There was a time so very long ago that the memory of it almost escapes us. A time so far back and distant, it preceded the memories of our Grandmothers and Grandfathers. Before the rise of the Nations and before the arrival of the tall ships. It precedes the Onkwehonweh longhouses and the Anishnabek epic Journey of the Crane. Before all these things and further back still. It came before the Peoples of the south and their cities and their corn. It came before the great families chased the strange beasts that followed the mountains of ice. It came before the cold winters began to trek into the southern lands. In the earliest of times, the most distant of memories. In a time near enough to the beginning, just after the Creation, when the world was warm and green.
In the great standing forests and endless sunny meadows of our island, the creatures hunted and played, slept and ate and lived according to their spirit. This was the way things were and this was the way things were meant to be. There was an exception however, and this is where our story begins.
As the creatures went about the ways of their nature, one thing above all began to interfere with their peacefulness and it caused much trouble in the lands and skies. It had a powerful grip of fear on all forms of creatures – from the greatest and most powerful, to the tiniest and most humble. This terrible thing eventually became a plague to them, to the point of panic and disease.
And what could be more terrible than the splitting sky, the sun, moon or stars being blotted out by a fearful darkness and the noise of the underworld itself spilling into the deepest of the secret havens? Even the most beautiful and perfect of days was ruled by the spirit of this dreadful event. Gone were the lights in the sky, replaced with billowing and consuming smoke. It would push the winds to snap trees in half; send bright fire to the ground in long, jagged sticks. And the noise! Sounds that would deafen everything, rumble across the world and cause one to shudder in fright. When the creatures saw the Terror-Sky Spirit approaching they learned to quickly run and hide. This is how it began.
After several generations, Terror-Sky had eroded the peace of mind of all the creatures. When Terror-Sky came upon them they would scurry in panic, but then, in their haste to find safety, they disregarded the well being of all others. At first a bump led to a push, a push then led to a blow and finally, the creatures began to fight their way through the woods and lakes and jostle in the sky. The small ones would be trampled by the rush of the larger until they learned how to trip and snare. The larger then retaliated. The smaller fought back. Soon they and everything in the middle began to bitterly fight amongst themselves, starting grudges that eventually led to feuds and finally to bloodshed. Trees were broken, homes were smashed, children were separated from their mothers.
After Terror-Sky had passed, there were more resentments, hard feelings and much grief. This led to many more fights and hostilities. Some of the creatures were injured badly and some were killed. These events tore the sacred councils of the forest and sky apart as the creatures plotted and manoeuvred against each other. It was a very sad and frightful time indeed!
One bright and sunny day, during those times so long ago, one of the sky creatures floated upon the currents in the air, watching the world pass below. His name was Akweks, the eagle. A great creature of flight he was, as powerful as he was clever. Akweks drifted along as he had on many other occasions, but on this day he had a very important purpose. For five days he had drifted this way waiting for his opportunity. You see, a short time before, his Grandfather Akweks had told him the story of a young eagle and how that young eagle had come to learn about using courage in his dealings with the Spirit of the World. This story greatly inspired Akweks to make a plan that could change the whole World. And so Akweks was waiting for the of Terror-Sky.
Sure enough signs in the distance told him that Terror-Sky would soon arrive. The winds picked up and Akweks had to quickly adjust the pace of his flight. The sky in the west grew dark and began to push the sunlight out of view. Akweks could hear the rumbles of the noise and he could see the fire sticks flashing over the far part of the forest. Below him the creatures began to panic as they had done for generations each time before. He could see all the various creatures scurrying, screeching, pushing and shoving. Here and there a fight broke out amid shouts of despair. Suddenly the woods, lakes and skies became very quiet. The sky above turned black. The turmoil was almost upon them. Akweks was very frightened.
It was at this point, just as the darkness, noise and fire overtook his heart, Akweks recalled words of encouragement his Grandfather had told him in a gentle, re-assuring voice: “Do not be afraid of what you do not know.” As these words repeated in Akweks mind, he gained a warm feeling over him that everything would turn out for the good. It was the feeling of courage that came into his heart at that moment, a feeling that stirred within his body and gave his mind strength. Akweks dared to look up above him – the black clouds swirled and menaced the World below, the light blinding him for a moment. Akweks knew when his best chance was, and that was when the water began rushed from the Terror-Sky. Akweks did not have to wait any longer. When the waters came they fell hard to the ground below. Akweks flew straight up into the churning clouds. From below, some of the creatures peered up from their hiding places to watch the spectacle of this young, foolish eagle flying deep into the heart of Terror-Sky. They were amazed by this act! But their frightened hearts and minds took over and they turned away and hid their faces.
It was several minutes before Akweks reached beyond the darkness and noise and rain. When he did, he flew above the storm into the bright sky. Above Terror-Sky, this terrible thing that all the creatures feared, was the daytime. The sky had not split after all, it was just covered up! However, his astonishment quickly gave way to surprise and fear at what else he witnessed. Akweks lost control of his flight and fell back down behind a small could hovering above the dark storm below. There he hid. Again, his Grandfather’s words repeated in his mind and he felt the courage slowly come back. After a moment, Akweks peeked out from behind his hiding cloud to observe the happenings in that Sky World.
It was daytime of course, the same bright sunny day that was there before Terror-Sky had over taken him. Akweks figured that he was at the edge of a field of sorts, a field made of cloud. He could see something happening, but it took him awhile to understand so he just watched. On this field several strange looking beings seemed to be playing at something. Running to and fro, they laughed or every so often they would stop and cheer loudly. They threw a round object back and forth. One would catch the object and run while others pursued.
Akweks noticed two posts at either end of this field of cloud and when one approached, he flung the object at the pole. When the post was hit long sparks came out of it and flashed across the sky. Some of the sparks disappeared into the field of cloud. “These are the sticks of fire we see,” thought Akweks, they come through those clouds to the ground.” The beings rejoiced when one hit the pole with the object. They let out hearty laughter and they all danced, stomping the field of cloud. “They shake the waters out of the clouds” he thought, “and it then comes falling to the ground.”
Soon they had started the spectacle all over again. Akweks was still frightened, but his fear began to give away to puzzlement and curiosity. He noticed that when the beings ran down the field, their strides made the loud, booming noises in the air. Akweks thought again: “These are same noises that the World below had fled from in terror. It was just the sound of these beings running across their field of cloud. Wait until I tell them about this scene!”
Akweks watched this funny game for awhile longer. Every once and awhile the round object would be roll in his direction and he would crouch down further behind his hiding cloud trying not be caught. However, before long it was soon scooped up by one of the beings and off they would go to hurl it towards one of the poles. At last the object rolled too close to Akweks’ hiding cloud and he was soon discovered. As he slowly turned to looked up he could see, towering far above him, the face of this being looking down at him with what he took to be a smile. “And who might you be little creature?” said the being to the trembling Akweks.
“My name is Akweks, the eagle. I came from the forest below. I came here to see what this terrible thing is.” Replied Akweks
“Terrible thing?” asked the being, “What terrible thing?”
Akweks, with all the effort a courageous feeling could bear, stood up before addressing the being: “Down in the world below, Terror-Sky covers up our day and splits the sky. It brings frightful noise and fire and rushing waters. For generations we have lived in fear of this thing, this place where you play this funny game. I have listened to the stories of courage from my Grandfather and now I have come here to see what this place is.”
By this time the other beings had come over to see why their fellow had stopped playing the game. They stood there, towering above Akweks, listening. Their fellow spoke to them, “This eagle here has come here to see us play the ball game, “ he said to them, “shall we tell him about us and our sacred game?” The beings looked at each other and nodded.
One of them spoke: “We are Ratiweras, the Thunderers, and we live here in the Sky. Our village is a small distance away. We come to these fields to play our beloved ball game. We play this game to please and to honour all of Creation.”
The Thunderers instructed Akweks in the ways of their ball game. He learned that the round object was called a ball, he learned how one should never clutch the ball. He learned how to pass and catch the ball and how to throw the ball accurately enough to hit the post. They taught him of patience, of the importance of being of good mind and strong healthy body. And in all these teachings, the most important of all was how their fair play, best effort and rejoicing pleases all things.
They showed Akweks all aspects of their game and suggested that perhaps he should teach his fellow creatures below how to play. One of the Thunderers said, “There was a time when we Thunderers were at odds with each other. Fighting and carrying on with confusion and resentment. It was a very sad time for us indeed. Then Creation gave us this game to lift our hearts, to settle our differences and to give us courage to do as we ought. Now we play this game to honour Creation instead of fighting about it. Now we play here on this field of cloud, that the sound of our enjoyment should be heard throughout the World, that the result of our success should flash across the sky, that the breath of our effort powers the winds and that our dancing refreshes all the beings of the World for another day. These are very good things to us.”
Akweks was impressed and the Thunderers were as equally impressed at the ability and eagerness of Akweks to learn the game. While they taught, Akweks noticed how much fun the Thunderers were having playing their ball game. They would bump each other, knock each other down or knock the ball from an opponent’s grasp, but they were not doing it with anger or ill will towards each other. They ran hard and cheered good plays from opponents as they cheered their own. They laughed aloud at funny plays and aided one if they became bruised. It was clear to Akweks how this game would help heal the sadness and bitterness in the World below.
After awhile, Akweks noticed that the sky above was getting darker and he told the Thunderers that he had to go back home. They nodded and smiled at him and gave him good luck for his journey home. With that Akweks flew straight up, then turned quickly to fly straight down through the dark, water filled clouds. For the first time in his life, Akweks was not longer afraid of the Terror-Sky. He now understood a great lesson and he couldn’t wait to return to the woods below to share his story.
When Akweks came out of the rain clouds he realised that he was quite a distance from his home. While he was with the Thunderers, the clouds had carried him past his perch and into another area of the forest. He had to fly three hours in the darkness to get back but he was not afraid as the way was lit by the moon and bright stars that emerged from the other side of the storm. When he arrived at his favourite branch, he was exhausted and fell fast asleep. The tale of his adventures would have to wait for the morning.
The next day, even though the World was lit up by another beautiful sky, the creatures were sadly cleaning up the mess from the previous day. Damaged homes, broken bones; there were children crying and creatures walking around angry and scowling. Akweks realised how important his story was, but also realised how difficult it would be to get the inhabitants to listen in their present sour mood. But he had to try.
Remembering his Grandfather’s words of encouragement once more, Akweks perched on the top of the highest tree near the lake so that all the creatures could hear him. He called out into all the lands, all the waters and all of the sky. His great call cut through all the noise of the petty bickering, through the silent sadness and anger, though all the fighting and pushing and shoving. His call caught the attention of all the tearful creatures; the small and weak, the large and powerful. His call whistled through every tree, rock, creek and cloud. It would seem that the sound of his call to the World had some help travelling. In fact, his call sounded something tuned to the pitch of a Thunderers voice.
And so the creatures began gathering around the tree where Akweks stood. From all directions – they walked and flew and swam to see the source of this fantastic piercing call. Grandfather Akweks was very pleased to see that his grandson had called a Council of all the creatures. And for two days the creatures came while Akweks perched and watched patiently. As far as the eye could see the creatures gathered and when no more arrived, Akweks began his speech:
“Yesterday, before the sun was halfway across the sky, Terror-Sky approached. I was ready. With the words of courage from my Grandfather, I flew into the heart of Terror-Sky.” The great crowd gasped at once. No one had every done such a thing! There was whispering and murmuring. Akweks could hear the odd scoffing word, but he continued, “I flew up until I could fly no more, and I have returned with good news!”
With that compelling introduction, Akweks recounted his journey to the field of cloud that existed above Terror-Sky, his meeting with the mighty Ratiweras and the strange and wondrous game they played. After pausing for a moment he continued, “This game they gave me is a great gift for all of us to share. It is a game that pleases all of Creation. A game that will settle our difference, that will give us courage, that will restore our minds to peace. And we no longer need to be afraid of Terror-Sky, for it is just the Thunderers pleasing Creation with the playing of their beloved game.”
Akweks went on to tell the great gathering all about the game the Thunderers played. He explained about the use of a ball, the rules and how the game transformed the once miserable Thunderers into a community of peace and contentment. He told them of thunder, of lightning, the winds and the rain. When he was finished the story, Akweks proposed that they all play this game in honour of all Creation and with thanks to the Thunderers. His suggestion was met with silence. Akweks could see the puzzled and wary faces of the crowd. He became discouraged when he began to realize that his idea might not be able to settle the generations of differences between the creatures. “Perhaps, even with the mightiest heart of courage, the World cannot be changed.” he thought.
Suddenly, from somewhere in the middle of this crowd, a voice arose. A booming, well known voice. It was Ohkwari, the bear, and he addressed the crowd: “I watched yesterday as this wild eaglet flew right up into the centre of that storm. I thought he had lost his mind and now he comes back to us, with stories of strange beings and a ball game that will restore us to peace? Who will trust such a outrageous thing?” At this the crowd began to murmur, but Ohkwari spoke again. “Look around us!” he exclaimed, “If we look around at us now, this terrible state we all are in, how much more crazy can it get? We swat and push one another, we are sullen and miserable, we endlessly fight and bicker amongst ourselves. Yet this wild eaglet here tells us that we should not be afraid of the Terror Sky, we should rejoice it with a game. I for one, will take the path of the wild eaglet and learn this game. Who is with me?”
When he was finished, Ohkwari waded through the mass of creatures and for the very first time he became aware of the little ones underfoot. He walked carefully over to the tree where Akweks was perched and reached up a great and powerful paw. “I accept this game from Akweks and the Thunderers, to be played for the delight of Creation. May it restore us to peace and health, may it become a good medicine for us.” The crowd erupted in a roared of approval – in many different voices and songs. They roared in happiness and in unison, something that they had never experienced in their own lives or the lives of recent memories.
When they had finally quieted down, Akweks spoke again, “In three days from now, we shall begin anew; we will begin the stories for our children and their children and for all of our ancestors forward. We will all meet and the creatures above will play the creatures below. And we will indeed play for Creation that Creation may be pleased with our efforts. In three days we should gather at dawn in the field near the great stream. We shall gather first to give thanks and then I will show you the game and its rules. Then we shall play this ball game.”
Again the crowd roared. There was much talk about the days to come as the creatures dispersed for their homes. For the first time in a very long time, the lingering feelings of fear and resentment vanished from the lands, the lakes and the skies. This was a very good sign.
Over the course of the next three days, there were extensive preparations going on in the woods, lakes and skies. All the creatures were busy readying themselves for the contest: practicing running and catching; practicing their skills and dodging, faking and hiding. Some creatures needed to learn and practice how to laugh and have fun! There was a great deal of thanksgiving and ceremony over this coming event and the World was alive with songs and happy voices.
On the second day, another storm rolled over the distant hills in the west and came towards the place that the creatures set aside as the playing field. But this time it was all different. As the storm approached, the creatures came out to the field, the birds flew around, the legged animals jumped and the fishes leapt from the waters. They were not afraid this time! As the noise of the Thunderers approached, they cheered for they knew that one of the Thunderers was making a play and when the sticks of fire flashed across the sky, they cheered louder for someone had made a goal. When the rains came, they knew the game was soon over and would be moving on. They were very thankful for the wonderful rain that quenched their thirst and made the World grow.
As the storm moved away to the East, they rejoiced! The land was not full of sullen and fearful creatures, not full or resentment and conflicts and broken homes and spirits. Instead, it was full of cheerful and happy creatures, all dancing and joyful. And very, very wet!
On the third day, the creatures all rose early to make a thanksgiving ceremony before the game. In honour of the Thunderers they went to the waters to give thanks. One by one, by leg, wing or fin, for miles around, the creatures came to the waters, splashing themselves, and smiling in gratitude. The fishes helped those too small to get too close and when a few of the still sleepy creatures accidentally fell in the waters, the fishes helped them out again. It was a spectacle to see! Even though they were courteous the two teams ribbed each other and boasted about their coming prowess on the field. And sitting on a branch above the waters where all the creatures had gathered was Akweks, gently bouncing an object back and forth between his claws. It was the ball!
And so, on that day, the creatures from above and the creatures from below began the legacy of stories of their contests that would last to this day. It was the very first game ball game in the land and they played it well. The first play was the ball toss between Akweks, the eagle, and Ohkwari, the bear. Thus a tradition was born as those two would always be the first to receive the toss. To honour all the creatures, representing both those from above and those from below, Tsihstarare, the grasshopper, tossed the first ball. It was a great time in this island and it preceded all the other great times of the ball game. The first to collect three goals against the opponents post was the winner. Tsyennito, the beaver, had the honour of setting up the first posts which he anchored into the ground on opposite sides of the great field. The posts were several miles apart!
Once the game commenced there was a great rushing to and fro – the ball flying from one side to another, from creature to creature. Sometimes it flew in a group of winged creatures, hurtling towards the opponents goal, only to have it snatched away by Ohskennonton, the deer, who passed to his cousin Atenati, the elk, who ran a few miles then passed in into the waters, where Tawine, the otter, and the finned ones carried it a few more miles towards the opposite post.. When it came into the hands of Ohkwari, he threw the ball as hard as he could at the goal and scored. At once, the activity quickly came to a halt as the creatures realised what had happened. Suddenly the creatures of the World let out a tumultuous roar of approval that shook the whole forest! It was a tremendous play that was appreciated by all the players. In honour of this moment, Akweks flew over to Ohkwari and placed one eagle feather around his neck to symbolise the score.
The next play lasted all afternoon as the creatures from above passed the ball around carefully. The worked the ball moment to moment, length by length, very patiently. One of the rules was that you could not grip the ball with your claw, paw, fin or foot. So each pass was completed meticulously to get the right bounce when they hit it back and forth. Close to sundown on that first day of the contest the creatures above had worked the ball close to their opponent’s goal. They were within a few lengths. Tsyokawe, the crow, eager to make a goal, rushed too quickly and lost the ball. As the ball fell, all the nearest players rushed towards where they thought the ball would end up, but instead they crashed into each other. What a sight! Fur and claws and beaks and toes and feathers and tails and wings all in a big tussle over the ball! Those that did not reach the site of the ball in time stood back and laughed hard. And out of this rolling ball of creatures the ball emerged carried on the back of Okaryahtane, the mosquito! Tsyokawe flew up out of the tangled creatures and Okaryahtane tossed him the ball. Tsyokawe flew over, but now mindful of his previous fault over-eagerness, looked for someone to pass to. And there, in the closing mist of the night, hovering directly over the opposition goal, was Akweks. Crow passed him the ball and Akweks easily scored!
The forest roared again and all the creatures cheered the excellent play. In honour of this moment, Ohkwari lumbered over to Akweks and presented him with a bear claw, which he placed around Akweks neck. And so they kept score with eagle feathers and bear claws.
As the night approached, the creatures decided to pause the game until the morning. Although each creature had taken a break to eat something from the forest and drink from the nearby water, they huddled in groups discussing strategies and going over the great plays of the day. There was still so much excitement in the two camps that it took a while for the players to find sleep. Finally, as the moon rose above, the playing field became quiet.
When the sun broke the mists of the early morning, the creatures arose to make the ceremonies of thanksgiving; first with the waters, the lands and skies, then with all things. Even though the sides were in a serious contest they were very courteous and gracious with one another. Peace of mind affected their lives, not only in the game itself, but outside of it. It was a contest of strength, skill and speed, but it was not a contest to see who was better. Ohkwari was strong, but Ohskennonton was faster; Akweks was clever, but Karhakonha, the hawk, was quicker. Each creature brought their best to the game and all the players began to realised this. For this thought, they saved the loudest cheer of the day!
Again, Akweks and Ohkwari met for the first toss, and this time Akweks made the play by passing the ball towards Tektsirere the chickadee who, with her friends, darted with the ball for a mile before passing it off to Tsiktsinonwara, the dragonfly, who the night before had devised a plan with Tektsirere. Tsiktsinonwara was good at pivoting in the air and coming to quick stops. As the creatures below ran after him, he would stop abruptly and they would sail past him as he darted off in another direction towards their goal. He did this until exhaustion, but he had managed to come within a few lengths of the oppositions goal.
The third part of the plan was executed flawlessly: he passed the ball to Tsiks, the fly, who buzzed the ball, dodging and weaving in and out of opponents paws and hooves, over to Karhakonha the hawk who headed straight for the post and made a quick goal. There was silence, many of the creatures stood in disbelief staring at Tsiks who wondered if she had done something wrong. Then Karhakonha rushed over to her and the whole forest erupted in a loud cheer. Many, from both sides, congratulated Tsiks for such a daring play in the middle of the opponents strong defence. Ohkwari approached a smiling Akweks to place another bear claw around his neck. Two goals to one. One more goal and the creatures from above would achieve victory!
The third toss was taken by Ohskennonton the deer and Tsyokawe the crow. The deer made the ball, passed it back to Onyare, the snake, who flipped it to Tsyennito, who passed to Tsyotyakton, the trout, who disappeared into the waters with the ball. All afternoon the creatures from above buzzed and dived into the waters but they could not dislodge the ball from the possession of the fishes. The fishes passed the ball back and forth upstream until they came to a small inlet where Ohyekaront, the salmon, in a magnificent leap made a pinpoint pass to Taraktarak, the cricket, who quickly threw over to Okwaho, the wolf. By this time, the sun was getting to be late evening again. Okwaho was surrounded by his fellow wolf friends and they trotted toward the winged creature’s goal. In one final rush the winged creatures surrounded Okwaho and threw their bodies at him to try to dislodge the ball. But Okwaho held on. As all the creatures rushed to his defence, he spotted the beaver walking towards the goal. Okwaho called out, “Tsyennito, now!” and he threw the ball toward the beaver. Tsyennito was ready and as the ball came close to him, he smacked the ball with his tail with such precision that it hit the post and scored. All the creatures roared again as they congratulated Okwaho and Tsyennito on such an excellent play! Akweks awarded Ohkwari with another eagle feather much to Ohkwari’s delight.
As Akweks placed the feather around Ohkwari’s neck, he said, “What if this contest should end now in a draw, so that no side is the winner and that for a winner to be decided, they shall have to play one another again. The final result of this game will be 2 goals to 2 – forever.” Ohkwari agreed this was the best thing to do, that the very first game of ball between the creatures from above and the creatures from below should be a declared a draw. As the sun began to sink in the West, the two captains informed their teams of the decision to which there was cheering and celebration. Although some wanted the game to continue, they realised this result was the best possible result. There would be more days, and more games, and more great plays they thought.
Once the draw was declared, the creatures held a ceremony of thanksgiving, followed by a festival. In the days of this first ball game peace was restored to the woods and meadows, the streams and lakes and to the skies. And each season thereafter, when the Thunderers returned, the creatures from both above and below, the Wings and the Runners, looked up to the skies and cheered.
And onward through the ages. There were indeed many more games played, many more legends born and many more excellent plays committed to memory to be recited to the next generation. Long, cold winters moved the ice mountains south and the games moved south also. When the ice moved back north again, the games moved with them eventually spreading to all places on the island. This happened over many generations – too may generations to recall – perhaps thousands!
Throughout the many moons, seasons and generations of the island new creatures came into being and some died away. From time to time this had an effect on the game and how it could be played. Although the basic rules were the same, each area began to develop a slightly different version of the ball game to suit the natural creatures that lived there.
In the north, where the long winter season brought snow and cold, the creatures not sleeping in their dens would play on the ice. In the east, they allowed the playing of the game in the woods as well as fields that added an extra dimension of skill to the game. In the south, they saved the best games for spring and autumn to avoid making rigorous efforts in the summer heat. In the west, they played the ball games on fields that spanned from great lakes to great mountains. The biggest game was when Tsihsteheriyahon, the buffalo challenged all the other creatures together. Even the numbers of the mighty Tsihsteheriyahon were no match for an alliance between Akweks and Ohkwari!
Over time the creatures began to keep score with different items other than the bear claw or eagle feather. Sometimes they used bits of fur, or brightly coloured feathers. Other times they used precious stones or prized items from the beaches. All kinds of items were used to keep the score. As time progressed, some games involved trades of the scoring items and soon enough they made friendly wagers on the outcomes of the games. One would boast to the other, “Three prized feathers if you win.”
“A stack of thick quills for you if you should win.” the other side would reply.
Soon each creature would wager a small item on the outcome of the game. This sometimes led to the outcome of the game being more important than the game itself. With the changing times, surprising lessons would come into the fields of play. These lessons reminded all of creatures what was most important about their ball game.
In one such legend, the Runners were preparing to play the Wings in another grand game to start a new ball season. Into a gathered group of Runners walked two creatures new to those parts of the woods. They asked to play. These new creatures were very small and unusual – one was skittish and very nervous – the other could barely see!. Ohkwari looked and them and explained that since this was the first game of the season, and there was much wagered, they could not afford to play such small creatures. “Perhaps you can find a place amongst the other team.” said Ohkwari. He and his team mates turned their backs and walked away, snickering as they went.
At first, this offended the small creatures and they felt saddened. “What should we do?” one squeaked to another. Clearly they were too small to make a large impact on this game, but hadn’t the mosquito Okaryahtane and the fly Tsiks made good plays in the very first game? So they decided to go over to the other side, to talk with the Wings, and ask if they could play for them against the bad mannered Ohkwari and the rest of the Runners.
Nervously they approached the Wings who were busy preparing their strategy for the coming game. In the midst of the creatures was Akweks, who noticed the small creatures coming. “Who are you?” asked Akweks sternly, “Are you spies come to learn our plays?”
“No,” squeaked one of the small creatures, “we have come here to ask to play for your side.” With this they went on to explain to Akweks and the rest of the side that they had approached Ohkwari and were given a rude reception. Some Wings were amused as well, but did not openly let on out of courtesy for the newcomers.
“Well,” said Akweks, “you have no wings. How can we play you if you have no wings and cannot fly?” The two small creatures shook their heads, they didn’t know. From the back of the gathering, Sorak, the duck, said he had an idea. Sorak had won some leather from a deer in a previous game and was using it as the head of his ceremonial drum. He took the leather and fashioned little wings for the creature that could barely see. “You have a strong voice” said the duck to his new team mate, use your voice to let us know where you are going.
“This is good,” Akweks said as he examined the new winged creature, but what of the other?”
“I don’t know” replied the Sorak, “I am all out of leather.”
Akweks thought for a moment, then he was struck by an idea. He tugged at the armpits of the skittish creature. The little creature protested, but soon understood what Akweks was doing. Akweks tugged at the skin underneath the creatures arms and others joined in on the tugging as well. It stretched until the skittish creature had wings too. “You are our secret player.” said Akweks, “Hide in the top of the tree near their goal. They will think you are one of their own and will ignore you. When we are ready, we will pass the ball for you to attempt a goal. This excited the little creature so much he nervously ran up the nearest tree and almost fell out! The Wings all laughed aloud.
“Patience!” Akweks hollered with a grin.
Eventually, after all the prescribed ceremonies, dances and preparations were completed, the game began. And what a spectacle it was! In the sky, the thunderous din of thousands of wings beating – clouds of winged creatures as far as the eye could see – birds and flying insects and two secrets hidden in the trees. The ground shook with the weight of many hooves and paws moving into position. The strongest of both sides surrounded Akweks and Ohkwari who took the first toss. Ohkwari quickly pawed the ball just before Akweks could reach it and the game was on.
Once the ball was won the whole world was in commotion in the first plays for the ball. Ska’nyonhsa, the moose, hooked the ball with his towering antlers and quickly fed a pass to Ohskennonton, who bounced the ball on the ground over to Tsyennito the beaver who slapped the ball with his tail a great distance to Tsytotyakton, the trout, who dove under water heading towards the opposition goal. In the meantime, each pass elicited a response from the Wings: diving at the free ball, plowing into Runners or crashing into the ground. They tried to wrestle the ball away, but the Runners were too quick this day. Once Tsytotyakton had the ball in the water, the Wings finally settled down to play the defensive strategy discussed with them beforehand by Akweks and Crow. Surrounding their goal, they formed a flying wall and Sorak and her group nestled on the ground near the river, waiting for the ball to emerge.
Suddenly the ball was flipped out of the water, a fine pass to Erhar, the dog, who relayed the ball to Ohkwari. Then Okwaho took a pass that flew right past the nestled ducks, who were taken by complete surprise. Tsitsho, the fox received the ball from Okwaho and stood down the flying wall in front of the Wings goal. But luck would be on Tsitsho’s side at the moment as a great breeze blew up out of the forest and opened a large gap in the Wings flying wall. Tsitsho hit the ball as hard as he could, the ball sailed through the air at a great velocity before bouncing off the post. There was a great cheer from all the creatures! The trees and rocks shook as the Runners took a one-to-nothing lead.
And so the game went; great passes, amazing, acrobatic catches and clever strategies. The Wings took the next two goals. One was a set of quick passing plays between the darting Kanatakonha, the sparrow and the dragonfly Tsiktsinowara that eluded the Runners. Then on the second play the crow Tsyokawe made a mid-air steal of a pass and flew the entire length of the field to score the go ahead goal. This flight so exhausted Tsyokawe that he had to retire from the game. An hour after Tsyokawe goal, Ayoha, the mink, made a steal of his own, started a remarkable passing play that weaved its way up the field, until the leaping elk Atenati struck the Wings goal with the ball. The game was tied!
As dusk approached, all the players were weary and hungry. The game was tied with not much left playing time left in the light. The great forest shadows began to creep into the field and the cool evening hovered a little behind the Runner’s post in the West.
All the while, the two little creatures, the leather winged one and the armpit winged one bid their time blending in. During the course of the game, neither had come too close to the ball, but made some good runs to pressure the ball carrier. Before the final toss, Akweks located the two new players and whispered to them in a huddle. “We have prepared for this moment and your patience has worked well, “ he told the eager little creatures, “now that we have the darkness at our backs, it is time to use our new weapons.” Akweks then went on to explain how they would go about using a strategy he and the other Wings had devised earlier.
The game was tied, the sun was going down and the final toss was taken. Akweks, faked taking the toss and the leather winged creature, Yakohonhtarik, the bat, stole the toss from the grasp of Ohkwari. Since Yakohonhtarik was darkly coloured, the Runners had trouble seeing him and he easily grabbed the ball and off he went. From below, it looked like the ball had grown wings itself as he weaved his way towards the opposite goal. He flew as long as he could and when he was close enough to their goal he tossed the ball into the open air. As the deer Ohskennonton made an attempt to leap up and grab the loose ball, something came gliding from the trees just in time to pick off the ball, swing around and hit the Runner’s post for a goal. It was Ta’wahsen, the flying squirrel, who had hid in the trees all day waiting for his opportunity! And when it came time to make the most of that opportunity, patience did indeed played well.
There was another loud roar from all the creatures at such an amazing play! The Wings grabbed Yakohonhtarik and Ta’wahsen and lifted them into the air for all to see. Ohkwari bellowed and laughed to see those two little creatures, not good enough for his team, make the winning goal for the Wings. Suddenly, the prizes and wagers became less important to Ohkwari and the rest of the Runners – they had been taught a very valuable lesson. There was much celebration after this game and when it was all over all the players agreed that Yakohonhtarik and Ta’wahsen could choose whatever side they wished to play on whenever they wanted. That was their reward for being the patient teachers of a much needed lesson.
And so, time went on, further through the ages. Mountains were worn into hills and new mountains appeared where there were none before. Rivers changed course, new lakes appeared and old lakes vanished into the dust. The great forests changed also, receding in some places, taking over in others. New grasslands appeared and grew to be large open spaces. Seasons came and went, winters became milder and then colder. All things changed. And with these changes, the creatures changed also. New winged creatures took to the skies while old ones passed on. New legged and finned creatures wandered the lands and lakes, while old ones faded into the mists of the past. And for those who remained, they were responsible for teaching the newcomers the ball game.
In time, rumours began that spoke of a new creature in the forests and plains – a creature unlike any of the others that came before. These new beings were born with little fur and no feathers or scales and they had to depend on the kindness of the all the other creatures on the island to survive. Some groups of them were hostile and cruel while others kept to themselves. From time to time they would wander the lands searching for things and stumble across a ball game, but they could not understand the meaning of such a gathering of creatures. The new creatures came and went, and eventually learned how to settle down and make nests and dens from the materials of the World. In the woods, the skies and the waters these creatures came to be known as The People.
One sad day, The People came to accept that the old medicine man was dying. He was very ancient, three generations he had witnessed, but he was much beloved. He had healed many of them from their sicknesses and bruises and breaks. He had provided them the comfort in both times of feast and famine. He was the Grandfather of the whole band. And he loved them as much as they loved him. But he was sad now, and very weary of his life. The laughter had made flight from him a long time ago and he had become bitter over the last few seasons. His heart was heavy with the loss of his family and friends as he was the last one to remain from those days. As he had become slow and tired, he stopped moving about as much, and soon he stopped eating altogether. Finally he only slept.
This made The People very gloomy. They made a council and decided that the best thing to do would be to take the old medicine man into the great woods and leave him there to become one with the World. It was a very heartbreaking duty that befell a group of young men, to take their Grandfather to the woods and leave him there, but that is exactly what they set out to do. They raised his bed upon their shoulders, and as The People wept, they carried their beloved old Grandfather into the cool darkness of the woods.
The group had travelled a great distance, eventually into lands they were unfamiliar with. On the morning of the seventh day, they stopped to rest in a warm, sunny glade. It was late Spring, and the sun soon grew hot into the sky. They all looked about to judge if this was a suitable spot to leave their Grandfather, who had slept the entire journey. Suddenly the old medicine man opened his eyes and sat up! “What is that sound?” he said, looking all around him, peering into the shadows of the surrounding woods. The others couldn’t hear any unusual sounds. They looked at Grandfather and then each other with puzzlement. One of them thought that this was the truly the end time as it appeared that Grandfather had lost his mind now.
“You have brought me to rest in these great woods,” Grandfather said, “yet, I cannot rest with such a racket!” And to the astonishment of his young bearers, he rose up and, cocked his head towards the west, then quickly dashed off into the underbrush. The others were so caught by surprise that it took a moment for them to collect themselves. Then they ran after their Grandfather.
After an hour, the young men could not find the old medicine man. They had kept him in sight for the longest time, but he had slipped their view a few moments earlier. They stopped to discuss what to do next, when they too heard the sound. It was a rumbling sound, and the ground trembled beneath their feet. They heard the sound of thunder, yet the sky was clear and blue. “Perhaps it is a stone giant” said one of them nervously, his eyes darting around, looking for signs of the giant in the surrounding woods.
After discussing what to do next, the elder of the brothers decided that they should bring courage to their heart and follow the sound. After all, this must have been the sound that Grandfather heard. “We will find him there, I am sure.” he said. And off they went towards the menacing sound, that grew louder as they approached. As they carefully drew near an opening in the thick underbrush, they could see clouds of birds and insects hovering over a clearing. Some in groups flying in unison, some speeding off in one direction or another. From a distance, they could see thousands of geese played out in a giant angled shape moving towards the near edge of the woods. And above all the flying creatures, a lone eagle floated, seemingly watching whatever it was that was going on in that clearing.
They approached the edge of the woods with great care, not knowing what they would find. Crouching down and a few of them began to tremble as by now the noise had become deafening. What creature could be the source of this, the elder brother thought. As they crept further towards the edge, one of them let out a gasp as his arm was suddenly seized by a hand that came out from a nearby bush. “Hush,” Grandfather whispered, “come over here and take a look at this.”
The young men quietly moved in near a large tree that Grandfather was leaning against. The old medicine man was peering through the leaves. What they saw left them speechless as well. A vast field next to a large river stretched to the horizon. And in this field were almost every animal they could think of, in groups, singles, pairs. Deer, moose, beaver, wolves, buffalo, foxes, everything they could think of. Hovering in the air above the grounds were all kinds of birds and insects moving in flocks and clouds. This entire multitude ran and flew back and forth, up the length of the great field and back again. At first, the group of men thought that something strange had overcome the animals, some faulty magic spell. “This is madness in the animals.” said the elder brother.
“No,” hushed Grandfather, “they chase a thing – look”
At that the men looked out onto the field and noticed that the animals batted and threw around a round shaped object. It seemed that the birds would get the object and toss it to other birds and they went in one direction. Then the forest creatures would get the object and move it in the other direction. Suddenly, one of the birds, a crow, took the object and raced towards a post that was anchored in at the closest end of the field. The crow threw the object at the post and when it hit the post, all of the animals let out a great, thunderous cry. The air filled with the sounds of thousands of creatures hollering and screeching. The crow flew straight up into the air and dove back down in a majestic arc coming within a few hairs of the ground.
Grandfather pointed out the eagle that drifted above the scene. “Watch this.” Grandfather whispered as the eagle swooped down to meet a bear standing upright just a few lengths in front of them. They watched as the eagle came up to the bear and plucked a claw from the bear’s paw. It then flipped up the claw into the air where it landed and was somehow fastened around the eagle’s neck. Grandfather pointed out to the young men that this eagle had two claws around its neck and the bear had two eagle feathers attached to its own neck. Of course, the young men were completely astonished by what they were seeing. They were trying to comprehend the whole scene while something snapped loudly in the woods behind them. No sooner had they turned around to see the cause of the noise, but they found themselves surrounded by bears, moose and wolves. And in front of them, in the field and in the sky above, all of the creatures began to move towards the position of the group of men.
At last they were completely surrounded by the creatures with no place to escape to. Around them were hundreds of creatures both great and small. Birds, insects, snakes, turtles, frogs, bears, deer and wolverines could be counted among their captors. The men became very frightened as they believed that they were doomed to be eaten and their bones scattered in the glade for the amusement of these mad creatures. They closed in together and withdrew their knives, ready for one last battle.
“Put away those claws,” spoke a whistling voice, “you will not need them here.” From the crowd of creatures emerged a very large eagle followed by an equally bear. They came plainly to the men and as the bear stood before them, the eagle perched on the bear’s shoulder. It was the eagle that spoke to them. “I am Akweks and we have been anticipating your arrival for sometime now. We first heard of you by way of rumours in the forest, lakes and skies. One day long ago, hundreds of seasons before, one of your cubs was lost near these woods and happened upon our game. We have awaited your arrival ever since. And we see that this cub has grown old and returns to us now.”
In his medicine dreams Grandfather would hear the animals of the world talk to him in this voice, but never before had he heard one speak to him so directly and in the open. He pinched himself to test as to whether he was still dreaming or not. The other young men had put away their knives, but were still speechless and wary. A few of them did notice that health had returned to Grandfather as he stood to face the eagle and the bear. His face flushed warm and his eyes shone brightly.
“I am very old and I came here to die,” Grandfather began, “yet the distant sound of this contest re-awakened something in me. I had to once more face that thing that had badly frightened me when I was so young.”
And the bear spoke in a booming, raspy voice, “Yes, we remember you. We remember you shaking like a nervous pup, lost and alone, hiding under the bushes, and yet here you are. And you did not die before visiting us one more time. Just as we asked you to all those seasons ago.” If they had not known better, they would have sworn that those teeth the bear was brandishing was a smile.
“Yes, I recall now,” said Grandfather, “You called it a ‘contest’ and you explained to me all about this contest. But the days were so long ago, I have forgotten and fallen into a slumber in my mind.” He looked at them sadly.
The bear spoke again, “In those days we had a council when we came upon you concealed in the bushes. You had spied our game, and we talked about sharing our ball game with your kind. But there ensued a great debate about whether your kind was ready for this. Your folk seemed so disposed to being inward and selfish and sometimes unruly and hostile. We debated many days about this. But in the end it was Akweks that reminded us of our responsibility to teach you this game and hope that it has the same effect on you as it has on all of us.”
Akweks then addressed the gathering, “So we showed you the game, as a little one, and then we gave you the idea that when you were old enough to truly understand what we taught you, then you would come back to us to see the game once more. It is perhaps this understanding that has made you slumber for awhile. Now you are here, awaken, and we will show one again. If you believe these young men to be worthy, we will teach them as well and then your kind will have this game to play and honour all of Creation.”
The young men looked at each other, then at Grandfather, who by now was smiling deeply for he recalled the earlier time and how the lessons of those days had given him the medicine of his dreams. In a brief council, the men all agreed that they would be worthy to be taught this thing, this contest the creatures talked about. They reported their decision to the creatures who broke their assembly and noisily headed back towards the field.
So it was, after the night had come and gone, on that next day Akweks, Ohkwari and the rest of the creatures of those times taught the men how to play the ball game. They first showed them the ceremonies of the waters and explained the whys and wherefores of the thunders, the lightning and rains. They told them of the game to please all of Creation and they showed them the ball and how to hit the ball.
At one point, the creatures admonished the men for clutching the ball in their hands so often. This was not allowed in the game, to give all creatures and equal chance they explained. After much thought on this problem, Grandfather disappeared into the woods for a few moments, only to emerge with some forked ash branches, enough for all of his group. With some spruce root collected nearby, Grandfather weaved a small net in between the forks of those sticks. This way the ball could be caught, carried and throw without the ball ever touching their hands. All the creatures agreed this was a very good invention.
So the men learned to play the ball game. And Grandfather watched the proceedings and was very happy. He laughed like he had never laughed before – the game brought him so much joy. He felt restored, young again – so awake that he could count the stars in the night and never become weary. It was a momentous time for Grandfather and for young men as well. They played a small game against the creatures and even managed to score one goal much to everyone’s delight. After the game, all the players gathered in the evening to make a ceremony, to dance and eat. There was much happiness that night, so much so that even the stars above seemed to be smiling!
In the morning, the young men decided it was time to return to The People and they prepared their things to go. After thanking all of the animals for sharing this greatest gift, they were about to set off when Grandfather spoke to them, “I will not be going my young sons, it is here in these woods that I will stay. I have been invited by bear to learn many more things of these lands, and it is this purpose that will guide the rest of my life in this time.”
Although the men protested, they knew in their hearts that they could not refuse their Grandfather. He looked at them so heartily and happy. His eyes twinkled for the first time in a long time and this was his life. As they departed, he said to them: ”When you truly understand, come back to this place again.” And they left the great clearing near the river and made their way back home.
When the young men returned home, they discovered that their little band of folk had now become sick with the grief of losing their beloved Grandfather. The young men decided that they must demonstrate the ball game to The People to heal them from their sadness and restore them. They quickly set to teaching their friends and kin the importance of honouring all of Creation, the ceremonies and dances and they finally taught them the ball game itself, using the sticks created by Grandfather. These new teachings lifted the spirits of The People and they came to know gladness in their hearts. It wasn’t long before they were all singing the praises of all Creation while they played their new game.
As time went on, visitors to these folk were invited to learn and play this new ball game. Those visitors took the game back to their own folk to learn and play. Eventually, knowledge of the ball game spread across to all The People on the island. There were contests between families and bands, between the young and the old, between the men and the women. Everyone had a place in the ball game, whether it was the ceremonies, the preparations, the dancing and singing or the actual play. This truly was a gift to the people!
In time, the men that bore Grandfather to the woods, grew old. They played the game very well and taught all the youngsters to play very well and when they could no longer run with the young ones, they stayed behind to organise the games, and work on strategies. One day, the eldest brother caught an illness that took him off his feet and into bed. The People became worried about this man, since he was much loved. He began to slip away, his hearing began to fail, his voice faltered and his mind began to drift. His fellows tried all kinds of medicines, but they just did not work. One morning, near the end, the old man was almost passed away when he requested that a ball game be played in his honour so that he could watch the beautiful game one more time.
So The People made the preparations at the waters and they had the dances and ceremonies before playing. This particular day was very warm, it being in the middle of the summer at the height of the day. They began to play their game and the harder they played the more they sweated. They drank lots of water in the rest periods between plays, and then ran more, all throughout the day. “Healthy People,” the old man thought, “they run like the wind and they drip like the rains.” And it finally occurred to the sick old man, now he truly understood. The rains, the water ceremony and the sweating. With his last effort he lifted himself off the bed they had prepared for him near the side of the field. He used all his effort to try to run towards the ball. He stumbled at first, the sun beat down on his body, but he ran as hard as he could. And he picked up speed.
And that ball! Flying through the air, to be caught on a stick and hoisted with grace to another. And the children darting in and out of the trees and around the field, laughing and yelling with joy. And the ball – rolling on the ground as the opposing sides bumped each other to get the ball first. Folks falling into the grass and rolling, like the ball. Children learning how to carry the ball and learning how to escape their pursuer, how to sprint and fling the ball on the run. And the ball! Hitting the post and all taking delight at such a beautiful play!
After a few moments, the sick old man began to sweat. And the more he sweat, the more he felt better. He ran harder and picked up energy. His lungs filled with the fresh, sweet air and he spit out bad tasting material. He ran, and sweated and to the astonishment of all the people, he finally caught the ball and scored a goal. When he raised his stick high in the air and let out a whoop, the whole field became quiet. He looked around at the staring eyes, the mouths that had dropped in awe. Then suddenly a great cheer arose from The People and the old man knew he now truly understood.
And shortly thereafter, this old man and his old group went back to that place where the creatures had taught him and his cousins the ball game all those years ago. Several days later, when they arrived at the old place, when they had come to the edge of the old field, there sitting next to that old tree they had hid behind so long ago, was Grandfather, five generations old! He rose as they approached and after many hugs, Grandfather spoke:” Ah, so you truly understand now and have come back to bid me farewell as I move from this world to the next. But do not despair, for if you truly understand, you know the powerful medicine these creatures have shared with us. Do not forget the waters, do not forget the world. And do not forget all of Creation.” Grandfather smiled and walked back onto the field where Ohkwari had appeared a few moments before. They both walked towards the great river and disappeared into the mists that had rolled in.
Those old men, each lived to see six generations, and those after them lived great and long lives because of the medicine in the ball game the creatures of thr World had shared with them.
And so time moved through the ages again. And throughout the lands, The People all learned the game. Some adapted it to suit their own needs. Some played the game with different sticks carved or bent by fire. Others played the game on the frozen rivers and lakes, in the dark of winter. Some played the game in fields as long as the sky. Others played in the woods, dodging trees and bushes. Even more still played the game in stone courts, with sticks attached to their belts.
And as the game changed, so did The People. They began villages, towns and cities and learned about corn and other things to grow. They learned about the animals and plants, the fishes and the sky. They learned about the cycles of the World and cycles of people. And in this learning, the never forgot about the waters and the lands and the creatures. In fact, these things to them are the most sacred.
Over time and through the generations, rumours and stories began to be heard about new folk that had come to the island in great canoes that coursed the great waters. At first the newcomers stayed to themselves on the coasts, fishing during the time when the fish gathered in great schools. Eventually, they moved inland to hunt, fish and trade and the stories of their arrival moved further inland ahead of them, sometimes by a generation or more. More often, the newcomers trade goods preceded their arrival in an area. When the newcomers arrived in such an area, they were welcomed for their trade goods were much different than the folk of the area and this changed the ways things were done. It was good to trade with the newcomers.
Every once in awhile, the newcomers would catch a glimpse of the ball game, and sometimes they were invited to watch or play. This game amused them, but they had other duties on their minds and moved on through their trade routes and back home again. Seasons came and went, and more newcomers arrived. Some of them stayed and lived among the people. One such person stayed in a Wendake village learning the ways of the folk there. And when those folk played the ball game, this ‘black robe’ recorded what he saw.
And the rest, they say, is history.
© 2017 TODD POWLESS ALL RIGHTS RESERVED