Mary Henderson Eastman
THE AMERICAN ABORIGINAL PORTFOLIO. Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo & Co. [c1853]. Illustrated By Seth Eastman.

Ball-Play on the Ice, Mary Henderson Eastman, text, Seth Eastman, illustrations
Ball-Play on the Ice
Mary Henderson Eastman, text
Seth Eastman, illustrations
[fE77 E225 pl. 19]

Mary Henderson Eastman

The game of ball is universally popular among the North American Indians. Almost all of the tribes play it, though each tribe has its peculiar mode.

They play it in small parties or in large; on the ice in winter, or on the prairies in summer. In some tribes it is customary to use one bat-stick in throwing the ball; in others, one is held in each hand.

In winter, the Indians adorn themselves with their choicest finery, dressing in their very best; in summer, they hardly dress at all; so that the same game makes a variety of pictures, seen at different times, and under different circumstances.

It is not necessary that the parties should be equal in number; braves of one village send a message to those of another, challenging them to a game of ball; or those of a large village invite those of two or more small villages to the contest. The challenge is always accepted; old men, young men, and boys, are eager for the fun. It must here be remembered, that each Indian feel it a sort of duty to enjoy himself in the same customs as did his ancestors; and in the game of ball, duty and inclination meet most harmoniously.

The time appointed has come, and the men are assembled on both sides. Two marks are set up on the ice about half a mile apart. The game is to commence at a point half-way between these points. Each side has its limits, and the object in this game is for the combatants on one side to get the ball beyond the limits of the other. Whichever side shall accomplish this will be entitled to all the prizes that are displayed to induce emulation.

The ball is caught up in a bat-stick three feet in length, curved at the end so as to form a hoop, three or four inches in diameter. Through this hoop a few thongs of raw hide are drawn, so as to form a kind of net, which holds the ball when it is caught. One of the Indians, catching it in his net, throws it towards the boundary of the other party; it is caught by one of that party, and thrown back again; and so on. The utmost strength and agility are exercised, and often with little effect; for the ball is often kept going from one side to the other all day without exceeding either boundary. Sometimes the game continues several days, the parties stopping to eat and sleep a little, and then arousing, with a double energy, to renew the contest.

Before the game commences, heavy bets are made on the result; a gun is bet against a blanket, a pair of leggins against a tomahawk, an embroidered coat against a buffalo robe. These bets are given in charge of some old men of the tribe, who distribute them to the winners when the game is over. While the game is going on, these men cheer the different parties, laugh aloud, call to them to exert themselves, and, being too old to use their legs, make up for it by an extra use of the lungs. Sometimes one of the players becomes much injured; he is struck by the ball or bat-stick, or falls, and is trodden upon by some one running over him; but he must not expect any sympathy.

Sometimes an Indian is so expert as to catch the ball, and run to the limits of the opposing party in time to throw it back to his own. This is allowed by the rules of the game. The picture represents this movement. The one that has the ball is running against time, pursued by the crowd. If, however, one of the opposite party overtake him, he can knock it out of his net by a mere touch of the bat-stick. This his own party are trying to prevent, by warding off the blows, so as to enable him to get as near the limits as possible before throwing the ball.

I saw the game played on the St. Peter's River, in the depth of winter. The surrounding hills were white with snow, and the ice, dark and heavy-looking in some parts, glistened like the sun in others. The scene was inexpressibly wild. The long, gaunt boughs of the trees, leafless, and nodding with the wind towards the dark, heavy evergreens among them; the desolate appearance of nature contrasted with the exciting motions and cries of the Indians. It was impossible even for the mere spectator to be unmoved; he must feel an interest in the game, until the ball has been at length thrown beyond one of the limits, and the tired and hard-breathing men receive the prizes awarded them.

Then comes the best time of all; for the old medicine-men are again depositing bets on the place fixed to receive them. There are no more tomahawks and hunting-coats, but women's gear and trinkets are tastefully arranged, and the women of the tow parties are going to try their skill, as their great-grandmothers had done before them. Young girls are there, ready to begin the game, their dresses trimmed with ribands and shining with beads and ornaments of every kind, their cheeks glowing with a spot of vermilion, to contrast with their black hair and eyes. Their frames are lithe and graceful, their arms round, and their ankles small and beautifully formed, tinkling with little bells fastened around them. Older women are there, adorned and painted too; but they are beginning to wrinkle and stoop with the life of toil which the usages of the red men condemn them. There are older women still-wrinkled old hags, too old even for dress or paint, bent and bony, with their eyes sunken, and their fingers clutching the bat-stick, and their careless gaze fixed upon the clothing suspended before them for the winners. They are eager to begin; for they are cold in this hard season, and there is not one, it may be, to feed them, or to give them the means of comfort. How must they run, and throw, and wrestle, for these prizes, caring not for falls, or blows, or blood!

How much more dreadful they look, now that the game is fairly going on, than did the men! Their faces often smeared with blood, their hair unconfined, their tattered clothes hanging about them, as they fly with their utmost speed. Women ought not to be there. The young look well enough, with their bright eyes and white teeth, and their healthful, graceful limbs; but the old woman of sixty — nay seventy — with those fierce passions glaring from her dark face, with her limbs now exerted to supernatural strength, now tottering and falling with a weakness from which it is in vain for her again to rally.

The women's PLAY is over, and they crowd towards the medicine-men to receive the prizes. The young blush even through their vermillion, as they receive they well-earned rewards, the poor old women seizing impatiently their dues, while among those who failed may be seen careless faces, and discontented faces, and faces such as one may never wish to see again; faces full of misery and disappointment, and all the sad passions of the heart. Even among the savages, woman appears to a disadvantage when out of her sphere; better in the wigwam, or tanning deer-skin, than holding the bat-stick her husband has just laid down.

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