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The Games of the Pre-Colonization Era, Then and Now

The games played by Native tribes prior to colonization were an integral part of their culture, and that remains the case to this day.
November 28, 2014, 1:54pm
Art via public domain

It's a relatively mild July evening in Georgia, and I'm at my regular pub with my regular group of friends for our regular Tuesday night nachos and wings. This is one of those old Atlanta Democrat kind of places; it's where Jimmy Carter announced his presidential candidacy, where you can regularly run into legendary Southern politicians like Senator John Lewis and even the Clintons. It's the kind of place with a drum of peanuts behind the bar and $2 hot dogs on the menu.


Being a good Southern bar, the Braves game is on almost every single television, except two tuned to CNN and the one closest to me. I had them change it to the Lacrosse World Championships, and I'm watching the Iroquois National team take on the United States. The multiple layers of irony in this scenario are not lost on me.

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It wasn't until the 2010 World Championship passport controversy—the host British government inexplicably refused to accept the Haudenosaunee passports of the Iroquois team—that most people realized lacrosse is a Native American sport. A Haudenosaunee sport.

The Creator's Game, as it's traditionally referred to, was given to the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy by the Creator as a medicine game, teaching humility, perseverance, strength, and agility. The game is at once an entertaining pastime, a sacred ceremony, and a celebration of culture, as are most surviving traditional games still played today.

Men from the Mohawk Nation, who were the Canadian lacrosse champions in 1869. Photo via WikiMedia Commons

While lacrosse is generally considered to be an Iroquois game, similar versions of stickball exist throughout the continent. Along the same lines, soccer and hockey also have ties to Indigenous pre-colonial traditions and spread across different nations and regions. Origin stories for these games all tell of healing, reconciliation and honor, and many games were played in place of war and involved up to 500 or more participants.

Spectator games, on the other hand, are more concentrated on the strategy and foresight of individual or small groups of players and are more regionally defined. Many loosely resemble lawn games like golf, bocce ball, and horseshoes.


Chunkey, a Southeastern tribal game, involves tossing a stone disc while simultaneously throwing wooden poles to estimate where the disc will land. The pitch is about 100 feet long and twelve feet wide, made of packed clay or sand. The game features two players at a time and can go on for hours, even days. The pole closest to the disc without touching it scores the most points—if the pole touches the disc, no points are awarded.

Cherokee marbles, on the other hand, is played with billiard-sized balls and a 100-foot-long L-shaped field with five two-inch-diameter holes spaced 10-12 feet apart. Two equal-numbered teams play against each other, tossing balls into the holes. A ball must rest completely in the hole to move on to the next.

Snow snake, a Northern Woodlands and Plains game traditional to the Haudenosaunee, Ojibwe, Oneida, and Oceti Sakowin nations, involves throwing a wooden pole (or snow snake) along a trough of snow. Each of the four teams, or corners, throw four times during each round. The player who throws the farthest is awarded two points, while the second furthest receives one point. The team to first reach a predetermined number of points (usually seven or 10) wins.

Probably one of the most common (and most fun) in Indian Country today is hand games, which involve hiding, guessing and distracting. Two teams sit across from each other, each with a leader. There are two sets of bones—one painted plain and the other painted with stripes—and 10 counting sticks. Two members from the hiding team hide the bones (each with one striped and one plain) in their hands while their team members drum, sing, and otherwise try to distract the guessing team from paying attention to which bone is in which hand. The leader of the guessing team then tries to guess the pattern of the hidden bones—four possibilities.

For a wrong guess, a counting stick is turned over to the hiding team. For a correct guess, the bones are given to the guessing team. The game continues until both pairs have been discovered, then the teams switch sides. The team that first squires all the counting sticks wins.

As with all games and sports in all cultures, these traditions bring people together for a common cause, provide entertainment and stress relief, and help to instill honorable values and behaviors in children. In Indian Country, however, practicing and participating in games that have survived colonialism and genocide also serve as a way to connect with the ancestors, the Creator, and each other; and celebrate the fact that, despite it all, we are still here.