Monday, February 16, 2015

A Little of What I Know About Toka

On the Tohono O'odham Nation, everyone knows what "toka" means.  Ask any O'odham; from the east end or the west end, man or woman, young or old and everyone will tell you the same thing: It's a traditional game that women play.  Often, people compare it to field hockey, but they'll always make sure to tell you that you can't buy the "sticks" or the "puck" from a store.  No.  Everything comes from the desert. 

Usaga (singular)
U'usaga (plural)
Made from mesquite branches

30 or 40 years ago, that might not have been the case.  30 or 40 years ago toka was in our distant history, not something that was current.  It was a game only our elders talked about and the idea of a "toka demonstration" was more prevalent than a "toka game."

It isn't that way anymore. 

The game starts with a song.  All the players form a circle and pound the earth with their usaga (stick) and sing the toka song.  In a tournament setting, the circle is usually formed around the first two teams.  (No, I will not post the toka song online - if you want to know it, go ask a toka player to teach you.  Keep in mind that you will then be expected to become a player.)

The rules are simple: Two teams with the same number of players line up across from each other, alternating the placement of their usaga on a field.  There is no standard number of players for each team.  There is no standard size for the field, it varies with the terrain.  Lines are drawn in the dirt on either end as the goal, and the teams begin in the middle.  A facilitator holds the 'ola (what others might call a puck, but looks nothing like a circular hockey puck) and begins play by throwing the 'ola in the middle of the u'usiga. 

The 'ola
Mesquite and leather
Photo courtesy of April Ignacio

Women use the sticks to hit the 'ola as far as they can towards their end of the field.  Once the 'ola passes the line, it is still considered in play until it is picked up.  It cannot be picked up before the line.  Kicking the 'ola is not allowed.  The teams alternate the direction of their goal after every match.  Usually, best out of 5 or 7 wins, though that number can change. 

There is no such thing as "out of bounds."

There are no timeouts. 

Game play doesn't stop if someone falls or someone starts bleeding.  Game play doesn't stop if the 'ola falls near the audience.  Game play doesn't stop if you have to jump over a barb wired fence or the 'ola goes into a patch of prickly pear cactus or under a tree with sharp thorns.  Game play doesn't stop if the 'ola falls near someone's shiny new truck.  Game play doesn't stop if the 'ola crosses the goal line. 

Game play doesn't stop until the 'ola gets picked up.   

I liked these photos of the 2014 Wapkial Ha-tas Toka Tournament because it shows that the players will not even stop for an expensive camera.

At this point, the 'ola had crossed the line, but no one had picked it up yet, so the game continued.

There goes that expensive camera.  I think this guy was from Indian Country Today. 

Injuries occur, but intentional injuries are not tolerated.  The game demands respect on all sides.   

No matter how intense the game is or how seriously the game is taken, hands are shaken at the end of each game, and if in a tournament setting, at the end of the tournament as well. 

Listening as the winners are announced

The circle folds onto itself and everyone shares a moment with all who participated.  This is a time for high fives, handshakes and hugs. 

In the 70's, 80's and 90's, a small number of people, many of whom were recently honored at the 2015, 77th Annual Wapkial Ha-tas (Cowboy Days) event in Sells, reignited the passion of toka within the O'odham community. 

Verna N. (Morrow) Enos, a teacher, then later, the Vice-principal at San Si:mon Elementary School spearheaded the campaign to revitalize the game.  By the time I attended that school in the late 80's, toka was commonplace on the whole west side of the reservation. 

In the backyard of Verna N. Enos-bat's backyard, were these metal-women, perpetually running.  Looking at Verna-bat's metal-ladies and the human ones in the background, kicking up dust, made me smile. 

I didn't learn until years later, that traditionally, only women, not girls, played toka.  I grew up in a time where it was common to have a pick up game at school during lunch.  I even remember a few teachers extending the lunch break by a few minutes to let us finish our games. 

Toka was always treated as something important within the community.  Because I grew up around it, I assumed everyone played.  Even as an adult, it still surprises me when I meet an O'odham woman who has never played.   

Boys never complained that they couldn't play.  They watched, they cheered us on.  But in the end, it was something special that only us females had. 

When I was in the seventh grade or so, I remember one of my close friends telling me about her weekend.  She told me about all the things she had done over the weekend; a trip to  Tucson, watching a movie with her family, going to church on Sunday, then, what she had been waiting all weekend to do,  playing a game of toka until the sun went down with her cousins.  I remember distinctly because she told me there were only four players.  I laughed at how small the teams were, only two against two.  She said they did it all the time.  She wanted to play, no matter how many players there were.  It was her favorite thing to do.  

Teams constantly formed throughout the Nation.  Some were new, some had really good reputations.  I can't remember if I learned how to play in my village or at school, but I was often surrounded by other young girls who were around my age.  Players on the team my village formed were anywhere from 10-15 years old, I was shocked (and immediately intimidated) the first time my team played another team with older women. 

Being a 12 year old and watching strong, confident women in their 40's, 50's and 60's solidly running while expertly handling their usaga was a moment that took my breath away.  Grandmothers, with headscarves were able to hit the 'ola halfway across the field, where their fastest runner was waiting to take it over the line.  I remember one woman was wearing a dress just like my grandmother's.  

Wide eyed and clumsily in comparison, we didn't stand a chance.     

I remember getting absolutely crushed by those women, but at the end of the game, they shook our hands and gave us hugs and told us how proud of us they were for coming out.  They had nothing but encouraging words for us as we shared a meal with them, as their guests, as is the custom. 

I haven't played in a long time (a detail many of the women like to remind me), but I do enjoy going to the tournaments and watching the games and the people who come to support the players.

The Pisin' Mo'o team and one of our wins. 
I'm in the back with the messiest hair. 
I think I was around 14 years old.  1996?
I was the worst one on the team

Thank you, Kaleena for the photo 

A dad holding his daughter, and a mom sneaks in some cuddle time with her daughter in between games.

In recent years, I've noticed how many families come out to support one another.  As a woman's game, naturally, there are many young children around.  I've noticed also, that there are many husbands and dads around to hold babies and cheer on their wives or their daughters.  Brothers are around to cheer on their sisters and everywhere, there is community and support. 

Toka is still growing.  Now there are teams from our sister tribes, Ak-chin and Akimel O'odham.  There's also a whole toka season where players and their families travel from village to village, both on and off the Tohono O'odham Nation to play. 

The largest tournament I've seen was held this year during the 2015 Wapkial Ha-tas, Rodeo and Fair.  There were 13 teams, including two from Akimel jewed with more than 200 women and girls participating!

HUGE trophies went to the 5-year reigning champions: S-we:pk U'uwi, 2nd place winners were: Tas Tonalig and 3rd place winners were: Gewkidag

All participants got t-shirts. 
A new shirt to wear to the next tournament. 

Packing up to go home.

The following is an excerpt from an email that was sent out to the participants of the 2015 Toka Tournament, written by April Ignacio, organizer and daughter of Verna N. Enos, "The Toka Lady". 

This past year, at the 25th Anniversary Tournament, 13 people were honored for their role in revitalizing the game:

The Nation will be recognizing 13 individuals who have played an instrumental part of this 25th Annual. Through my mother Verna's records and notes, her research on Toka started in the late 70's in the villages of San Simo:n and Gunsight. In 1990, The Tohono O'odham Nation Rodeo and Fair included Toka as a demonstration against two teams; San Xavier and the San Simo:n women's team. In 1992 she created the Nation's first ever Toka League that included the key individuals who helped spread Toka throughout the Nation and the schools, this included young girls from 4th grade to participate in toka. (Before then, the game itself was only played by older women).  These women and man are elders now, 3 of them have passed on; 

Agatha Miguel- San Xavier 

Carolynn "Shorty" Reyes- San Xavier
Helen Manuel- Hickiwan village
Avella Baptisto- Hickiwan- deceased
Charlene Jose- Kaka village
Alexine Francisco- Kaka Village
Marlene Francisco- Charco 27- deceased
Virginia Montana- GuVo Village
Phyllis Montana- GuVo Village
Norma Domingo- PisinMo'o Village
Verna N. (Morrow) Enos- San Simo:n School- deceased
Rosie Geronimo- Topawa Intermediate School
Elizabeth Joaquin-Johnson- Topawa Intermediate School
Cathy Ross- Santa Rosa Ranch
Helen Ramon- Santa Rosa Ranch 
Andrew Lorentine Sr.- Rodeo and Fair Committee Chairman in 1990 (advocated to have Toka be apart of the Rodeo and Fair, permanently).

Since this email was sent out, Andrew Lorentine-bat has also passed on. 

But still, the game persists. 

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