Dozens compete in Native Games

Dennis Donahue swished his 4-foot-6-inch-tall shinney stick across the grass and — with the hook on the bottom of his stick — snatched up a rope with balls tied on either end and flung it toward the goal post.

It was exactly as his ancestors, and those from other nations, had done for thousands of years.

One imagines that Donahue, a 23-year-old Ashland resident who scored "too many points to count" and whose team won the tournament Saturday at the Briscoe ArtWing field, would have stood a good chance against those warriors of old, who worked out their disagreements on the stickball field instead of going to war.

But Saturday's gathering, the third annual Native Games tournament, was not about settling disagreements — except for the disagreements about which of the four teams was best.

The co-ed teams played each other over the course of the afternoon; until, eventually there were only two teams left, the Warriors and the Noble Savages. There were also two children's teams which competed against each other.

Thanks to Donahue's finesse and the work of his five other teammates, the Noble Savages took home the trophies — red sweatshirts emblazoned with the words "Master Grand Champions 2009." The final score was 5-1.

The event drew about 300 people over the course of the day, said organizer Dan Wahpepah with Red Earth Descendents, which co-sponsored the tournament along with Southern Oregon University's Native American Student Union.

"It warms my heart to watch a game that's thousands of years old and see it be revived by our youth," Wahpepah said after the tournament, in which he played for a team called the Wagon Burners.

The only rules to the game are that "you don't touch the ball and you don't high-stick someone," which is when players knock their stick into other player's faces or chests, he said.

Already a dangerous game, the playing field was even more precarious Saturday because rain fell at the start of the tournament, slicking the grass.

Although there have been teeth knocked out and collar bones broken in previous matches, no one was seriously injured in the tournament.

"There were only bumps and bruises," Wahpepah said. "There was a lot of hard playing though. This is what we always have to keep reiterating: 'This is a game about respect.'"

The wet grass and the chilly air served to remind all 36 players that stickball, like life, is about carrying on despite the conditions, he said.

"You always have to play through all kinds of adversity and that's what the game's about," he said.

All of the players, and the spectators took a break in the late afternoon to partake in a feast featuring an amalgamation of different dishes, some native, some not. Rabbit stew and fry bread sat next to Korean kimchee and southwestern black beans on a long table beside the playing field.

Maymi Preston, the co-chair of SOU's NASU and Donahue's girlfriend, said the gathering, like the food served, was a way for different cultures to come together and learn about each other.

"A lot of people don't know that Native Americans are all very different from each other," said Preston, 20, who traces her lineage to the Karuk and Yurok tribes in Northern California. "I learned a lot about the northern tribes today."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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