Games. Indian games may be divided into two general
classes: games of chance and games of dexterity. Games of pure skill and
calculation, such as chess, are entirely absent. The games of chance fall into
one of two categories:
(1) games in which implements corresponding with dice are thrown at random to
determine a number or numbers, the counts being kept by means of sticks,
pebbles, etc., or upon an abacus or counting board or circuit;
(2) games in which one or more of the players guess in which of two or more
places an odd or particularly marked counter is concealed, success or failure
resulting in the gain or loss of counters. The games of dexterity may be
(1st) archery in its various modifications
(2d) a game of sliding javelins or darts upon the hard
ground or ice
(3d) a game of shooting at a moving target consisting
of a netted hoop or a ring
(4th) the game of ball in several highly specialized
(5th) the racing games, more or less interrelated and
complicated with the ball games.
In addition, there is a sub-class, related to the game of shooting at the
moving target, of which it is a miniature form, corresponding with the European
game of cup-and-ball. Games of all the classes designated are found among all
the Indian tribes of North America, and constitute the games, par excellence,
of the Indians. The children have a variety of other amusements such as top
spinning, mimic rights, and similar imitative sports; but the games first
described are played only by men and women, youths and maidens, not by children,
and usually at fixed seasons as the accompaniment of certain festivals or
religious rites. A well-marked affinity exists between the manifestation of the
same game even among the most widely separated tribes; the variations are more
in the materials employed, due to environment, than the object or method of
plays. Precisely the same games are played by tribes belonging to unrelated
linguistic stocks, and in general the variations do not follow the differences
in language. At the same time there appears to be a progressive change from what
seems to be the older forms of existing games from a center in S. W. United
States along lines radiating from the same center southward into Mexico. There
is no evidence that any of the games above described were ever imported into
America; on the contrary, they appear to be the direct and natural outgrowth of
aboriginal American institutions. They show no modification due to white
influence other than the decay which characterizes all Indian institutions under
existing conditions. It is probable, however, that the wide dissemination of
certain games, as, for example, the hand game, is a matter of comparatively
recent date, due to wider and less restricted inter course through the abolition
of tribal wars. Playing cards and probably the simple board game, known by the
English as merrels, are practically the only games borrowed by the Indians from
the whites. On the other hand we have taken lacrosse in the N. and racket in the
S. and the Mexicans of the Rio Grande play all the old Indian games under
Spanish names. In the dice games, it appears, the original number of dice was
four, and that they were made of canes being the shaftments of arrows painted or
burned with marks corresponding with those used to designate the arrows of the
four world-quarters. In one of the earliest forms of the guessing game the
number of the places of concealment was four, and the implements used in hiding
were de rived from the four marked arrow shaftments. In general, in all Indian
games, the arrow or the bow, or some derivative of them, is found to be the
predominant implement, and the conceptions of the four world-quarters the
fundamental idea. From this it became apparent that the relation of the games to
each other in the same area, and of each to its counterpart among all the
tribes, was largely dependent on their common origin in ceremonies from which
games produced as amusements were uniformly derived. Back of each game is found
a ceremony in which the game was a significant part. The ceremony has commonly
disappeared; the game survives as an amusement, but often with traditions and
observances which serve to connect it with its original purpose. The ceremonies
appear to have been to cure sickness, to cause fertilization and reproduction of
plants and animals, and, in the arid region, to produce rain. Gaming implements
are among the most significant objects that are placed upon many Hopi altars,
and constantly reappear as parts of the masks, headdresses, and other ceremonial
adornments of the Indians generally. These observations hold true both of the
athletic games as well as of the game of chance. The ball was a sacred object
not to be touched with the hand, and has been identified as symbolizing the
earth, the sun, or the moon. In the ring-and-pole game, the original form of the
ring was a netted hoop de spider web, the emblem of the Earth mother. The
performance of the game was bound up with ceremonies of reproduction and
fertility. In the kicked-stick and ball-race games of the S. W., the primary
object seems to have been to protect the crops against sand storms within the
Following are brief descriptions of the principal games played by the Indians
North of Mexico:
Arrow games. A variety of games was played with actual arrows. In one
of the commonest, an arrow was tossed with the hand by one of the players and
the others then threw at it and endeavored to cause their arrows to fall across
Ball games. The two common ball games which are widely distributed are
racket ball, a man s game played with one or two netted bats or rackets, and
shinny, commonly played by women.
In addition, women had a game with a double or tied ball which was tossed with
long slender rods. In all of these it was not permitted to touch the ball with
the hand s. Among the Plains tribes the women played with a small
buckskin-covered ball of buffalo hair.
Bowl game. A kind of dice game widely played by women among the
Algonquian, Iroquois, Sioux, and other northern tribes. The dice consist of bone
disks, or of peach or plum stones, which are tossed in a wooden bowl or a
basket. Some California tribes use a large flat basket.
Cat's cradle. The trick of weaving patterns with string up on the
fingers, which we call cat s cradle, is very generally known, but the designs
are different and much more intricate The Zuni and Navaho attribute the origin
of this amusement to the spider and associate the figures with the spider-web
net shield of the war gods.
Indian children play a variety of games, which are practically identical with
those played by the children of civilization. They are all mimetic in their
character, and have no relation to the ceremonial and divinatory games of their
elders, except so far as they may be imitations of them.
Chunkey. The ring-and-pole game of the Creeks and neighboring tribes,
in which a stone ring or disk was employed. From specimens of the stones found
in the mounds it is shown that this form of the game had a wide distribution.
Stone rings were used until recently in a similar game by some of the tribes on
the N.W. coast.
Cup-and -pin game. An amusement analogous to the cup-and-ball, or
bilboquet, of Europe. The game is universal among the Indians, and exists in a
great variety of forms, all of which may be referred to the spider-web shield.
Among the Dakota the game is called the deer-toe game and played with a string
of phalangeal bones which are caught on a needle. The Eskimo use solid bone or
ivory objects which are caught in the same way.
Football. The game commonly spoken of as football is a ball race, chiefly
con fined to the S. W., in which a small wooden or stone ball is kicked around a
long course, the original object having been the magical protection of the
fields against sand storms. The Tarahumare derive their name from this game.
Football proper exists among the Eskimo.
Four-stick game. A game in which 4 marked sticks or billets of two
different sizes are hidden under a flat basket, the object being to guess their
Hand game. The commonest and most widely distributed of Indian
guessing games. Two (or four) bone or wooden cylinders, one plain and one
marked, are held in the hands by one player, the other side guessing in which
hand the un marked cylinder is concealed. The game is commonly counted with
sticks and is played to the accompaniment of songs or incantations.
Hidden-ball game. The common guessing game of the Southwestern tribes,
played with four wooden tubes or cups, under one of which a ball or stick is hid
den. The opposing side endeavors to guess where the object is concealed. The
four cups or tubes refer to the four world -quarters, and the game is sacred to
the war gods. Hoop-and-pole. A widely distributed athletic game in which a hoop
or ring, frequently covered with network, is rolled along the ground and shot at
with arrows or javelins, the counts being determined by the way in which the
latter fall with reference to the ring. The game exists in a great variety of
forms, all more or less related to and associated with ideas of fertility and
Juggling. Juggling with balls, some times made of clay especially for
the purpose, is practised by the women of some tribes. They keep two or more in
the air at one time, and endeavor to see which can thus maintain them longest.
Kicked stick. A game of the South western Indians, notably the Zuni, in which
two small painted sticks are kicked in a race around a ceremonial circuit
inclosing the fields beyond the village.
Moccasin game. A common guessing game of the northern tribes. Four
moccasins are commonly employed and a small object, such as a bullet, or a ball
of buffalo hair, is hidden in one of them. The opposing side endeavors to guess
where it is concealed. The game is counted with sticks, and is clearly a
derivative of the hidden-ball game played with wooden tubes.
Patol. The Spanish or Mexican name of the stick-dice game among the Hopi
Indians and some of the Pueblos of the Rio Grande. Derived from the Aztec word
patolli, which the old Mexicans are described as having played on a
painted mat, using beans as dice.
Snow snake. A gaming implement, sometimes carved to represent a snake,
which is hurled along the ice or frozen ground, the object being to see whose
snake will go farthest.
Stick game. A common guessing game of the tribes of California and the
N. Pacific coast, one that extends entirely across the continent to Canada and
the Atlantic. The sticks, probably originally arrow shaftments, are shuffled and
divided, the object being to guess in which bundle either the odd or a
particularly marked stick is concealed.
Stick, dice game. A widely distributed game in which several 2-faced
lots are tossed in the air like dice, the counts being kept on a diagram or with
sticks. The number of the dice ranges from 3 upward, 4 being the most common.
Stilts. Stilt walking is a children's sport among the Hopi and
Shoshoni, and from its existence in Mexico is probably indigenous among the
Straw, game of. The name given by early writers to a guessing game played
by Huron and other tribes of the Atlantic slope. The implements consisted of
fine splints or reeds, and the object of the game was to guess the number, odd
or even, when the bundle was divided at random.
Tops. The top is almost universal as a child s plaything among the Indian
tribes of the United States and appears to be indigenous. The common form is a
whip top made of horn, bone, stone, or wood, spun on the ice or on frozen
Consult Culin, American Indian Games, 24th Rep. B. A. E., 1906. (S.C.)
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Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Frederick Webb Hodge, 1906
Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico