Anybody could play chunkey: boys, girls, old men, old women, anybody

Posted by | August 31, 2016

Anyone who has been to the Cherokee Indian Museum down here where you buy the tickets to “Unto These Hills” has probably seen some chunkey stones. They are a variety of sizes; they are all nicely polished stones. They all stick out a little bit on the sides like little wheels that didn’t have holes put there for the axles. We don’t exactly know how long ago people started using chunkey stones, but we know it goes back many, many years ago.

We don’t know exactly how they got them made, but we are pretty sure it was done by rubbing one stone against another because they go back so far that there were no metal tools or braces fixed to grind a whole new piece or that sort of thing. So good old hand polishing did it.

Well, in that long, long time ago, the old men—those who had gotten too old to hunt or fight or even work in their gardens, fish, or what not usually stayed around the council house. It was warm there in the wintertime; they usually found some pleasant company. Council houses, as you recall, were either on mounds—there’s one right over yonder; there’s one down at Franklin. There’s one down near Bryson City.

There were several reasons for them being on mounds, but for the little boys who lived around there, the main reason the council house was on kind of a mounded place was so you had a nice down hill place to play chunkey. If you asked any boy why that was there, that is what he would tell you.

Now anybody could play chunkey: boys, girls, old men, old women, anybody, but usually boys played it. One thing about playing chunkey; you didn’t have to get into any special gear. You didn’t have to have shoes with cleats on them; you didn’t have to have a certain shaped bat or a ball that was a certain size. You just had to have a stick. Any old stick would do.

Edwin H. Davis’s copy of William Bartram’s sketch of a chunkey yard, from his unpublished manuscript “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians.” Chunkey was the most popular game among southeastern Native Americans until the advent of the colonial era. Players rolled a stone disc and threw poles or spears after it, trying to land closest to where the stone had stopped.

Now, of course, a boy who really played a great deal, usually got him a stick about so long and about so wide while it was green, stuck it in the fire, rubbed off the end a little bit to make it a little pointed, and he would play with that. But if the group started playing, and he hadn’t time to run to the cabin to get his stick, he just grabbed a stick and went to work.

Now to win this game, the rules were very simple. To win this game, you just had to hit that chunkey stone dead center with your stick as it was rolling. It would flop over, and you had won the game. Well, now what they would do was, they would talk to one of these old gentlemen at the council house, because no young boy ever had a chunkey stone. They were too valuable.

The old man had one that was handed down by his father, and he had got it from his father and all. They were about the most valuable thing they had in the whole village, and the old man would carry it in his pocket. But most any old man felt rather complimented to think the little boys would come and ask him to roll the chunkey stone; come along and ask Grandpa if he would roll the chunkey stone.

It took just a little effort for the old man to roll it, the boys would go running along beside it, throwing their stick trying to make it flop over. If they hit it too far in the front or behind, it would just wiggle around; they would have to pick it up and bring it back to him. The boys would play all afternoon, and maybe one would make a score, but that didn’t make too much difference. Long as it was daylight, long as the old man was willing to stay there, as long as he would roll the chunkey stone, the boys would just keep on playing.

As soon as the sun went over the top of that tree, you know there were no radios or televisions or anything to tell what time it was; that’s the way they told time. That’s how long ago it was. Soon as it dropped over, all the suppers were ready; mothers went to the doors to call the boys. Every boy answered, “Uh huh!” Well, you know what “uh huh” in Cherokee means. It doesn’t mean “no;” it isn’t “unt huh.” It’s “uh huh;” it means “yes.” Well, yes, I hear you! Why, yes, I’m enjoying my game! Yes, I know you have supper ready!


excerpt from Mrs. Mary Chiltoskey’s telling of two Cherokee legends, at the Western North Carolina Historical Association’s April 1978 meeting.

Southern Highlands Research Center
Louis D. Silveri Oral History Collection,
D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections,
University of North Carolina at Asheville

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