- Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity
Religion professor, Michael Zogry, has written an ethnographic and historical account of a Cherokee practice—anetso, or more commonly, the “Cherokee Ball Game”—that has long fascinated anthropologists, historians, and sports studies scholars. Zogry conducted fieldwork in the late 1990s in Cherokee, North Carolina, government seat of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, where he watched and recorded these complex anetso performances, precursors to the contemporary game of lacrosse.
Importantly, the author never strays far from the vast genealogy of scholarly works on anetso, lingering in particular on the classic texts of anthropologists James Mooney and Raymond Fogelson. Mooney, hired to study the Cherokee in 1885 by Bureau of American Ethnology director John Wesley Powell, published the canonical 1890 essay, “The Cherokee Ball Play” in American Anthropologist. Previous writers, Mooney bristled, were “completely unaware of the secret ceremonies and incantations—the fasting, bathing, and other mystic rites—which for days and weeks preceded the play and attend every step of the game.” Of course, Zogry begins fully aware of such dimensions but advances to conceptualize the game as a more embodied “ceremonial complex incorporat[ing] a variety of activities that complicate standard distinctions such as ritual vs. game, public display vs. private performance, and tradition vs. innovation” (p. 3).
Until Zogry’s book was published, the closest thing to a book-length examination of anetso was Fogelson’s unpublished 1962 dissertation, and in fact, Zogry was initially inspired to research the Cherokee game while taking one of Fogelson’s classes. What emerges in Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game is a nearly exhaustive examination of the history, literature, and “everyday” frames of action that comprise both historical and contemporary anetso practice. The author’s key arguments include an ethnographic claim that Cherokee people represent their cultural identity by participating in anetso and a theoretical claim that prior works of such authors as Stewart Culin and Claude Levi-Strauss, insisting on a rigid distinction between “game” and “ritual” are inadequate. Importantly, Zogry’s detailed descriptions of the ball game, and of the many ways it is framed in one way or another by virtually all elements of Cherokee religious beliefs and practices, refuse to essentialize the framework of anetso. Indeed, the reader learns about various contexts and renderings of the game, including the motivation of Cherokee people to invest in it with ever more enthusiasm in response to missionary condemnations and colonial attempts to eliminate it. Moreover, the curiosity of non-Indian tourists has influenced the staging of the ball game for over 150 years.
The ball game itself is fascinating enough, and presently, it is played only one autumn week each year, at the very public Cherokee Indian Fair. Two teams of ten Cherokee males each, wearing only short pants and carrying two wooden sticks with small webbed cups attached, enter a field with two end-zones at opposite ends “marked” sometimes by tree saplings. But Zogry dedicates the majority of his account to the complex of rituals that [End Page 208] precede as well as follow the game, including incantations, abstinence from certain foods and activities, ablutions and bleeding, and, always, a community dance party for men and women the eve before a match. Zogry also details numerous mythical Cherokee narratives, which frequently embody tellings of the ball game, including a story about a match known as “The Ball Game of the Birds and Animals.”
Of the numerous ritual behaviors chronicled by the author, the most significant and least understood, known as “going to the water,” occurs both before and immediately following a match. In private, a person termed a “conjurer” will lead ball players multiple times to a nearby river for immersion, to experience magical rites in preparation for the competition. However, after the match, in view of the tourists who usually seem not to pay attention, “the players made their way across the street backed up with traffic (but) it was no secret where they were...