Myths & Legends



Cherokee: Ball Game of the Birds and Animals

The ball game is a central part of mesoamerican culture. In this fable the birds and the animals play for supremacy.
— Orly

ONCE the Animals challenged the Birds to a great ball play, and the Birds accepted. The Animals met near the river, in a smooth grassy field. The Birds met in the tree top over by the ridge.

Now the leader of the Animals was Bear. He was very strong and heavy. All the way to the river he tossed up big logs to show his strength and boasted of how he would win against the Birds. Terrapin was with the Animals. He was not the little terrapin we have now, but the first Terrapin. His shell was so hard the heaviest blows could not hurt him, and he was very large. On the way to the river he rose on his hind feet and dropped heavily again. He did this many times, bragging that thus he would crush any bird that tried to take the ball from him. Then there was Deer, who could outrun all the others. And there were many other animals.

Now the leader of the Birds was Eagle; and also Hawk, and the great Tlanuwa. They were all swift and strong of flight.

Now first they had a ball dance. Then after the dance, as the birds sat in the trees, two tiny little animals no larger than field mice climbed up the tree where Eagle sat. They crept out to the branch tips to Eagle.

They said, “We wish to play ball.”

Eagle looked at them. They were four-footed. He said, “Why don’t you join the Animals? You belong there.”

“The Animals make fun of us,” they said. “They drive us away because we are small.”

Eagle pitied them. He said, “But you have no wings.”

Then at once Eagle and Hawk and all the Birds held a council in the trees. At last they said to the little fellows, “We will make wings for you.”

But they could not think just how to do it. Then a Bird said, “The head of our drum is made of groundhog skin. Let us make wings from that.” So they took two pieces of leather from the drum and shaped them for wings. They stretched them with cane splints and fastened them on the forelegs of one of the little animals. So they made Tlameha, the Bat. They began to teach him.

First they threw the ball to him. Bat dropped and circled about in the air on his new wings. He did not [157]let the ball drop. The Birds saw at once he would be one of their best men.

Now they wished to give wings also to the second little animal, but there was no more leather. And there was no more time. Then somebody said they might make wings for the other man by stretching his skin. Therefore two large birds took hold from opposite sides with their strong bills. Thus they stretched his skin. Thus they made Tewa, the Flying Squirrel.

Then Eagle threw to him the ball. At once Flying Squirrel sprang after it, caught it in his teeth, and carried it through the air to another tree nearby.

Then the game began. Almost at the first toss, Flying Squirrel caught the ball and carried it up a tree. Then he threw it to the Birds, who kept it in the air for some time. When it dropped to the earth, Bear rushed to get it, but Martin darted after it and threw it to Bat, who was flying near the ground. Bat doubled and dodged with the ball, and kept it out of the way of Deer. At last Bat threw it between the posts. So the Birds won the game.

Bear and Terrapin, who had boasted of what they would do, never had a chance to touch the ball.

Because Martin saved the ball when it dropped to the ground, the Birds afterwards gave him a gourd in which to build his nest. He still has it.




Source:  J. M. [1]

Culture:  Cherokee

Language Group:  Cherokee (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi) is an Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people. It is the only Southern Iroquoian language and differs significantly from the other Iroquoian languages.


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