Games and Native Americans


COLLECTION STORIES More Than Fun and Games

  • BY Anne Bolen

Games entice people to gather, particularly during cold winter months. They can evoke fond childhood memories of family members huddling around a kitchen table to play a board or card game while listening to parents or grandparents recount stories. Even as adults, the thrill of beating our opponents, our own best score or “lady luck” is shared across many cultures.

Playing Cards

Games of Strategy

During the 1700s, Apache people in the Southwest learned about card games by watching Spanish and Mexican colonists play. Following Mexico’s independence in 1821, trade relations with Mexico deteriorated and Apache people started making their own cards that featured traditional Apache symbols and other imagery painted on rawhide.

Chiricahua or Western Apache playing cards, 1875–1885; Arizona; rawhide, paint; each 3.6” x 2.2” x .4”. 6/4597

Photo by NMAI Staff

Games of Strategy

During the 1700s, Apache people in the Southwest learned about card games by watching Spanish and Mexican colonists play. Following Mexico’s independence in 1821, trade relations with Mexico deteriorated and Apache people started making their own cards that featured traditional Apache symbols and other imagery painted on rawhide.

Chiricahua or Western Apache playing cards, 1875–1885; Arizona; rawhide, paint; each 3.6” x 2.2” x .4”. 6/4597

Photo by NMAI Staff

A woven tray with walnuts, used in a game called 'huuchuish'

Games of Chance

This woven tray from the Yokuts people of Central California was likely used to play a women’s game called “huuchuish.” Women would throw dice made from the shells of walnuts or other nuts into the basket. Small sticks would have been used to keep score. In this set, the dice made of nuts have been inlaid with shell.

Yokuts woman’s gambling basket and dice, circa 1900; Central California; fiber, nut shells, shell, tree pitch; 19.6” x 1”. 25/4726

Photo by NMAI Staff

Games of Chance

This woven tray from the Yokuts people of Central California was likely used to play a women’s game called “huuchuish.” Women would throw dice made from the shells of walnuts or other nuts into the basket. Small sticks would have been used to keep score. In this set, the dice made of nuts have been inlaid with shell.

Yokuts woman’s gambling basket and dice, circa 1900; Central California; fiber, nut shells, shell, tree pitch; 19.6” x 1”. 25/4726

Photo by NMAI Staff

A set of gambling sticks and a carrying case

The Nisga’a (Niska) in northwestern British Columbia are known as the “People of the Nass River.” A Nisga’a person created this set of gambling sticks during the late 19th century. The set includes a carrying case made of caribou hide painted with ravens.

Nisga’a (Niska) gambling set, 1840–1900; Nass River region, British Columbia, Canada; maple, abalone shell, caribou hide, sinew, paint; 28.7” x 7” x 2”. 9/8116

Photo by NMAI Staff

The Nisga’a (Niska) in northwestern British Columbia are known as the “People of the Nass River.” A Nisga’a person created this set of gambling sticks during the late 19th century. The set includes a carrying case made of caribou hide painted with ravens.

Nisga’a (Niska) gambling set, 1840–1900; Nass River region, British Columbia, Canada; maple, abalone shell, caribou hide, sinew, paint; 28.7” x 7” x 2”. 9/8116

Photo by NMAI Staff

A pair of marked bones

During the hand game, a pair of marked bones is concealed in the hands of two team members, one in each hand. A member of the other team guesses the bones’ locations, identifying which is striped and which is not. If a bone is located, the hiding team relinquishes it to the other team. The rounds continue until one team wins all the bones.

Makah bones for hand game, 1870–1890; Neah Bay, Washington state; animal bone, wood, pigments, hide. 3 “ x 1.3”. 1/9280

Photo by NMAI Staff

During the hand game, a pair of marked bones is concealed in the hands of two team members, one in each hand. A member of the other team guesses the bones’ locations, identifying which is striped and which is not. If a bone is located, the hiding team relinquishes it to the other team. The rounds continue until one team wins all the bones.

Makah bones for hand game, 1870–1890; Neah Bay, Washington state; animal bone, wood, pigments, hide. 3 “ x 1.3”. 1/9280

Photo by NMAI Staff

A hoop and sticks

Games of Skill

Many Native games were designed to improve or showcase athletic ability or hone hunting or other skills. The hoop and pole game, for example, involves one player tossing or rolling a hoop while another player throws sticks at it. The person throwing the stick earns different points depending on whether the stick lands on top of the hoop or goes through it.

Niuam (Comanche) hoop and pole game, circa 1900; Oklahoma; wood, sinew, paint; 47.6” (sticks), 5” x 2.8” (hoop). 2/1950

Photo by NMAI Staff

Games of Skill

Many Native games were designed to improve or showcase athletic ability or hone hunting or other skills. The hoop and pole game, for example, involves one player tossing or rolling a hoop while another player throws sticks at it. The person throwing the stick earns different points depending on whether the stick lands on top of the hoop or goes through it.

Niuam (Comanche) hoop and pole game, circa 1900; Oklahoma; wood, sinew, paint; 47.6” (sticks), 5” x 2.8” (hoop). 2/1950

Photo by NMAI Staff

Ice gliders

Many northern Native peoples in the United States and First Nations in Canada play winter games. Traditionally, many of these were played by men or older boys, but recently they have also become open to women. In one game, gliders (left) are thrown onto an icy surface. Feathers help to balance the glider, and they quiver as it shoots across the ice. The player who gets his glider to slide the farthest wins.

Sahnish (Arikara) ice glider, 1920–1924; Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota; animal bone, wood, feathers, paint; 20.9” x 4” x 4.3”. 13/2857

Photo by NMAI Staff

Many northern Native peoples in the United States and First Nations in Canada play winter games. Traditionally, many of these were played by men or older boys, but recently they have also become open to women. In one game, gliders (left) are thrown onto an icy surface. Feathers help to balance the glider, and they quiver as it shoots across the ice. The player who gets his glider to slide the farthest wins.

Sahnish (Arikara) ice glider, 1920–1924; Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota; animal bone, wood, feathers, paint; 20.9” x 4” x 4.3”. 13/2857

Photo by NMAI Staff

Snowsnakes

In another game, the players hurl “snowsnakes”—polished wooden sticks with a head carved from wood, horn or bone—along the bottom of an icy track dug into the snow. Again, whoever gets the snowsnake to travel the furthest wins.

Sac and Fox (Sauk and Fox) snowsnakes, circa 1900; Oklahoma; wood. 23.6” x 1.8” x 1.4”. 2/5527

Photo by NMAI Staff

In another game, the players hurl “snowsnakes”—polished wooden sticks with a head carved from wood, horn or bone—along the bottom of an icy track dug into the snow. Again, whoever gets the snowsnake to travel the furthest wins.

Sac and Fox (Sauk and Fox) snowsnakes, circa 1900; Oklahoma; wood. 23.6” x 1.8” x 1.4”. 2/5527

Photo by NMAI StaffPreviousNext

“Playing games is part of what makes us human,” said Ann McMullen, head of Collections Research and Documentation at the National Museum of the American Indian.

For millennia, Indigenous people throughout the Americas have played games that bring family, friends and communities together. Many were games of chance and centered around the throwing of dice made of materials such as bone, pottery, shell or even sticks. The dice would have different designs or colors on each side and, when they were tossed, the color or design that faced up determined the score. String games were played in many regions by Native peoples, from the Inuit in Alaska and Canada to the Navajo in the Southwest. Similar to “cat’s cradle,” these games involved weaving a piece of sinew or string into intricate patterns between two hands. The resulting designs could represent animals or other figures and some were a way to tell stories to children.

While many Indigenous games may have been pastimes, some were intended to train youth in skills they would need to survive or to showcase such skills in adults. Boys and girls in many regions were encouraged to play racing and running games to build stamina. Young hunters were given child-sized bow and arrow sets, spears or other hunting tools so they could practice hitting targets at early ages. “Chunkey,” played mainly by adult men, is thought to have originated about 2,500 years ago at Cahokia, a large Indigenous city near the Mississippi River in west-central Illinois. In this game, one player rolls a stone disc across the ground and the other throws a spear to try to get it as close to where the stone stops as possible.

Competitions, particularly team sports, were a way to not only build athletic prowess but also settle disputes. “People tend to think of games as being childish,” said McMullen. “In Native America and other parts of the world, there are games that were tremendously important because they served as ways for people who were not necessarily friendly to work out their differences without physical violence.”

Lacrosse, originally played only by men, is said to have been a gift from the Creator to the peoples of the eastern United States and Canada. Both this game and stickball, which was commonly played by members of Great Lakes and southeastern tribes such as the Meskwaki, Ojibwa and Ho-Chunk, were sometimes called the “little brother of war.” In stickball, players run down a long field and take turns using a stick with a webbed pocket at the top to lob a leather-covered ball back and forth to teammates. At the end of the field is a pole, and whoever has the ball must touch the pole to score points. Women also played double-ball, or shinney, using sticks with curved ends and leather-covered balls. All three are rigorous games, and the male and female athletes who play them today are highly respected.

Similar to the Olympics in ancient Greece, games could encourage peace. McMullen said, “The spirit of competition and excellence in performance could win the day.”

The National Museum of the American Indian has hundreds of game items in its collection. The following includes a few examples currently in the museum’s “As We Grow: Traditions, Toys, and Games” display that is part of the greater “Windows on Collections” exhibition at the museum in Washington, D.C.

AUTHORS

Anne Bolen

Anne Bolen is assistant managing editor of American Indian magazine.

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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