Among almost all of the nations of North America (for reasons of climate, terrain or culture, it never caught on in the Southwest), an extremely swift contact sport was so popular that in most languages it was simply called The Ball Game. It is now easier for us to understand than wheels and spears because—alone among the great endemic Indian contests—it was taken up by whites. A watered-down version of it still survives as lacrosse.
There were many versions of the basic ball game. Some tribes' teams were comprised of 6, 9 or 12 men, and they played on fields of agreed-upon lengths: 200 to 500 yards. The Ottawas, Ojibways and other peoples of the Great Lakes regions favored free-form melees, with as many as 200 men on a side who pursued the ball over hundreds of unbounded acres.
Among the Cherokee the major league ball season commenced after the corn was planted and continued till harvesttime. Spring training usually began as soon as the snow and ice of winter were gone and, in some places, involved physical drills and stickhandling exercises. However, as with running, ceremonial conditioning and careful dieting were more important. Commonly, the rabbit, because of its timidity, and frogs, whose bones are notoriously brittle, were not eaten. Among the Cherokee and other serious ball gamers, players were not permitted to touch a woman carnally, or even casually, for at least seven days before a big contest—in the belief that sexual contact would make them sluggish. Prior to a major event, pep rallies were staged at night by communities or clans. The sites for these affairs were kept secret until the last minute for fear that rival managers might visit and hex them. Female cheerleaders, careful to avoid physical contact with the athletes, sang and danced on these occasions. Some of the fight songs were suggestive—the young women commenting on the celibate state of the men and promising explicit post-game delights, at least for winners.
In the morning everybody in the community trooped off to the field. As final preparation, trainers whipped the athletes with thorny bushes until they bled. This was done for the same reason that modern football players sometimes beat on each other before a game. The idea was to get the adrenaline flowing.
The two teams were brought together by a respected elder called the Ball Witch. He discussed local ground rules—presumably advising the teams to play hard but clean—and then, calling (at least among the Cherokee) "Now for the 12," threw out the ball.
Ball games seem to have been short on team strategy and long on ferocious, hand-to-hand duels. Everybody was a gunner, and organized defense was minimal. Around the ball almost everything was permitted—bashing with sticks, choking, slugging, tripping, clipping.
Among the Cherokee the first team to score 12 goals won. This might be done in an hour or so or take all day. In nations with different scoring systems, ball games would continue for several days. There were substitutions only for injuries, and it was considered unmanly for a player who could still stand to leave the field. Body counts were high, and in most communities there were veterans who had been permanently crippled or disfigured in ball games. They bore their infirmities as badges of honor, comparable with Prussian dueling scars. In one contest between two Creek town teams in 1879, "one player was killed on the playing field, three died later on the sidelines, and fifteen were as long as a month in recovering," according to W.O. Tuggle, who witnessed the game.
The Cherokee spoke of The Ball Game as "the little brother of war." In fact, tribes across the country conducted war as if it were the greatest of all sports. The Ball Game might be the ultimate domestic contest, but when tribes wanted full-tilt international competition they went to war.
Among themselves Indian wars were generally brief affairs, often arranged by advance negotiations and conducted on a seasonal basis, generally in the period between the end of harvest and the beginning of winter hunting. After extensive ceremonial preparations (quite similar to those that preceded important games or races), war parties set off. When they met, the engagements involved sporting rushes and stratagems, often culminating in gaudy mano-a-mano duels. By mutual agreement they were halted when darkness fell. After a few weeks everybody ran out of food or grew tired and went home to spend the winter. They were like so many Hot Stove League buffs. Winners naturally bragged about their great moves and coups, displaying newly acquired scalps to their admiring fans. Living losers comforted themselves by reminding one another that there was always next season.
Quite simply, native North Americans regarded war as a satisfying competitive activity. In time, the whites taught the reds that war was a grim, earnest exercise, not a glorious, sporadic sport. For basic reasons of survival the red warrior-athletes had to adapt to that view. They did so quickly and brilliantly.