Indian Guessing Games

by Alice C. Fletcher

II. Atá-a-kut

Introductory Note.—This game is played among one of the basket making tribes of California. As not infrequently occurs in Indian games, there is in this pastime a reflection both of the environment and of the vocations of the people who used it. The drama or theme of the play is the search for a particular reed, which for the purpose of the game is marked in a special way.

Properties.—A mat or blanket and about fifty reeds; the reeds should be similar in thickness and about a foot long.

Directions.—The number of points which shall constitute winning the game should first be agreed upon; if ten be the number, then twenty reeds should be set aside as counters and the rest used as game-reeds. All of these latter must be alike save one, and that reed must have a black band about an inch or so wide painted around the middle, that is, midway between the two ends of the reed. It is this particular reed that must be detected or its location guessed.

The mat or blanket should be laid east and west. The two players sit opposite each other, one near the northern edge of the mat, the other near the southern edge. The counters are divided in half, one-half put at the eastern end of the mat, the other half at the western. The counters at the east belong to the player sitting at the north, those at the west to the player at the south. Two singers stand back of each player. The spectators are grouped about the mat, but must not be too near the players. Lots are drawn to decide which player shall "hold the reeds." The player who loses the chance to "hold the reeds" becomes the one who is to be the guesser.

All the game-reeds, including the reed with the black band painted on it, are thrown in a pile in the center of the mat or blanket. The player who is to "hold the reeds" gathers all the game-reeds in his hands, brings them behind his back, where he shuffles and divides the reeds into two bunches, one for each hand. When he is ready to bring his hands forward, each one with a bunch of reeds grasped by the middle, the two singers standing behind him start the following song:

Game Song


When the music begins, the player holding the reeds sways his body from side to side, moves his arms and hands with the reeds and simulates being blown by the winds. The opposite player, by the movements of body and arms, indicates that he is pushing his way through tall reeds tossed by the wind, searching for something he desires to find. Both players in all their movements must keep in rhythm of the song, observe strict time and strive to make their actions tell the story plainly. The guesser through all his motions must keep his eyes on the bunches held by his opponent, seeking for an indication to show which one contains the marked reed. When he is ready to guess he extends both arms toward the bunch he has fixed upon, as if to grasp it. At this action the holder of the reeds must open his hand and let the reeds of that bundle fall on the mat. The guesser then searches among the spilled reeds for the one that is marked; if he finds it, he holds it up so that all can see that his guess has been correct and the reed discovered. The two singers who stand behind him give the victory shout, go to his pile of counters, take one and place it at his right hand, then the reeds of the other bunch are thrown by the holder on the mat, so that all the game-reeds are lying in the center, as at the beginning of the game.

The player who made the successful guess now picks up the game-reeds and behind his back shuffles and divides them. When he is ready to bring forward his two hands holding the reeds, the two singers standing behind him begin the Game Song, while he waves the bunches, acting what is now his rôle, that of the reeds being blown about by the winds. The other player now becomes the guesser and must act as though he were searching among the blown reeds for the one he desires.

The player who "holds the reeds" is thought to have the advantage; that is why lots are drawn at the beginning to decide who shall have that part in the game. The player holding the reeds aims to make the guessing as difficult as possible by deftness in hiding the banded reed, so as to keep his advantage.

Every time a guess is made the reeds of the bunch guessed must at once be dropped on the mat, that all may see the reeds while the guesser searches among them for the marked reed. If he cannot find it, the singers who stand behind him call out that a point has been lost, take a counter from his pile and place it at the right hand of the player holding the reeds, who at once drops all the game-reeds on the middle of the mat, to be again taken up by him, shuffled and divided behind his back, when he resumes the waving of the bunches of reeds blown by the wind and the guesser who lost starts to make another guess. Should he be successful, the counter he had lost would be taken back and placed at his right hand. In this manner counters lost can be reclaimed, until one or the other of the players has won and been able to hold the number of counters required for the game.

The presentation of the little drama of this game rhythmically affords an opportunity for considerable dramatic action and yields pleasure both to the performers and to the spectators. This game was much played among the tribes where it was known.

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