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Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Ball Game of the Birds and the Animals

The following story explains the origin of a custom of the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. They used to prepare for a popular ball game by holding a dance the night before. While the drummers beat on their drums, the rest of the people chanted songs. Before the game, each player asked the help of the bat and of the flying squirrel. For good luck, each player tied a small piece of bat's wing to the stick he would hit the ball with.

Long ago, the animals sent a message to the birds. "Let us have a big ball game. We will defeat you in a big ball game."

The birds answered, "We will meet you. We will defeat you in a big ball game."

So the plans were made. The day was set. At a certain place, all the animals gathered, ready to throw the ball to the birds in the trees. On the side of the animals were the bear, the deer, and the terrapin or turtle. The bear was heavier than the other animals. He was heavier than all the birds put together. The deer could run faster than the other animals could. The turtle had a very thick shell. So the animals felt sure that they would win the game.

The birds, too, felt sure that they would win. On their side were the eagle, the hawk, and the great raven. All three could fly swiftly. All three had farseeing eyes. All three were strong and had sharp beaks that could tear.

In the treetops the birds smoothed their feathers. Then they watched every movement of the animals on the ground below them. As they watched, two small creatures climbed up the tree toward the leader of the birds. These two creatures were but a little bigger than mice.

"Will you let us join in the game?" they asked the leader of the birds.

The leader looked at them for a moment. He saw that they had four feet.

"Why don't you join the animals?" he asked them. "Because you have four feet, you really belong on the other side."

"We asked to play the game on their side," the tiny creatures answered. "But they laughed at us because we are so small. They do not want us."

The leader of the birds felt sorry for them. So did the eagle, the hawk, and the other birds.

"But how can they join us when they have no wings?" the birds asked each other.

"Let us make wings for the little fellows," one of the birds suggested.

"We can make wings from the head of the drum," another bird suggested.

The drum had been used in the dance the night before. Its head was the skin of a groundhog. The birds cut two pieces of leather from it, shaped them like wings, and fastened them to the legs of one of the little fellows. Thus they made the first bat.

The leader gave directions. He said to the bat, "When I toss the ball, you catch it. Don't let it touch the ground.

The bat caught it. He dodged and circled. He zigzagged very fast. He kept the ball always in motion, never letting it touch the ground. The birds were glad they had made wings for him.

"What shall we do with the other little fellow?" asked the leader of the birds. "We have used up all our leather in making the wings for the bat."

The birds thought and thought. At last one of them had an idea.

"Let us make wings for him by stretching his skin," suggested the eagle.

So eagle and hawk, two of the biggest birds, seized the little fellow. With their strong bills they tugged and pulled at his fur. In a few minutes they stretched the skin between his front feet and his hind feet. His own fur made wings. Thus they made the first flying squirrel.

When the leader tossed the ball, flying squirrel caught it and carried it to another tree. From there he threw it to the eagle. Eagle caught it and threw it to another bird. The birds kept the ball in the air for some time, but at last they dropped it. Just before it reached the ground, the bat seized it. Dodging and circling and zigzagging, he kept out of the way of the deer and other swift animals. At last bat threw the ball in at the goal. And so he won the game for the birds.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.