When Harold Comby’s wife was in grade school in the 1960s, her teachers would make her open her hand and they would slap it with a ruler if she spoke her native Choctaw tongue.
That’s why it means a lot to him to go to events such as the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration and see people embracing a culture that was once shunned. He and about 20 other members of the Choctaw tribe in Mississippi were at the festival Saturday demonstrating the centuries-old Choctaw sport of stickball, as well as performing tribal dances.
“It wasn’t popular to be Indian back in the 1950s and ‘60s, but now people are accepting that it’s who we are,” said Comby, 59. “To me it’s part of the healing process. A lot of us were taught to be ashamed of who we are.”
As youths from the tribe played stickball in the arena, Comby explained the game to the crowd. He said afterwards it has been played at least since the 1500s, because Spanish explorers described seeing it played in what is now Florida.
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It bears some resemblance to lacrosse in that players use sticks to pick up a ball and fling it at a target, which is a pole in stickball. An invitation was extended to youths in the crowd to come up and play, and several did.
The festival, in its 23rd year, is held at the Ocmulgee National Monument and draws thousands of people. It continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m..
The monument is home of earthen mounds built by an Indian culture known as the Mississippians, ancestors of the Muscogee (Creek) Indians, who lived there for centuries until their relocation to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. William Harjo, of Texas, is a full-blooded Muscogee who has come to the festival every year for many years. He sells wooden flutes that he makes by hand, and he also plays flutes as a part of the entertainment schedule.
Asked how he feels about coming back to the land where his ancestors once lived, he said, “It’s really hard, because this very land you are standing on used to belong to us until it was stolen. Sure I’ve got hard feelings over it. ... We lost over half our people on a trip from here to Oklahoma.”
Kathleen Abbott, of Peach County, has come to the festival for the past three years. She turned 84 Tuesday. She danced with the Cherokee Indians from North Carolina last year and hoped to do it gain.
“I rested up all week so I would be able to dance,” she said. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Two years ago, the festival drew a record crowd of 19,000. It dropped off some last year due to inclement weather. Jim David, park superintendent, estimated that 6,000 people came out Saturday. On Friday, which is held for schools, 4,000 people attended, which David said was a good turnout. With good weather expected for Sunday, David said attendance could beat the record.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.