BY EMMA ERVIN CHRISTIAN
I have searched the Chronicles of Oklahoma to see if any one has written anything about the kind of amusements that our Choctaw Indians enjoyed some sixty or seventy years ago. Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, a pioneer missionary to our tribe of Indians, speaks of the men playing ball so much and not improving their homes, but he did not tell how the game was played. We, like our white brethren of today, indulged in various kinds of sports. The Indian ball game was the first sport that I witnessed, and it made a lasting impression on my childish memory. It was a game between Lawson and Cedar counties. The play ground was an old field just a mile from our home. So father and mother, took us smaller children and walked out to see the game. As we neared the ball-ground we saw numerous wagons, buggies, ponies of all sizes and colors, hobbled, staked, tied to trees, or with long lariats and grazing upon the grass, for so many people had camped on the grounds, in the timber that surrounded the old waste-field. We stopped under a large tree (for shade from the hot sun), at a proper distance to see the game and not be in the way of the players. Soon a man from Cedar county came up to father, with his left arm loaded, with handkerchiefs, beads, belts, spurs, rings and various other trinkets, wanting father to put up something against the things he carried, or, he said, they had larger things to bet, such as ponies, cows, hogs etc. But father told him that he was not a betting man—just came to see the game.
First two tall posts were put up about 150 yds. apart, on opposite ends of the ball ground, one for each county. When the players had been selected from each side, they were then paired off, according to size, strength and swiftness, then the by-laws were told to them, as they were not supposed to strike a player with his sticks, and if they did this would knock off so many points, from the offending party. After this was done,
the players rushed off to the thickets to strip off their clothing, (as they wore neither shirt or pants) and to put on a brech clout or pokshama as they called this garb. Each player had the tail of some animal which he was supposed to represent, fastened in the back to his belt; the tail would dangle in many directions when they were jumping around and when in a hard scrimmage over the ball, most of them would stand straight up. My brother represented a white horse, was swift on foot and an all around good player. When on their return from the thickets, they would come charging back, trying to act as much like animals as they possibly could. Then they would mount their horses and rush off to the thickets after their witch or conjurer who was hid not far away. They would march back giving their yells.
The old witch would drawl out hooklay, hook; when he said, hooklay, the players would say hooh—they would repeat this several times, then all would give a whoop or yell, by slapping their hands back and forth over their mouths when they got to the pole with conjurer, (each side had one), they would go around and round the pole, striking the pole with their sticks and continually giving their yell, which they called shookahfa. (I won't vouch for my spelling in Choctaw as being correct).
This being over they were ready to commence the game. An equal number of men were stationed at each pole and some on the half-way ground where the ball was hoisted by a man, who was appointed to do this; then the rustle and scuffle began as to who would get the ball and make a safe hit at the post; every hit on the post counted one, but this was very hard to do as you were hindered in every possible way by your opponent, similar to the present day foot-ball game. I have mentioned the ball sticks, with which they played, but are scarce today, so will have to refer my readers to the museum to see them. They are made of small green hickory sappling trimmed down to the required length and size, then shaved down real thin at one end, this turned back and were fastened with buckskin strings, This made a kind of cup and the buckskin strings were tied securely from each side of cup, for the bottom.
The last ball game that I saw turned out to be a ball fight, and was called off. Buckskin strings were used for every thing in
those days, as deer were plentiful and the Indians were adepts at tanning the hides; now we use twine and baling wire.
The Indian men enjoyed hunting more than work, they did not like to farm, so just had small tomfuller patches, and the women had to do most of the work in them. Before slavery was abolished some had large plantations, but most of them dwindled down to mere patches. They always provided plenty of meat as game of all kinds was plentiful. Another sport they enjoyed in warm weather was a big fish fry. I attended one, when just a girl and I never saw so many fish in one pile as they had tat day. On the west side of the Kiamashi River, above the old Rock chimney crossing, is a creek known as Salt Creek. They dammed this creek where it emptied into Kiamichi, with logs and brush, then they poisoned the water with the roots of a weed called devil's shoe string. Every man brought a bunch of roots, which they pounded with hammer or mallets, on rafts made of logs tied together and by floating up, and down the creek the water was soon poisoned. They commenced poundind the roots early in the morning and by ten o'clock the fish were coming to the top of the water, then they began to throw them out, onto the creek banks, catching them with gigs, spears, pitchforks, or anything that they could hold them with.
Father said the fish were not poisoned, but blinded, or drunk, that if they were poisoned, would likely kill the people who ate them. On this occasion, a large alligator floundered out on the shore, then there was some excitement in killing it—I with the rest of women ran down the creek to see the monster, as I'd never seen one before. The Indians built scaffolds and barbecued a big lot of the fish. By doing this they could keep them for several days, for in those days, such thing as ice in the summer time was unknown to us. I was nearly grown before I saw ice in the summer. Another sport that they indulged in often was horse-racing, they would often bet on these pony races and some would match races, just for sport—as I did on one occasion when I was just 16 years old. A cow buyer kept making fun of a horse that my sister had traded for—said that he could out-run him on foot. Sister would not ride the race, so the crowd of youngsters persuaded me to ride the race—I found out that it was no easy thing to out run a man on foot, when
the word go was given. The man went immediately, but I could not get my horse to run his best, for some distance. I passed him before we got to end of lane, where we had to turn and run back—there I had trouble again my horse ran in a circle before I could turn back consequently the man did win the race. The Indians (I mean my tribe of Choctaw Indians) were naturally religiously inclined and did not believe so much in dancing. So I will mention a few of our old camp meetings places of course they were crude looking brush arbors and log cabins, but in those days we enjoyed them immensely. The one that I went to most, was about one and one half miles west of the home where I was born and reared it was near a big sandy spring, bubbling up as fine water as any one ever drank. The arbor was made by placing posts 8 or 10 ft. tall in the ground and placing long poles on them, onto which was thrown the top limbs and underbrush around the place from clearing up the grounds near the arbor. Some built log cabins to store the provisions in. Mother had a long shed built which was long enough to admit of a bed, a long table and all other camping paraphernalia in case of rain we could keep dry, we would stay out there for a week or more. Father and and some of the older girls went back and forth to attend things at home. Mother would help to feed the preachers and those from a distance, that did not bring anything to eat. There was another old camp meeting place, some six or seven miles north of my home in the neighborhood of captain.
It was truly a pioneer house, for it was built of hewed logs, with punchion seats. Punchion seats are logs split in the center and placed on pieces of timber about two ft. long. The logs of this old house were spliced in the center, in order to make a long room, and the logs were securely fastened with long wooden pins or pegs and the long three or four foot boards Were held down with long poles or rather small trees. Every three or four feet apart were placed braces of timber to keep these poles from slipping. There was a chimney in the north end of house, made of small timber and this daubed with clay. In south end was a door and on each side was an opening for a window but no glass in them, this was all there was to admit light in warm
weather. Services were conducted under the brush arbor, which was built in front of the door.
The old camp meeting house which I have just described was called Lutofioppoh named after a large cow lick which was near the old place. When we lived at Spencer Academy, we went there often to church or singing, but as preaching and singing were in the Indian language it was not very edifying to me, but when the big camp meetings were on, they had white men to preach always using an interpreter. During a revival at Rock Creek church, northeast of Spencer Academy, my sister Margaret Ervin was united in marriage, by Parson Walker, (a white preacher) to Thomas S. Oakes, in March 1870. Sister is still alive at present writing (Sept. 1933).
Captain Nanamatubbe, whom I have mentioned, was a full-blood Choctaw Indian, but secured the title of Captain while serving in the Civil War, and he retained his title so long as he lived. On his return from the war, he brought home several trophies, such as bugles, drums etc. and he took great delight in making a display, on such occasoins as going to public gatherings, such as ball-games, elections etc. He mustered out a number of men and boys, marching them after his drums and he giving the commands as he did in the war.
This was quite thrilling to us children and we would run away down the road to see them pass by, as the main road, was some distance from the house. We did not have picture shows, circuses to go to in those days and not much to see, save wild animals etc. which were plentiful then. But there was one foolish thing that the old captain did, and being a child at the time, I thought it was all right.
A mad cow gored his daughter, who had just returned from Wards Seminary, Nashville, Tenn., He mounted his horse, ran the cow some half mile or more, and shot her full of holes, but would not let the dogs, wolves, or buzzards eat her. He built a log pen around the cow, then covered the pen with logs and brush, leaving her to decay gradually. Said he was punishing her, this was ignorance or superstition. But I've not forgotten to this day how the old cow looked, her legs were standing high and she was very large. Mother went to see the girl, who was in a dangerous condition, and she let me go along to see the
children and they were anxious for me to see the cow. We hit the trail and trotted along like a bunch of quail, to see the awful sight.
There were many other meeting places further away from my home. The Indians did not believe so much in dancing. Their way of dancing was so different from our old fashioned dance, which was so popular (when I was a girl) with the whites and the half breeds. The Indians had no one to call for them, but lined up opposite each other, the men on one side, the women on the other, the man at head of line would step out and dance a long time, swinging his partner occasionally—until he was tired, then he would swing his girl out and she would a long time, then they would swing and onto foot of line—then the next couple would dance, until all had danced, then they would join hands circle around and swing to seat. Their music was a violin and a tom tom. When I was old enoough to dance, we had good music such as violin, mandolin, guitar, but nothing to compare to the music of today.
I will here mention a clan of Indians that were plentiful when I was a child, but I've not seen any of them in years. They were the Oklahanali tribe or basket makers, most of them lived in Cedar County, near the big cane belt of the Kiamiche river. They made lovely, as well as useful baskets of all sizes and for all purposes. When they had a large amount made they would load them on a horse and start out peddling. They used flowers, roots, bark etc., to color with and they combined the colors beautifully. Some people called them the brides Indians, for they had a blue or black stripe tattooed from the corner of their mouth to the ear, and another from same corner of mouth, that ran down the jaw to some place on neck. This was from both sides of the mouth. The younger generation have departed from their old customs.
I will now add a few lines about my old Buffalo horn spoon, which is in the museum at Okla. City—this old spoon was given to my mother, by her grandfather, Hopia Iskitina or Little Prophet, when she was leaving Mississippi, coming to the wilds of Indian Territory—her grandfather would not come out here. So he gave her the old spoon, which he had carried with him in the war of 1812, as a keep sake.