27 March 2008

Jorge Estevez's article in Indian Country Today: "Batu: The ancient game lives on"

For the complete article with illustrations, please see:



Batu: The ancient game lives on
Posted: March 26, 2008
by: Jorge Estevez / Guest columnist

Imagine traveling back in time, 500 years to be exact, to the islands of the Caribbean. There you find beautiful sandy beaches with turquoise waters, palm trees, warm weather, soft winds and green mountainous landscapes.

In the distance, you hear the sounds of drums and maracas. You follow the pulsating music and reach the outskirts of a village. The people you meet are moving about excitedly in preparation for a ball game they call batu.

The game is played in a rectangular playing field called a batey. The batey is surrounded by huge stone slabs with carvings that bear a semblance to those found in other regions of the Americas, yet these are distinctly unique to the Caribbean. Two teams of players enter the batey. The teams have come together from different communities - perhaps to cement their political or social bonds, or just simply for the love of the game.

In any event, these games are central in the Taino social structure. The villagers begin praying and chanting to Koromo, Achinao, Rakuno and Sobaoko, the four directions. The rules of the game have long been established, but the players are reminded once again that one cannot touch the ball with their hands or feet. Only hips, elbows, shoulders and head are allowed. A heavy rubber ball is tossed in the center ... and the game begins.

After contact with the Spaniards in 1492, the Taino Indians of the Caribbean were enslaved and prohibited from continuing this ancient tradition. Just as our North American cousins who were forced into boarding schools, our people were forced into missions by the Catholic priests. Our Native customs and traditions were subsequently denied to us. Hence, our ancestors were unable to continue playing.

How and why we competed was gradually forgotten. Only in historical records do we find descriptions of how this Native sport was played. Today, archaeologists are continually finding remnants of these playing fields.

Huge bateys have been found in Kiskeya (Dominican Republic), Haiti and a few of the lesser Antilles. But the island of Boriken (Puerto Rico) has yielded the highest number of bateys found to date. It is quite possible that the most important tournaments were held on this island.

In addition to playing fields, stone collars carved with motifs of religious significance have also been excavated. Batu and ulama (ball game played by the Mexica Indians of Mexico) and other similar games were played throughout Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Europeans.

One would assume that these Native games were lost forever, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the descendants of the first people to meet Columbus are reviving the game. In fact this revival has been going for quite sometime....CONTINUE

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