Indian Games

by Alice C. Fletcher

INTRODUCTION.—All the games here presented have been played in our land for untold generations, while traces of the articles used for them have been found in the oldest remains on this continent. According to Dr. Stewart Culin, the well-known authority on Indian and other games, "There is no evidence that these games were imported into America at any time either before or after the conquest. On the other hand they appear to be the direct and natural outgrowth of aboriginal institutions in America." Dr. Culin calls attention to the reference to games in the myths of the various tribes. Among those of the Pueblo people mention is made of the divine Twins who live in the east and the west, rule the day and the night, the Summer and the Winter, "Always contending they are the original patrons of play and their games are the games now played by men." (Bureau of American Ethnology, Vol. 24, p. 32.) It would lead too far afield to follow the interesting relation between ceremonials and games, a relation that is not peculiar to the culture found on the American Continent but which obtains the world around. The environment of man in general outline is much the same everywhere; the sun ever rises in the east and sets in the west; day and night always follow each other; the winds play gently or rend with force; the rains descend in showers or fall in floods; flowers and trees spring up, come to maturity and then die. Therefore, when man has questioned Nature as to the why and the wherefore of life, similar answers have come from all parts of the earth; so it happens that man's games, which often sportively reflect his serious thoughts, show a strange similarity.

Indian games that depend upon chance, according to Dr. Culin, may be divided "into those in which the hazard depends upon the random fall of certain implements employed, like dice, and those in which it depends upon the guess or choice of the player; one is objective, the other subjective." Games of the first or objective class are generally played in silence, while those of the second or subjective class, called guessing games, are accompanied by singing. (Ibid., p. 44.)

In a game where the two sides contest, as in a ball game, the sides were frequently played by two different tribes or by two villages in the same tribe. In such cases the players often went through a course of training in order to prepare them for the contest. Bathing, exercise and diet had to be followed according to prescribed custom. Among the Cherokee the partaking of rabbit was forbidden, because the animal is "timid, easily alarmed and liable to lose its wits"; so if the player ate of this dish, he might become infected with like characteristics. Mystic rites were sometimes performed to prepare the player so that he would be successful. (Ibid., p. 575.)

According to the Indian belief, the pleasure of games was not restricted to mankind but was enjoyed by birds and animals. The following story from the Cherokee is told by Mr. James Mooney and quoted by Dr. Culin (Ibid., pp. 578, 579):

"The animals once challenged the birds to a great ball play. The wager was accepted, the preliminaries were arranged, and at last the contestants assembled at the appointed spot—the animals on the ground, while the birds took position in the tree-tops to await the throwing up of the ball. On the side of the animals were the bear, whose ponderous weight bore down all opposition; the deer, who excelled all others in running; and the terrapin, who was invulnerable to the stoutest blows. On the side of the birds were the eagle, the hawk and the great Tlániwă—all noted for their swiftness and power of flight. While the latter were preening their feathers and watching every motion of their adversaries below, they noticed two small creatures, hardly larger than mice, climbing up the tree on which was perched the leader of the birds. Finally they reached the top and humbly asked the captain to be allowed to join in the game. The captain looked at them a moment, and, seeing that they were four-footed, asked them why they did not go to the animals where they properly belonged. The little things explained that they had done so, but had been laughed at and rejected on account of their diminutive size. On hearing their story the bird captain was disposed to take pity on them, but there was one serious difficulty in the way—how could they join the birds when they had no wings? The eagle, the hawk and the rest now crowded around, and after some discussion it was decided to try and make wings for the little fellows. But how to do it! All at once, by a happy inspiration, one bethought himself of the drum which was to be used in the dance. The head was made of ground-hog leather, and perhaps a corner could be cut off and utilized for wings. No sooner suggested than done. Two pieces of leather taken from the drumhead were cut into shape and attached to the legs of one of the small animals, and thus originated the bat. The ball was now tossed up and the bat was told to catch it, and his expertness in dodging and circling about, keeping the ball constantly in motion and never allowing it to fall to the ground, soon convinced the birds that they had gained a most valuable ally. They next turned their attention to the other little creature; and now behold a worse difficulty! All their leather had been used in making wings for the bat and there was no time to send for more. In this dilemma it was suggested that perhaps wings might be made by stretching out the skin of the animal itself. So two large birds seized him from opposite sides with their strong bills, and by tugging and pulling at his fur for several minutes succeeded in stretching the skin between the fore and hind feet until at last the thing was done, and there was the flying squirrel. Then the bird captain, to try him, threw up the ball, when the flying squirrel, with a graceful bound, sprang off the limb and, catching it in his teeth, carried it through the air to another tree-top a hundred feet away.

"When all was ready the game began, but at the very outset the flying squirrel caught the ball and carried it up a tree, then threw it to the birds, who kept it in the air for some time, when it dropped; but just before it reached the ground the bat seized it, and by his dodging and doubling kept it out of the way of even the swiftest of the animals until he finally threw it in at the goal, and thus won the victory for the birds."

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