfe notes, combines elements of football (tackling), track (running) and basketball (one-on-one defense).

In the weeks leading up to a game, players traditionally had to abstain from alcohol, sex and food that might affect play. Eating rabbit, for example, was forbidden, because the creature gets confused easily and doesn’t know which way to run. And if a player thought he could secretly break the rules, he would soon find out otherwise from the team’s shaman — who would bar him from play.

“There were real rigid rules,” Wolfe says. “They meant what they said.”

An all-night session of singing and dancing — a ball dance, as it was called — once was an important element of the game, though Wolfe says there hasn’t been such an event locally since World War II.

Even in Wolfe’s days as a stickball player, each team had its own shaman, who called on certain spirits to give his group strength and durability. The shaman also asked spirits to affect the ball — and even cause aches and pains in opponents (though there was also ritual to protect players from those ill effects).

Wolfe remembers his father discussing the dire consequences that would face a shaman if his team lost four games in a row: “That was his life — he was doomed to die.”

After each game, stickballers would jump in the river — the “long man” in the Cherokee language — to cleanse their bodies of the spirits employed in competing, Wolfe recalls. It was during one such cleansing that he realized how hard he had been smacked on his back with a pair of ball sticks.

In later years, Wolfe says he often marveled at how baseball players on TV would wind up limping off the field, whereas he never saw anyone get seriously hurt playing stickball.

“In our game, they hit you and you get up and go,” says Wolfe. “I’ve often wondered about that, but I guess that’s where the shaman’s work comes in.”

Betting on the teams was also a part of the festivities, though the state put an end to that probably around the 1930s, Wolfe recalls.

Though Wolfe’s history focuses on the Eastern Band, many other Southeastern Woodland tribes (including the Creek and the Seminole) played stickball as well, according to the Web site for the Cherokee Nation (www.cherokee.org). And US Lacrosse (the national governing body for the sport) notes on its Web site that the modern-day sport of lacrosse — America’s first sport — was “born of the North American Indian, christened by the French, and adapted and raised by the Canadians.”

A family tradition

Wolfe recalls that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all great stickballers.

Wolfe played his own first game upon returning to Cherokee after serving in the Navy during World War II. (And although the unassuming Wolfe doesn’t mention it, he participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as Barbara Duncan, education director for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, pointed out in a letter nominating Wolfe for the heritage award.)

“‘I can run and I’m quite tough,'” Wolfe remembers saying when he asked whether he could join in on that bygone day.

“I scored three points in the first game I ever played in my life,” he reveals. “My dad was real proud of me.”

All told, Wolfe figures he played for about 10 years, until he felt his speed and accuracy beginning to wane.

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