As It Happens

Cherokee inscriptions in Alabama cave describe 'bloodied-nose' sport of stickball

Researchers have translated Cherokee inscriptions from the year 1828 found on the wall and ceiling of a cave in Alabama. They describe a game of stickball, similar to lacrosse, but much more violent.

Inscriptions may have been made in a 'secluded space' to avoid prying eyes of missionaries, says researcher

Researchers Beau Duke Carroll and Julie Reed in Manitou Cave. (Alan Cressler/Antiquity)
Listen5:28

Manitou Cave in northeastern Alabama has been a tourist attraction since the 19th century — and the myriad of graffiti that adorns its surfaces attests to its continuous popularity.

But it was only fairly recently that non-English inscriptions came to the attention of historians who were able to translate them from Cherokee.

One of the markings in question was inscribed on the cave walls and ceiling on April 28, 1828 — just three years after the Cherokee Nation officially adopted the writing system for its traditionally oral language.

Julie Reed, an associate professor of Native American and American History at Penn State University and a member of the Cherokee Nation, co-authored a paper about those markings this week in the journal Antiquity 

Here is part of her conversation with As it Happens guest host Duncan McCue about the inscriptions. 

Can you give us an idea of what exactly you found on the walls and the ceilings of the cave?

After you've traversed a pretty treacherous terrain to get back to that section of the cave, you enter a pretty large room where there is a wall filled with various kinds of writing that's to your side. 

And then on the ceiling above there appears to be a different writer. And it's not the same hand that you're seeing writing on the wall ... which begs the question: are the audiences the same? Are the subjects the same?

So what did we know about what happened on April 28, 1828, based on that writing?

The writers are referencing a ball game. They're talking about having noses bloodied. And this ball game is almost certainly stickball.

This was a common game played throughout the Southeast. It's related to the game of lacrosse. ...The nickname for Cherokees for it, or a kind of English equivalent is "the little brother of war." And so it could get very violent.

The fact that you're bleeding from your nose from a stickball game ... this would have been perfectly normal.

The markings were inscribed on the walls of Manitou Cave in Alabama in 1828 — just three years after the Cherokee Nation officially adopted the writing system for its traditionally oral language. (Alan Cressler/Antiquity )

And why were these writers deep, deep, deep inside a cave writing about stickball?

Ceremonies that had to be performed in order to treat blood as the serious and powerful liquid that it is — those ceremonies were often performed away and in secluded locations that would have included powerful medicine people from the community.

And so the idea that this was happening in a cave, away from the broader public, would have been perfectly consistent with some of these ceremonies that had to be performed both before and after the game. 

But I think that there was an added piece to all of this.

This is a moment when the U.S. civilization policy is in full steam. Missionaries have arrived on the scene. They're there offering education — which is what Cherokees wanted — but they're also "missionizing," they're also evangelizing — they're also attempting to get people to to convert to Christianity. 

It was a huge time of upheaval for the Cherokee.

Social upheaval, economic upheaval. And so missionaries are kind of directly attacking activities like stickball games.

Because of the pressure being placed on Cherokees to disband and no longer play these kinds of games, that there may have been an added motivation to move into a secluded space like a cave to conduct these ceremonies — you're outside of the scrutiny of missionaries' prying eyes, or perhaps some of the pressures that missionaries were placing on people.

'I am both humbled and blessed to ... have had the opportunity to go into these spaces,' says Julie Reed, an associate professor of Native American and American History at Penn State University, of her time studying Cherokee inscriptions in Manitou Cave, Alabama. (Alan Cressler/Antiquity )

Were you able to figure out who wrote the message?

We have an English-language signature in there. And the signature is Richard Guess, who is one of Sequoyah's sons ... and Sequoyah is the inventor of the Cherokee written language.

He wrapped up the language around 1821-ish, we think. It's been adopted by the Cherokee Nation by 1825. And by 1828, when this writing is dated, the Cherokee Nation has secured a printing press in order to produce a bilingual newspaper on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, and in order to fight off attacks that were aimed at removing them.

 And so here is his son writing in here.

You're a Cherokee historian. I wonder as a living descendant of someone who wrote those messages, what was it like for you to be inside the cave and looking at them?

I continue to say that I am both humbled and blessed to have had the opportunity to go into these spaces. And I am mindful of the fact that it's only because I'm a historian in a university that I have this opportunity, and that it's not just my opportunity — that this belongs to Cherokee people more broadly.

I think there's a real sense of responsibility on my part to make sure that Cherokee people know about these spaces and understand this intellectual history of ours. Because it's not just mine. It's not just the team's. It's our history. Our legacy. And I think that that has to be taken very seriously.

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.