Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity

Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity

Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity

Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity

Synopsis

Anetso, a centuries-old Cherokee ball game still played today, is a vigorous, sometimes violent activity that rewards speed, strength, and agility. At the same time, it is the focus of several linked ritual activities. Is it a sport? Is it a religious ritual? Could it possibly be both? Why has it lasted so long, surviving through centuries of upheaval and change?

Based on his work in the field and in the archives, Michael J. Zogry argues that members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation continue to perform selected aspects of their cultural identity by engaging in anetso, itself the hub of an extended ceremonial complex, or cycle. A precursor to lacrosse, anetso appears in all manner of Cherokee cultural narratives and has figured prominently in the written accounts of non-Cherokee observers for almost three hundred years. The anetso ceremonial complex incorporates a variety of activities which, taken together, complicate standard scholarly distinctions such as game versus ritual, public display versus private performance, and tradition versus innovation.

Zogry's examination provides a striking opportunity for rethinking the understanding of ritual and performance as well as their relationship to cultural identity. It also offers a sharp reappraisal of scholarly discourse on the Cherokee religious system, with particular focus on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation.

Excerpt

Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, certain members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have continued a centuries-long practice by engaging in anetso, what has, in English parlance, come to be called the “Cherokee ball game.” Anetso, as an event, is itself the focus and hub of an extended series of distinct activities. This series of actions can and has been identified as a ceremonial complex (or cycle), because historically it has featured virtually every activity that Cherokee people and non-Cherokee observers have identified as elemental of Cherokee “religion” or “ritual.” However, interpreted as “game” within a broader framing of “religion,” anetso simultaneously resists and problematizes such classifications.

Ostensibly an athletic contest that at one time pitted teams from the local community against one another in a regular seasonal schedule of games, it is a vigorous, sometimes violent activity that rewards speed, strength, and agility. Spirited wagering by community members on the outcome of the regular seasonal games was de rigueur until the first decades of the twentieth century. For centuries anetso also has been a staple of public performances for the benefit of visitors. As such it can be interpreted as a marker of Cherokee cultural identity that Cherokee people perform or self-present to both community members as well as other onlookers.

At the present time, typically two or three games of anetso are played each fall during the annual Cherokee Indian Fair, attended by Cherokee people from the local area and a number of tourists. Thus the players perform selected aspects of their cultural identity for a diverse crowd of spectators. A typical crowd might include community members who are invested deeply, mildly, or not at all in the activity, as well as tourists who possess varying levels of familiarity with anetso, including some with little or no understanding of what they are watching at all.

Anetso, like several other single- and double-racket ball games played by First Nations or Native American peoples, is a precursor to the game of . . .

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