By Al Mattei

The official history of American field hockey places the start of the sport at around 1905, corresponding with the arrival of Constance Applebee at Radcliffe College.

But the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona might beg to disagree.

For as long as anyone can remember, women in the tribe have gotten together ourdoors on shimmering afternoons, smacking an ola made out of two oblong pieces of wood tied together with the usaga, a curved stick with no flat surface at the end, very reminicent of the stick used in the game of ringette.

Women walking through the desert to crop fields or water sources played it to pass the time during the day, and female teams continue to compete to this very day.

According to tribal legend, the game of tóka was given to the Tohono Oodham by the Elder Brother, known in the Nation as I'itoi.

I'itoi, says the oral history, gave the game to the women of the Nation shortly after creating the various tribes around the world from the shadows of the Schuk Toak -- today, known as Rocky Point, a mountain located in Puerto Penasco, a town located in the Mexican state of Sonora.

Legend also has it that a woman spent so much time traveling to other villages to play tóka that she neglects her child. The toddler -- a boy in some stories, a girl in others -- was left waiting on an anthill and sank into the ground.

Years went by, and a plant game up in its place -- a saguaro cactus. The spirit of that young child is why saguaro are revered in Tohono O'odham culture.

The game has been captured on film, in a 24-minute documentary by Cyndee and David Wing. The film "Tóka" won the Best Short Documentary at the 1994 American Indian Film Festival.

"We brought some of the women from the film to the American Indian Film Festival in 1994, got them in vans and drove them to San Francisco," Cyndee Wing says. "We got them all on stage before the film was screened to do the song, and it was powerful."

Tóka, like other Native games such as the Cherokee da-nah-wah'uwsdi, or its Iroquois cousin bagataway, had little or no rules; just conventions and rituals handed down from one generation to the next.

"There are some parallels that the game has with lacrosse," Cyndee Wing says from her Arizona studio. "The fields were often the pathways between villages, and the games would be miles long."

Over the years, the conventions of the game have changed somewhat. The fields on which the game is played are no longer between villages, but the game is not exactly constrained or codified in a rulebook like non-Native sports sometimes are.

"The Tohono O'odham rely on consensus," says Cyndee Wing. "They are a nomadic people, and the group has to agree on things, or they won't survive."

Indeed, to allow Cyndee and David Wing to film the game, a certain consensus had to be formed with the tribe -- part of it involving the surrender of a bit of artistic freedom. But since the Wings have been putting various aspects of Native culture on film since 1974, there was generous compromise from all sides.

"We had Ina Lopez, the narrator of the film, speak a while without adding subtitles," Cyndee Wing says. "The thing is, fewer and fewer people are speaking the language, so this could be a way to make it stronger."

The game of tóka, like baggataway in the Northeast United States, is not for the faint of spirit. Many years ago, some villages played not only for honor, but for a degree of survival. Prizes of winter supplies often were awarded to winning tribes in high-stakes games played in the late fall -- oddly enough, the same time of year that high-stakes domestic field hockey games are held in the United States.

The game can also be physical; the flame-hardened mesquite sticks are as unforgiving as their mulberry cousins.

"I once played in a game," says Cyndee Wing, "and I had to take two weeks to recover. It is a serious game. When you see the film and notice the older women standing off to the side, if you were to take a look at their legs, you would notice a lot of scarring."

The film shows a number of photographs and images from home archives. Some pictures taken from the 1940s show players wearing heels and full-length dresses. And this, folks, is in the Arizona desert.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early part of the 20th Century, tóka has been enjoying a burgeoning revival among young people. At the school level, it was introduced to San Simón, Ariz. on the Tohono O'odham reservation, in 1996. By the time the Wings were making their documentary, the local Girl Scout troop had taken up the game.

"Today, you have teams at schools on the reservation traveling to play other schools," Cyndee Wing says.

On one hand, the revival is being seen as having a spiritual benefit, one which brings tribal members closer to their heritage. The songs and circular ritual before a gam starts is a striking parallel to the "Yea-rah-hockey" chant that field hockey players of a certain era chanted at the end of their matches.

But on a more practical level, the game is seen as one which gives the population a health benefit. Fully halfof Tohono O'odham tribal members over the age of 35 are diabetic, the highest rate in the world.

One group looking to turn this around is Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Tucson, a few miles east of the Tohono O'odham reservation. The organization recommends playing toka as well as proper diet and other kinds of exercise in order to regulate blood sugar.

In more than 500 years, the worlds of tóka and field hockey have yet to cross paths. There are more Arizona high schools playing the Native game than the codified English version.