The mesquite tree, made pliable by winter rains, is a necessary and timely tool for the women of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Now is the time for fashioning usiga sticks from mesquite branches, for play in the Nation’s ancient game called tóka.
It would be easy to describe tóka simply as a women’s-only game, but that would belie the spirit in which it was created and the strength and skill it requires of the players.
For Crystal Narcho, museum specialist at the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum in Topawa, her tóka play is part of community life. “For as long as anyone can remember, women of my village have always played tóka, so it was natural for me to learn it,” says Crystal, who is responsible for the storytelling program at the Cultural Center and Museum and who is from Ge Wo’o (or Gu Vu on maps). “Tóka is something far more important than just a game. It is a traditional skill to master.”
Tóka play involves an ola made out of two thick mesquite wood pieces (approximately 3½ inches) tied together with leather. Mesquite branches are fashioned into the curved sticks called usiga.
Usually seven to 15 women play the game. A team will include blockers in the middle and the fastest girls as runners holding the end of the lineup. Players can be as young as four years old, and Crystal knows elders in their 80s, including Ena Lopez, basket weaver and tóka player, who still participate.
Tóka has comparisons to football and field hockey, as the size of the play area is similar to the size of a football field. That’s where the comparison ends, however, as there are no out of bounds limits to the field and no net by the “goal line.” Even when the ola goes over that goal line, the puck is still in play, says Crystal, because it must be picked up and brought back to the center to be considered for a point. Play then is continuous, with the team earning the best out of seven points declared the winner.
“It’s a tough game, requiring good strength and skill,” Crystal says, also noting that the game is played with no helmets, no knee pads or other protection, and with no breaks.
According to legend, the game of tóka was given to the Tohono O’odham by the Elder Brother I’itoi. “From what I was told, the game was given to the women as something to do in their free time while men were away hunting,” explains Crystal. “The Creator gave games to both women and men, and while some men’s games like the kickball are just being revived, the tóka games for women were never lost, and have been played continuously in our villages.”
Crystal, who has played since she was seven and now participates as often as she can, notes that moisture in the mesquite branches from winter rain makes spring the season for fashioning sticks and pucks. “The first thing I was told was to always have at least two usiga. So girls in the villages now are selecting their branches to work with, cleaning and bending them, using heat.”
Games begin with teams singing the tóka song: “It is about running with the stick, kicking up the ground dust, and the power of the puck. Red means power, and some women dye their ola red,” explains Crystal. Each team wears its selected, unique color, and wagers are placed in a designated area before the games. Some girls bet baskets, tóka sticks, even Gatorade, Crystal notes.
More and more O’odham girls are showing an interest in tóka. Tournaments are held all year, with the traditional playing time in the fall. The annual February O’odham Rodeo includes demonstrations and a national tournament. There are 10 teams on Nation with two more from the Gila River O’odham. Crystal notes the importance of elders in the sport, including Verna Enos (a local teacher, and her daughter April Ignacio), who instituted tóka play at the Rodeo. Ena Lopez, now in her 80s, attends games, participating as well as relating tóka stories. The stories are important to many girls in the Museum storytelling program, which Crystal coordinates. Tóka is a powerful game and part of our history, Crystal says.
- Tóka (1994, 24 min.) United States. Director: Cyndee & David Wing. Women and girls of the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona play an exciting game of stickball, reflecting the people’s age-old traditions. Read more: http://filmcatalog.nmai.si.edu/person/241/
- Google eBook: Native American Identity in Sports by Frank A. Salamone (2012), Chapter 6, Toka http://books.google.com/books?id=jhn5sBn9WAMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Ruth Underhill, various writings. Contact the Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum for additional information.