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Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game At the Center of Ceremony and Identity (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 116-118 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0041

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Since ancient times, all across eastern North America, Native people have played stickball. Although rules and form vary somewhat from one Indian nation to another, all use web-ended sticks and score points by shooting a small leather-bound ball at a goal. In the Northeast, stickball was the forerunner to lacrosse, but in the Southeast, players used two sticks and shot at slender poles or objects atop poles. Perhaps originally intended to train warriors for battle, stickball often translates as "little war" or "little brother to war" in Native languages. Some communities had a women's version or played co-ed games as well. In this book, Michael Zogry focuses on anetso, the version of the game played by the Eastern Band of Cherokees. The Eastern Band, who now number over 13,000, managed to avoid Removal and remain in western North Carolina. As Zogry explains, anetso has always been much more than a game: for hundreds of years, anetso has been at the center of religious rituals and even Cherokee identity itself, persisting in much the same way despite the meddling of missionaries, Indian agents, and other outsiders.

The prominence of anetso in Cherokee oral tradition is suggestive of the game's significance and antiquity. Kana'ti (The Lucky Hunter) and Selu (Corn) had two boys who were challenged to "play ball"—a euphemism for war—by the Wolf people. The boys, who became known as the Thunderers, used spiritual power to defeat the wolves. Cherokees have long maintained the connection between the Thunderers and anetso, often adorning sticks with relevant imagery and asking the brothers for assistance in matches. Today, the oral tradition that Eastern Band members most often associate with anetso is that of the ball game between the birds and animals. Despite their diminutive size, the birds, using smarts, cunning, and teamwork, managed to beat the animals. Both oral traditions, as Zogry explains, reveal the trials that individuals must overcome in order to foster community, a signal Cherokee value.

Zogry, a religious studies scholar, spent two years living among the Eastern Band and visited many times thereafter. What he learned about anetso challenged his view of religion. Since the publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss's influential The Savage Mind in 1966, academics, for the most part, have considered the categories of "ritual" and "game" to be "distinct if not mutually exclusive" (4). But anetso defies this neat dichotomy. Zogry places stickball at the center of a ceremonial complex—"a group or cycle of individual ritual activities performed in a standard sequence as parts of a single ritual event" (2). These activities include conjuring, going to water, divination, ritual scratching, medicine-taking, dancing, and restrictions on sexual activity and diet. Beginning in the 1790s, missionaries and federal Indian agents did their part to discourage the game, though their lamentations focused mostly on violent play, scantily clad players, and the drinking and gambling in which spectators engaged, rather than anetso's attendant rituals. Despite outside pressures, anetso has persisted because, in Zogry's words, Cherokees "are committed to its preservation" (28).

Prior to his fieldwork, Zogry supposed (like many other scholars and outsiders) that Cherokee culture, including anetso, was on the decline, but he came away with a far different impression. There may be fewer games now than in 1800 and accompanying ceremonies may be truncated, but Cherokees hold fast to "belief in the principles underlying the complex activities" (148). Moreover, anetso has taken on new cultural meanings. Perhaps especially in the post-Removal period, as Cherokees and other Native peoples have become a minority within their homelands, anetso has become a marker of identity recognizable to insiders and non-Indians alike, connecting Cherokees back to their foundational cultural narratives and to an unbroken chain of ancestors. Zogry is at his best when discussing contemporary anetso among the Cherokees, which he learned about through observation as well as interviews with players, team managers, and elders. Anetso is now most visible among the Eastern Band during the Cherokee Indian Fair, a public event that comes in the first or second week of October and corresponds to the Cherokees' traditional second corn harvest festival. Zogry, a sensitive and...

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