Janis Bernhagen, left, and Jane Ayern battle for the goal during a game of shinney, an American Indian game that’s growing in popularity in Southern Oregon.

Tribal stickball game makes a comeback

ASHLAND — Shinney, a rough and loud stickball game that was once played by American Indian tribes, is growing popular in the region and will be the centerpiece of the first modern-day Native Games Tournament locally.

The tournament is scheduled from 11 a.m. until dark on Saturday at 2165 Highway 99, just north of Ashland. It is free and open to the public. American Indians and non-Indians are invited to form teams of all ages and genders. Team entry is $50, with proceeds going to an "elder giveaway" of useful items, such as blankets, knives or pouches. More information is available at

Shinney is played with no boundaries, protective equipment or rules. Using fir sticks slightly curved at the end, each team tries to hit or kick a ball (actually two tennis balls joined by a 9-inch thong) through the opposing team, including a goalie, scoring a point by landing the ball on the goal stick.

The game unites players and spectators in camaraderie and, because the wacky ball is unpredictable, brings in the unseen spiritual dimension sought by Indians, says Tessa Lake, who's in charge of first aid.

"Indian games are different. There's no padding. Instead of rules, there's a certain amount of respect for other players," says Lake. "The games have a spiritual strategy. The ball is unpredictable so it takes concentration and strength of spirit to be of 'no mind' and know where it's going."

Shinney started many centuries ago among tribes of the Northeastern U.S. who would play it to learn warrior skills, tribal unity and endurance — sometimes going at it for days over courses that were miles long. It was the model for the modern lacrosse.

Among the leaders in the sport's revival are Dan Wahpepah and Michael Basquez of Ashland, founding members of Red Earth Descendants. For the past two years, they've been passing out sticks at Indian powwows and starting up games during breaks, says Wahpepah. They practice on Sundays in Lithia Park.

Teams are starting at the University of California at Davis, Portland State University, the Grand Ronde Reservation, among local Unete groups and at the Native American Student Union at Southern Oregon University, says Wahpepah — and some of them will attend this weekend's tournament.

"There's a lot of running, like soccer, but also a lot of full-body contact. Some people do get hurt. We do ask for no cleats because they can hurt. It's very cardiovascular and fun, fun, fun," says Wahpepah.

Modern American Indians are reviving key aspects of shinney's ancient meaning, says Wahpepah. In Indian heritage, games started with a purifying sweat lodge "to get rid of toxins and also things you carry psychologically," he says. Feasting follows games.

"It's just starting to catch on. It's a big hit when we bring it out at powwows. We usually end up giving the powwow committee a set of sticks," says Wahpepah, who makes them along with Basquez.

Except for a ban on high-sticking (intentionally hitting another player with the stick), rules tend to be intuitive. For example, you don't step on one of the balls. If you do, you're going to get a big body check (slam), says Wahpepah, just like in hockey. Children or girls tend to get selected as goalies, he adds, because, well, you're not going to want to slam them.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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