Specters as Symbols

In the Chickasaw tradition, ghosts offer life lessons

Photo courtesy the Chickasaw Nation.

Photo courtesy the Chickasaw Nation.

Spirits, witches and demons creep the night, according to Chickasaw lore. Some of them want to eat you. Some of them just want to play stickball. But all of them have lessons for you.

“These stories are a huge part of our belief system,” says Ladonna Brown, an anthropologist with the Chickasaw Nation’s Department of Culture and Humanities. “We believe that there are two paths a person can take. One is a good path and one is an evil path. We believe that ghosts and witches and evil beings like monsters are part of the evil path. This is very spiritually known to us and ingrained in us.”

Brown’s favorite story features ghostly stickball players. Stickball was once an outlawed sport, known for broken legs and arms as well as various other injuries. Known in the tribe as the Little Brother War, it was a brutal sport, much rougher than stickball played today.

According to Brown, some Chickasaw members visited Buffalo Valley, close to Ada, on a moonlit night in the late 20th century. As clouds passed the moon, they saw shadows on the prairie. When the moon reemerged, they saw a full-fledged, ancient game of stickball in progress. They watched for a while until the shadows suddenly vanished. People still say if you’re at Buffalo Valley on a moonlit night, you can see the spirits playing stickball.

Brown has no idea what a person has to do to end up playing a brutal game of stickball for eternity, but she has some ideas.

“I think the camaraderie that develops in life helps to understand why they’re playing stickball in the afterlife, as spirits roaming this earth,” she says. “It’s the one thing they knew how to do and in their lifetimes they were very good at it. Definitely, if you’re going to play it in the afterlife, you’re going to play like it’s the last game of your life.”

While some stories are contemporary, many others are thousands of years old. Tablets and pottery found in archaeological digs have illustrations of stories that are still told today. According to Benny Wallace, an anthropologist with the Chickasaw nation, many of these stories teach life lessons to children.

“Our ancestors were trying to get some information across to their children with our stories,” he says.

Wallace recalls his elders telling him the story of a big, shadowy monster that would pounce on and eat children who wandered into the woods alone.

“Children just love to go and do their own thing without telling anybody where they’re going or what they’re doing,” he says. “My grandparents used this story a lot as a lesson that we shouldn’t go out alone. We should go with a friend. It was a way of trying to help and teach us.”

Countless ghost stories like these pop up in the Chickasaw tradition. Whether fresh or ancient, they reward those who listen carefully for a moral.

“A lot of the stories I know of are there to teach the children lessons,” Wallace adds. “That’s why I keep them alive for my children. And they’ll pass the stories on, as well.”