Native American Games
Games have been a part of people’s lives
throughout history. Today in Wisconsin, when people think of Native
American games they quite often think of gambling and casinos. The
Native American tradition of gaming, however, has a long history and is
much broader than just casino gambling. In the La Crosse area, a game
piece called a chunkey stone has been recovered from archaeological site
that dates back to between AD 1300-1600. This is the only artifact
recovered from archaeological sites in this area that can be
specifically identified as a game piece, although there must have been
others that archaeologists do not recognize.
Ethnographic accounts of early European contact with Native Americans
indicate that a variety of games were played across the United States.
There are similarities between many of the games played in different
regions. Game rules changed from tribe to tribe and the materials that
the games were made of varied from region to region, reflecting the
differences in available resources. The purpose of the games also
changed depending on the tribe and the region. Some games were played by
specific people (men or women only), or were played at specific times of
the year, while some were related to religious activities, ceremonies,
Games served a variety of purposes from religious to amusement. Games
sometimes were a means for children to learn important skills. Games
encouraged social interaction within the tribe and with other tribes.
Gambling on games provided the opportunity for the redistribution of
wealth, both within and outside the tribe.
here if you would like to hear Dorothy Decorah share her childhood
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Thousands of games were played by Native Americans across the United
States and some continue to be played today Most games can be divided
into two categories: 1) games of dexterity, and
2) games of chance.
Games of dexterity usually involved some type of physical skill while
games of chance sometimes included "dice-like" objects or are
games with a component centered around guessing. The
games highlighted in this section of the web site were played by Native Americans in this region and also
by tribes from the plains.
Games in this category involve the physical
skill of the player(s). Skilled hand-eye coordination is reflected in
games, such as archery, chunkey, and snow snake, which require
shooting/throwing at a moving or stationary target. Good hand-eye
coordination is also required for games such as ring and pin toss. Other
games, such as the complicated ball games of lacrosse and double ball,
require dexterity and stamina.
(Ho-Chunk, Cheyenne, Crows, Oglala & Teton Dakotas, Iowa,
Omaha and Pawnee)
Archery involves shooting a target with a bow and arrow. As young
boys played games with bows and arrows they developed technical skills
that they would use as adult hunters.
Unknown boys playing with
bows and arrows.
(Ho-Chunk, Hidatsa, and Mandan)
In this game a chunkey stone was rolled over the ground or ice while
several players threw spears in an attempt to indicate where the stone
would stop rolling. The closest to the final location of the stone,
without actually hitting the stone, was the winner. The chunky stone is
the only specifically recognized game piece that has been recovered from
archaeological sites in the La Crosse area.
(Ojibwa, Crows, Dakotas [Oglala, Tenton & Yankton], Hidatsa,
Sauk & Foxes, Pawnee, Cheyenne, and Cree)
The Winter Game of Snow Snake
The “snow-snake” is a long slender, polished wooded
stick that ranges from 3-9 feet in length. It is an ancient game
modified from the atlatl. The head of the snow-snake is tipped with
lead and shaped like a bird or snake head. The goal is to out distance
your competitors with your throw of the stick. There is a notch at the
tip which the forefinger is placed and the throw is made under-hand.
Great pride is taken on using various and interesting wood making them
individually unique. The snow-snakes are religiously anointed and given
names which are inscribed just below the head. There are many secret
ointments such as tallow, wax, oils and gums which help in adding
distance in different snow conditions. The track is laid out by
dragging a log creating a small ditch over a quarter mile. When the
snow-snake is thrown and glides down the snow trough, it shimmies and
gives the appearance of a snake movement. There are several umpires
that monitor the game. The male players and spectators make wagers on
the players and their snow-snake. The national snow-snake competition
is held every winter at Six Nations in Canada.
Snow Snake description written by Jay Toth.
Illustration of snow snakes
Ring and Pin
(Ho-Chunk, Sauk & Foxes, Ojibwa, Cree, Cheyenne, Oglala &
This game required good hand-eye coordination. A ring was attached to
a thong or cord which was then attached to a pin. The ring was swung in
the air with an attempt to catch it on the pin. Woman and girls
typically played this game. A similar European game is the cup and ball
Replica of ring and pin game
(Ho-Chunk, Ojibwa, Sauk & Foxes, and Shawnee)
The stick and ball games of the woodland people
known as Lacrosse is a very old game. The ancient cities of Mesoamerica
where already playing ball games symbolizing the movements of celestial
bodies. This traditional sport moved north along trade routes, along
with its religious philosophies of the universe and creation and were
acculturalated into existing woodland culture. The original unlimited
number of players and lack of boundaries represented the infinite number
of stars in the night sky. The game of Lacrosse for Native woodland
people is as ancient as creation itself.
Even today one can recognize the prehistoric
religious symbolism of Lacrosse and its twin, the “little brother of
war” (war club) at Wisconsin effigy mound sites. The panther and linear
mounds and their associated conical mound reflects this religious
symbolism of events in the celestial sky above. Thus Lacrosse is known
by native people as the “game of creation”.
Lacrosse served woodland people both religiously
and as a practical cultural teaching. It trained men for war, provided
a neutral field for cultural exchange and trade, created political
alliances and settled disputes. Lacrosse also helped to reinforce
religious beliefs and tribal cohesion. This native ball game was the
cultural fabric that provided woodland people a stable society in which
Today lacrosse is played locally, at colleges and
internationally. In today’s military, the U.S. special forces have
found that Lacrosse players have the highest graduation success into
this American elite warrior society. Under the guidance of Oren Lyons
of the Onondaga Nation, the Iroquois National Lacrosse team is the only
Native American sports team that competes on the international level.
Lacrosse description written by Jay Toth.
Bottom: Green Cloud holding a lacrosse stick, unknown woman and
(Ojibwa, Menominee, Cheyenne, Cree, Sauk & Foxes, Omaha,
Santee Dakota, and Pawnee)
Double ball was a woman’s game resembling Lacrosse, that involved
tossing, catching and swift running. The players used curved sticks and
a double ball, which consisted of two small oblong deerskin bags joined
together by a deerskin thong. The object of the game was to get the ball
over the opponent’s goal.
Replica double ball
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Games of chance can be divided into two types,
those involving guessing and those using a type of dice that are thrown
to obtain a random score. Guessing games consisted of either hiding an
object or guessing numbers. Games of chance use dice displaying a variety
of decorations and made from materials such as bone, walnut shells, peach and plum
stones, grains of corn, shell, and pottery disks. Score was usually kept
with sticks or twigs. Over 130 tribes were ethnographically recorded
during the 1800's as having played dice games. Both men and women
participated in guessing games and games of chance, however not
(Ojibwa, Iowa, Shawnee, Cree, Sauk & Foxes, Menominee, Ho-Chunk,
Omaha, Oglala & Yankton Dakotas)
This game, sometimes called the hidden ball game, was played by two
groups of men. The players sat opposite each other on a blanket. Four
moccasins were placed in a row between the two groups. One of the groups
watched as a token or ball was hidden under one of the moccasins by the
other group. The players made pretenses of hiding and removing the token
in an effort to make it more difficult to discover the actual location
of the token. The group watching then guessed under which moccasin the
token had been hidden. The Ojibwa, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee used a
"striking stick" to turn over the moccasin where they thought
the token was hidden. If the player guessed the correct shoe, four
points were scored while four points were subtracted if the wrong shoe
was picked. Sticks were used to keep track of the score.
Moccasin game with Jim Eagle, David Hill, Jim DohoHok, Frank Ro and
Frank Eagle Smith.
Bottom: Unknown men playing the moccasin game.
(Ojibwa, Cree, Sauk & Foxes, Teton Dakota, and Omaha)
One type of guessing game used small wooden sticks that were carved
or painted with bands of color. The number of sticks varied from ten to
more than a hundred and were divided into two bundles. The object was to
guess the location of an oddly carved or painted stick. Another version
would have involved guessing which bundle of sticks had more than the
Illustration of stick game pieces.
Plum Stone Game
(Omaha and the Hidatsa, BrulÁ, Santee,
Oglala, Teton, Wahpeton, Sisseton, Yankton, and Mandan of the Dakotas)
(Dice games were played by Ojibwa, Blackfeet, Pawnee, Sauk &
Foxes, Cheyenne, Cree, Crows, Menominee, Illinois, and Iowa)
This type of dice game was played by a variety of tribes. The
game was usually played by women in pairs. The game materials consisted
of five plum stones with markings to indicate point value, a bowl or
basket and 100 sticks or twigs for counting. The object of the game was
to win the most points out of the 100.
The game started when players lightly tossed the stones upward using
the bowl. The toss was light enough to move all the stones but not
violent enough to make them fall out of the bowl. Any stones that did
fall outside the bowl did not count. The player continued to toss the
stones until no points were earned, then the next person took her turn.
Replicas of plum stone game pieces.
Bottom: Replicas of dice.
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1992 Games of the North American Indians Volume 1 and 2.
University of Nebraska Press.
Fletcher, Alice C.
1994 Indian Games and Dances with Native Songs. University of
1996 Gambler Way. Johnson Printing.
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The Native American Games web page would not be possible without the assistance of
the Ho Chunk Department of Heritage Preservation and funding from the
University of Wisconsin - La Crosse Diversity 2008 grant. Archival
images are used with permission from the Ho Chunk Department of Heritage