Games of the Plains Tribes

Amusements and gambling are represented in collections by many curious devices. Adults rarely played for amusement, leaving such pastime to children; they themselves played for stakes. Most American games are more widely distributed than many other cultural traits; but a few seem almost entirely peculiar to the Plains.

A game in which a forked anchor-like stick is thrown at a rolling ring was known to the Dakota, Omaha, and Pawnee. So far, it has not been reported from other tribes.

Hoop Game

Another game of limited distribution is the large hoop with a double pole, the two players endeavoring to place the poles so that when the hoop falls, it will make a count according to which of the four marks in the circumference are nearest a pole. This has been reported for the Arapaho, Dakota, and Omaha. Among the Dakota, this game seems to have been associated with magical ceremonies for ” calling the buffalo 7 and also played a part in the ghost dance movement. The Arapaho have also a sacred hoop game associated with the sun dance. Other forms of this game in which a single pole is used have been reported from almost every tribe in the Plains. It occurs also outside this area. Yet, in the Plains it takes special forms in different localities. Thus the Blackfoot and their neighbors used a very small spoked ring with an arrow for the pole, the Mandan used a small plain ring but with a very long pole, while the Comanche used a large life-preserver like hoop with a sectioned club for a pole.

Netted Hoop Game

The netted hoop at which darts were thrown is almost universal in the Plains, but occurs elsewhere as well. Other popular games were stick dice and the hand game (hiding the button). Among the Blackfoot and their neighbors, the hand game was a favorite gambling device and handled by team work: i. e., one large group played against another.

By a comparative study of games, it would be possible to divide the tribes of the Plains into a number of geographical subgroups. On the other hand, it is clear that taken as a whole, these tribes have sufficient similarities in games to justify grouping them in a distinct culture area.

We have now passed in review the main characteristics of material culture among the Plains tribes. There are many other important details having functional and comparative significance for whose consideration the reader must be referred to the special literature. We have seen how the typical, or central, group of tribes (Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Assiniboin, Crow, Teton-Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche) seems to have few traits in common with adjoining culture areas, while the border tribes manifest a mixture of the traits emphasized among the typical group and those most characteristic of other culture areas. For example, the typical material culture of the Plains is peculiar in the absence of pottery, the textile arts, agriculture, and the use of wild grains and seeds, all of which appear to varying degrees in one or the other of the marginal groups.

In general, it appears that in the Plains, traits of material culture fall within geographical rather than linguistical and political boundaries. While all cultural traits seem to show the same tendency, this is most pronounced in material culture. Thus, from the point of view of this chapter the Plains-Cree may merit a place in the typical group, but in some other respects hold an intermediate position. All the other tribes with out exception manifest some important traits of material culture found in other areas.

In part the causes for the observed greater uniformity in material culture seem to lie in the geographical environment, since food, industries, and some house hold arts are certain to be influenced by the character of the materials available. This, however, cannot be the whole story, for pottery clay is everywhere within easy reach, yet the typical tribes were not potters. They also wanted not the opportunities to learn the art from neighboring tribes. It seems more probable that certain dominant factors in their lives exercised a selective influence over the many cultural traits offered at home and abroad, thus producing a culture well adapted to the place and to the time.

Wissler, Clark. North American Indians Of The Plains. Smithsonian Institution, New York. 1920.

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