In celebration of US Native American Heritage Month, today’s Doodle celebrates Indigenous North American stickball, a ceremonial sport invented by Native American tribes. The artwork was illustrated by Saint Paul-based artist, Marlena Myles who is a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota/Mohegan/Muscogee tribe.
Stickball is known as one of North America’s oldest team sports. Several Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Yuchi were known to play. Elder tribal leaders often organized games of stickball to settle disputes without violence.
A Cherokee tale describes the first-ever Stickball game played between land animals and birds. The land animals, including a bear, deer and turtle, were overly confident and predicted they’d win through sheer strength. Meanwhile, the team of birds relied on flight, speed and cunning to outsmart and outmaneuver their opponents. In the end, the birds were victorious.
Stickball is played using sticks (varying in length), with a net on one end. Two teams try to pass and move the ball towards their opponent’s goalpost, and points are scored by touching or hitting said post. The most important rule: don’t touch the ball with your hands. To this day, various tribes continue to play their own versions of Stickball. The sport still follows its ceremonial traditions, and is a staple in Native American culture. A little known fact is that modern day field lacrosse actually originated from the game of Stickball, which is played widely today.
Today’s Doodle artwork focuses on telling the story of Stickball, blending traditions around the game and the modern way it is played. The style is inspired by traditional ledger art (narrative drawing or painting on paper or cloth) and intentionally includes women and men of various ages to portray the inclusivity of the sport. The art also depicts gameplay of three different versions of stickball, including the ceremonial pregame practice of sage smudging (an ancient Native American practice of burning dried plants) as seen in the “G” letter formation.
Guest Artist Q&A with Marlena Myles
Today’s Doodle was illustrated by Saint Paul-based guest artist Marlena Myles. Below, she shares her thoughts behind the making of this Doodle:
Q. Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?
A: I have many friends who make their own sticks and play the game as a community event here in Minnesota, the homeland of the Dakota people — I enjoy seeing them pass the tradition onto the next generations too. The game isn’t just for sport or exercise, but also is considered a healing activity for the mind and it helps create a healthy body and mind. I believe those are very important in today’s world just as it was important for my ancestors who played stickball.
Q: What were your first thoughts when you were approached about working on this Doodle?
A: I was very excited to create something fun, meaningful and that can teach many people about an ancient sport of Native people which is still practiced today in both the traditional version using traditional sticks and the adapted version known to many as Lacrosse. I also could learn more about the different styles played in different regions, so it was a learning experience for me as well.
Q: Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for this Doodle?
A: I was inspired by interviews of players and how the game is meaningful to them in their lives. I made sure to include the messaging and imagery that the game has a ceremonial aspect to it, it’s a healing game given to us by the creator.
Q: What message do you hope people take away from your Doodle?
A: I hope people see Native people living in a healthy and modern way, passing on teachings from one generation to the next since that’s been done since time immemorial amongst the many different tribes. We’re keeping traditions alive. I also hope they see the similarities and differences in the styles of sticks, so they can see we have commonalities but we’re also unique people.
Q: What references and inspiration did you pull from for this Doodle?
A: As mentioned above, listening to interviews and documentaries gave me a deeper understanding of what’s more valuable about the game, especially as people today who are still practicing the sport.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about Stickball?
A: That’s it’s a healing sport for the whole community, people aren’t just playing to win, but are playing for their community’s health. This sport has played an active role through the generations in our many tribes and it will continue to do so.
Q: Tell us about some of the symbolism in the Doodle around the bowl and the sticks, why did you choose to include this?
A: Each game starts with smudging or the burning of tobacco, so that people’s minds are in a purified and healthy manner before starting the game. These kinds of protocols remind us that we’re connected in a sacred manner to all life around us, including our “opponents”. I also included medicine wheels (in the update version) to further illustrate that we are part of a never ending sacred hoop. The medicine wheel is used by many tribes across the country to represent the four directions, the stages of life, seasons, all of these things in an endless circle that we’re centered in as human beings. It’s a symbol of how to live and respect the natural and supernatural worlds.
Q: Can you tell us more about the different sticks featured in the Doodle?
A: Each region has different styles of sticks. We have the Great Lake sticks (Dakota, Hochunk, Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk & Fox, Miami amongst others) which feature a circular hoop to hold the ball. The stick is about 3 feet in length. The Southeastern style (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and others) features a more egg-like hoop and they play a version with two sticks (although they do have a single stick style), which is the shortest stick used around 2.5 feet. The New England area plays an Iroquois style and it’s the one that is the progenitor of the modern field Lacrosse played by Native and non-Natives — their stick is the longest, more than 3 feet and features the oblong shape used in modern Lacrosse sticks.