On Thursday, March 12, former Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community President Diane Enos and Brian Unger, host of the Travel Channel’s new series Time Traveling with Brian Unger, met up at Mesa Grande Cultural Park in Mesa and toured Salt River Fields at Talking Stick to explore the history of Native American ballgames and how this ties in with O’odham and Piipaash history. The Travel Channel was surprised and walked away with a whole new understanding.
“[Time Traveling with Brian Unger] is really about arriving at a connection with our past and our present with a group of people who live in the town in which we are exploring history,” said Unger. “These places, whether we know they are there or not, define us, and they enrich our lives, whether we know it or not. We’re really trying to take people on a journey to show them the hidden history—what is under their feet, what is next door to their homes or their businesses, or what’s around the corner. This is the first time that Native Americans are centered to the narrative that we’re telling in this episode. We want to make it fun and informative at the same time.”
The rich history of the O’odham and Piipaash has been a hidden gem here in the Valley. Many have been exposed to the history through hearing about Huhugam canals/irrigation systems, the Talking Stick Cultural and Entertainment District or Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. However, this history has more to it than meets the eye.
History of Native American Ballgames
For thousands of years, ballgames have been played by Native peoples throughout the Southwest, Mexico and Central America. More than 1,300 ballcourts have been discovered to date, with 200 in Arizona alone.
Men and women played different games. A Huhugam court is said to have been constructed in a semicircular or oval shape. Men would throw hard rubber balls through a hoop mounted on the side wall of the court, somewhat similar to basketball. Women played with sticks and hit the balls, similar to field hockey. These were more than just games; they also carried much value and spiritual significance. The ballcourts were also used for ceremonial events.
When Salt River Fields at Talking Stick was built, it was built upon the notion of “bringing baseball home,” taking into consideration the significance of ballgames to the history of the SRPMIC.
Journey Back in Time
In this new half-hour original series, Unger takes viewers back in time and brings the past to life, allowing them to make your own connections with their past and present. The history behind Salt River Fields at Talking Stick caught the eye of the Major League Baseball (MLB) Network and the Travel Channel.
“This is a terrific collaboration between the Major League Baseball (MLB) Network through the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Travel Channel. We can look at this evolution of game, this sport, ritual or ceremony; all of that is really indigenous to the Valley. This is a great historical narrative that we can tell, whether it’s a full circle or a continuum,” said Unger.
“We like the idea that we could sit in a seat at Salt River Fields at Taking Stick, watch a game and look past the wall into the Valley and possibly, maybe, see a different game being played from a different time. Imagine what it must have been like to be here thousands of years ago and still have competition, games, ritual and ceremony,” said Unger.
He added, “There was something that came before baseball, before the stadium itself, and that was a dynamic, rich, fascinating culture and society. It’s more than, ‘Oh it’s baseball and how it’s very similar to this ancient sport.’ It’s more about how things all interconnect and how they’re all around us. That’s really a model for the series. The series is about discovering these connections that are out in the open, but at the same time hidden from us because of our technology, all the buildings, and all of the things that cover them up.”
Unger concluded, “We’re just grateful to the SRPMIC for making it all possible, and when I say all, I mean all of it. We’re happy to be here and just can’t be thankful enough to be allowed the access we had and given the chance to really appreciate the history here. I came away with a whole new understanding of Phoenix history. History is more vivid after I leave Phoenix.”
Time Traveling with Brian Unger, a 15-episode series, will debut on Monday, April 20, with two back-to-back episodes starting at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the Travel Channel. Be sure to tune in and take a journey back in time with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.