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Cherokee find tradition, respect through sport

art frAmid the blinking lights and stuffed animal prizes at the Cherokee Indian Fair, a scream echoes from behind the trees.

The source of the noise is a group of young men and village elders huddled in a circle. Each face is stone cold, focusing on the moment. Legs jump up and down. Arms flail and stretch. Final words of encouragement are given before the heat of battle.

The team is Wolfetown, and on Oct. 3, it stepped onto the field against the Hummingbirds in a much-anticipated game of Native American stickball.

Celebrating its 100th year, the Cherokee Indian Fair is a five-day festival of culture, heritage and tradition. As a centerpiece to the event, stickball brings together teenagers, young adults and middle-aged men for a fast-paced, highly aggressive match.

“Those who will be the best ballplayers will be those who listen,” said Johnny Smokes, coach for Wolfetown. “That’s what it’s about for me, to teach these boys to respect themselves. It comes down to them, how hard they want to play and be as a ballplayers. I can tell them what to do, but they’re the ones who will decide.”

Resembling lacrosse — but with no protective gear — players use sticks made from hickory. A leather ball the size of a half-dollar is thrown in the air by the medicine man. From there, sticks knock the ball around, eventually having it tossed between players, who then run with the small object to the goal line. With two tree branches (representing the goal line) stuck into the ground on the both sides of the field, the player with the ball must go through the goal and run completely around one of the branches to score a point. Once a team scores 11 points, they can only use their hands for the twelfth point. First team to 12 points wins.

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“It makes you proud of who you are as Cherokee people,” Smokes said. “We come out here to be our best. It’s more than just blood. It’s about life and how you live.”

Traditionally, stickball is viewed as a way to settle disputes and a portal to achieve respect and honor within a tribe. Though Wolfetown is made up of Cherokee participants, the Hummingbirds are an ensemble from other townships and other corners of life. Some look at the game as a way to get respect, while others have gone through deep personal troubles and are taking the field to fight and once again be in good favor with the community.

“They go on the field and purge any bad feelings they may have,” said Isaac Welch, known as the “Old Man” for the Hummingbirds.

And as the howling and chanting ricochets between the players lining up on the field, each side stands motionless, staring down the field to their opponent. Fourteen-year-old Josh McCoy has his eyes aimed forward. It’s his first year on the team, and he’s ready to prove himself.

“I like the game because it’s part of my heritage,” he said. “My heart and my head are in the game, so I’m ready. It means a lot to play in front of my family.”

Both teams slowly walk towards each other, eventually meeting in the middle of the field. Coaches walk between them and size up the competition, ultimately figuring out who to put on the field, with no set amount of players determined as long as each side starts the same number.

The game begins, and so does the chaos. A wall of players scoots around the field, falling into each other and tackling anyone in their paths. The small ball slips through manic hands like a magic trick. Soon, someone grabs the ball and runs the length of the field with a reckless abandon. A blur of scoring, sunshine, wrestling and sweat fills the next hour of battle.

When the dust settles, Wolfetown has carved out a 12 to 2 win.

Players shake hands and hug each other. They filter off the field, grabbing for water or kissing a loved one. The sun has now fallen behind the ancient peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains.

“I’m here to represent a group of young men who are endeavored to be better characters,” said Welch. “The game doesn’t start on the field; it starts at home.”

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