Indian Games

Indian games may be divided into two general classes: games of chance and games of dexterity. Games of pure skill and calculation, such as chess, are entirely absent. The games of chance fall into one of two categories:

  1. Games in which implements corresponding with dice are thrown at random to determine a number or numbers, the counts being kept by means of sticks, pebbles, etc., or upon an abacus or counting board or circuit;
  2. Games in which one or more of the players guess in which of two or more places an odd or particularly marked counter is concealed, success or failure resulting in the gain or loss of counters. The games of dexterity may be designated as:
    1. Archery in its various modifications.
    2. A game of sliding javelins or darts upon the hard ground or ice.
    3. A game of shooting at a moving target consisting of a netted hoop or a ring.
    4. The game of ball in several highly specialized forms.
    5. The racing games, more or less interrelated and complicated with the ball games.

In addition, there is a sub-class, related to the game of shooting at the moving target, of which it is a miniature form, corresponding with the European game of cup-and-ball. Games of all the classes designated are found among all the Indian tribes of North America, and constitute the games, par excellence, of the Indians. The children have a variety of other amusements such as top spinning, mimic rights, and similar imitative sports; but the games first described are played only by men and women, youths and maidens, not by children, and usually at fixed seasons as the accompaniment of certain festivals or religious rites. A well-marked affinity exists between the manifestation of the same game even among the most widely separated tribes; the variations are more in the materials employed, due to environment, than the object or method of plays. Precisely the same games are played by tribes belonging to unrelated linguistic stocks, and in general the variations do not follow the differences in language. At the same time there appears to be a progressive change from what seems to be the older forms of existing games from a center in S. W. United States along lines radiating from the same center southward into Mexico. There is no evidence that any of the games above described were ever imported into America; on the contrary, they appear to be the direct and natural outgrowth of aboriginal American institutions. They show no modification due to white influence other than the decay which characterizes all Indian institutions under existing conditions. It is probable, however, that the wide dissemination of certain games, as, for example, the hand game, is a matter of comparatively recent date, due to wider and less restricted inter course through the abolition of tribal wars. Playing cards and probably the simple board game, known by the English as merrels, are practically the only games borrowed by the Indians from the whites. On the other hand we have taken lacrosse in the north and racket in the south and the Mexicans of the Rio Grande play all the old Indian games under Spanish names. In the dice games, it appears, the original number of dice was four, and that they were made of canes being the shaftments of arrows painted or burned with marks corresponding with those used to designate the arrows of the four world-quarters. In one of the earliest forms of the guessing game the number of the places of concealment was four, and the implements used in hiding were derived from the four marked arrow shaftments. In general, in all Indian games, the arrow or the bow, or some derivative of them, is found to be the predominant implement, and the conceptions of the four world-quarters the fundamental idea. From this it became apparent that the relation of the games to each other in the same area, and of each to its counterpart among all the tribes, was largely dependent on their common origin in ceremonies from which games produced as amusements were uniformly derived. Back of each game is found a ceremony in which the game was a significant part. The ceremony has commonly disappeared; the game survives as an amusement, but often with traditions and observances which serve to connect it with its original purpose. The ceremonies appear to have been to cure sickness, to cause fertilization and reproduction of plants and animals, and, in the arid region, to produce rain. Gaming implements are among the most significant objects that are placed upon many Hopi altars, and constantly reappear as parts of the masks, headdresses, and other ceremonial adornments of the Indians generally. These observations hold true both of the athletic games as well as of the game of chance. The ball was a sacred object not to be touched with the hand, and has been identified as symbolizing the earth, the sun, or the moon. In the ring-and-pole game, the original form of the ring was a netted hoop derived from the spider web, the emblem of the Earth mother. The performance of the game was bound up with ceremonies of reproduction and fertility. In the kicked-stick and ball-race games of the S. W., the primary object seems to have been to protect the crops against sand storms within the circuit traversed.

Following are brief descriptions of the principal games played by the Indians North of Mexico:

Arrow games. A variety of games was played with actual arrows. In one of the commonest, an arrow was tossed with the hand by one of the players and the others then threw at it and endeavored to cause their arrows to fall across it.

Ball games. The two common ball games which are widely distributed are racket ball, a man’s game played with one or two netted bats or rackets, and shinny, commonly played by women.

In addition, women had a game with a double or tied ball which was tossed with long slender rods. In all of these it was not permitted to touch the ball with the hand s. Among the Plains tribes the women played with a small buckskin-covered ball of buffalo hair.

Bowl game. A kind of dice game widely played by women among the Algonquian, Iroquoian, Sioux, and other northern tribes. The dice consist of bone disks, or of peach or plum stones, which are tossed in a wooden bowl or a basket. Some California tribes use a large flat basket.

Cat’s cradle. The trick of weaving patterns with string up on the fingers, which we call cat’s cradle, is very generally known, but the designs are different and much more intricate. The Zuni and Navaho attribute the origin of this amusement to the spider and associate the figures with the spider-web net shield of the war gods.

Children’s games.
Indian children play a variety of games, which are practically identical with those played by the children of civilization. They are all mimetic in their character, and have no relation to the ceremonial and divination games of their elders, except so far as they may be imitations of them.

Chunkey. The ring-and-pole game of the Creeks and neighboring tribes, in which a stone ring or disk was employed. From specimens of the stones found in the mounds it is shown that this form of the game had a wide distribution. Stone rings were used until recently in a similar game by some of the tribes on the northwest coast.

Cup-and-pin game. An amusement analogous to the cup-and-ball, or bilboquet, of Europe. The game is universal among the Indians, and exists in a great variety of forms, all of which may be referred to the spider-web shield. Among the Dakota the game is called the deer-toe game and played with a string of phalangeal bones which are caught on a needle. The Eskimo use solid bone or ivory objects which are caught in the same way.

Football. The game commonly spoken of as football is a ball race, chiefly confined to the southwest, in which a small wooden or stone ball is kicked around a long course, the original object having been the magical protection of the fields against sand storms. The Tarahumare derive their name from this game. Football proper exists among the Eskimo.

Four-stick game. A game in which 4 marked sticks or billets of two different sizes are hidden under a flat basket, the object being to guess their relative positions.

Hand game. The commonest and most widely distributed of Indian guessing games. Two (or four) bone or wooden cylinders, one plain and one marked, are held in the hands by one player, the other side guessing in which hand the unmarked cylinder is concealed. The game is commonly counted with sticks and is played to the accompaniment of songs or incantations.

Hidden-ball game. The common guessing game of the Southwestern tribes, played with four wooden tubes or cups, under one of which a ball or stick is hid den. The opposing side endeavors to guess where the object is concealed. The four cups or tubes refer to the four world -quarters, and the game is sacred to the war gods. Hoop-and-pole. A widely distributed athletic game in which a hoop or ring, frequently covered with network, is rolled along the ground and shot at with arrows or javelins, the counts being determined by the way in which the latter fall with reference to the ring. The game exists in a great variety of forms, all more or less related to and associated with ideas of fertility and generation.

Juggling. Juggling with balls, some times made of clay especially for the purpose, is practiced by the women of some tribes. They keep two or more in the air at one time, and endeavor to see which can thus maintain them longest. Kicked stick. A game of the southwestern Indians, notably the Zuni, in which two small painted sticks are kicked in a race around a ceremonial circuit enclosing the fields beyond the village.

Moccasin game. A common guessing game of the northern tribes. Four moccasins are commonly employed and a small object, such as a bullet, or a ball of buffalo hair, is hidden in one of them. The opposing side endeavors to guess where it is concealed. The game is counted with sticks, and is clearly a derivative of the hidden-ball game played with wooden tubes.

Patol. The Spanish or Mexican name of the stick-dice game among the Hopi Indians and some of the Pueblos of the Rio Grande. Derived from the Aztec word patolli, which the old Mexicans are described as having played on a painted mat, using beans as dice.

Snow snake. A gaming implement, sometimes carved to represent a snake, which is hurled along the ice or frozen ground, the object being to see whose snake will go farthest.

Stick game. A common guessing game of the tribes of California and the north Pacific coast, one that extends entirely across the continent to Canada and the Atlantic. The sticks, probably originally arrow shaftments, are shuffled and divided, the object being to guess in which bundle either the odd or a particularly marked stick is concealed.

Stick, dice game. A widely distributed game in which several 2-faced lots are tossed in the air like dice, the counts being kept on a diagram or with sticks. The number of the dice ranges from 3 upward, 4 being the most common.

Stilts. Stilt walking is a children’s sport among the Hopi and Shoshoni, and from its existence in Mexico is probably indigenous among the Indians.

Straw, game of. The name given by early writers to a guessing game played by Huron and other tribes of the Atlantic slope. The implements consisted of fine splints or reeds, and the object of the game was to guess the number, odd or even, when the bundle was divided at random.

Tops. The top is almost universal as a child’s plaything among the Indian tribes of the United States and appears to be indigenous. The common form is a whip top made of horn, bone, stone, or wood, spun on the ice or on frozen ground.

Consult Culin, American Indian Games, 24th Rep. B. A. E., 1906. (S.C.)


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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