For approximately eighteen years ethnohistorian Michael J. Zogry intensively studied anetso (the Cherokee term for ball play) and through his rigorous observations, film-making, personal interviews, and note-taking, he carefully and thoughtfully published his research and field experiences in Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity. Zogry presents a raw and innovative perspective that reveals his own soul-searching for the meaning and significance of a centuries-old Cherokee practice; most importantly, [End Page 145] he makes distinctions between game and ritual and even questions to what extent is ball play truly a substitute for war, an activity some scholars refer to as a "mini-warrior sport"; other scholars refer to ball play as a "playful game." Additionally, Zogry debunks references to ball play as a tourist spectacle. Rather, Zogry challenges readers to rethink the connection between ritual and performance and to view the relationship of ball play to both as actually reinforcing cultural identity.
The meaning of anetso is culled from Sequoyah's syllabary and comprises three syllabary characters, "as they are playing it" or "that which they play." Surprisingly, the syllabary word for "ball" ("a-lhsagalhdi") is missing possibly because the term implies "ball" already. Anetso, the precursor to lacrosse, harks back to ancient times but is anchored with traditions significant to contemporary Cherokees. Yet not all Cherokees participate in ball play and nor do all understand or know how to play. And ball play even baffles bystanders because players with ball sticks in hand can push and scuffle, run and tackle opponents, and even wrestle them to the ground. The only standard rule is that players cannot touch the "ball."
However, "ball" is not a "ball" in European terms; it is actually the size of a golf ball but its outside layer is animal skin, mainly deer; players and audience alike fail to see the "ball." Ball play begins with a toss in the center of a large open field and then players from two vying teams try to catch the "ball" in the web of their handcrafted rackets. But the "ball" can easily disappear among contending players and what the audience can actually view are the ball sticks in addition to intense body contact; players hold their sticks at varying angles to catch the "ball" in the web of the sticks. When caught and saved in the web, the player with the "ball" tosses it into the team's goal at the end of the ballfield; then that team has scored.
Zogry describes how he misses the "ball" even with camera in hand and filming the action as he has done many times at the Qualla Boundary, the name given the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians comprising 13,400 tribal members. After [End Page 146] experiencing ball play many times, Zogry realized that after all of his hermeneutical reverie halted, what remained from a spectator's point of view was that anetso was an autotelic activity. He challenges readers to look at this important element of Cherokee culture in relationship to a "putative Cherokee religious system or repertoire" (p. 236).
Zogry explains that the contribution he is making is not one centered on what anetso really means or an explanation of what anetso means to all Cherokee people. Rather, it is to give an overview of the historical ways Cherokees have viewed ball play and various observers for three hundred years have recorded it. Zogry bravely tackles basic assumptions scholars have promulgated about nonwestern practices from a western point of view. Zogry has written a very important and significant book about a Cherokee activity that reinforces the fact that the meaning of anetso remains as elusive as the "ball" itself but still central to Cherokee cultural identity.
Rowena McClinton, an associate professor in the department of historical studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, in Edwardsville, Illinois, is a historian of Native American studies. Her recent publications include: The Moravian Springplace Mission to...