Handbook of American Indian Games

Handbook of American Indian Games

by Allan and Paulette Macfarlan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486248370
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 03/01/1985
Series: Native American
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 837,659
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

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Handbook of American Indian Games

By Allan A. Macfarlan, Paulette Macfarlan

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1958 Allan A. Macfarlan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15756-6


American Indians at Play

INDIAN GAMES frequently reveal the habitat, habits, and principal occupations of the tribes which played them. It is not surprising that hunting was featured in a number of games of the Plains and Woodland tribes; corn, weather, and grain in those of the Southwest; and fishing, salmon, and seal in the games of the fishermen of the Northwest Coast. Indians of all ages loved fun, and in this book their fun games are liberally represented.


The games played most by Indian children can be divided into well-defined categories. Imitative and dramatic games, often portraying social customs, ceremonies, and hunting; warfare on a free-for-all battle scale; or individual, man-to-man combats—these formed the most distinctive patterns of recreation.

Indian youngsters had neither toyshop nor ten-cent store in which to buy playthings. They had to play with the objects provided by Mother Nature, such as logs, poles, branches, twigs, sticks, bark, leaves, seeds, evergreen cones, vines, grasses, straws, reeds, ferns, corncobs, gourds, fruit pits, berries, rocks, stones, pebbles, shells, animal hides, intestines, and bones, rawhide, feathers, and many other basic materials for playthings provided by nature's bounty. Games were often invented on the spur of the moment, without purchased playthings of any sort to add to the fun. Despite this handicap, if such it can be called, Indian children had just as good a time and played many games just as good as those modern children play, without drawing on a weekly allowance or their parents' purse.

Boys walked on stilts, played Tipcat, and spun homemade tops. Mixed groups of boys and girls played Follow My Leader and Hide and Seek. Battledore and Shuttlecock was a favorite game of old and young in some tribes, as was the game of Quoits. Indian girls were adept at skipping ropes, and both boys and girls played Blind Man's Buff, Tag and Double Tag, games of stealing each other's places, and a number of "ring-around" games. Indian children made Wind Hoops which rolled nicely before a breeze and built bark canoes, dugouts, and rafts which floated well on lakes and streams.

Boys delighted in many sorts of athletic games. They ran races, contested in high and broad jumps as well as hurdle jumping, wrestled, hopped, and played many challenge games, some of which were hand pulling, foot pulling, neck pulling, head pushing, pole pushing and pulling, mimic warfare, taking prisoners, and numerous other games based on hunting and warfare. Indian children, because of their outdoor life and athletic activities, were more mature and stronger for their ages than most modern children. They played many really rough and tough "games," to prove how strong and brave they were. Most of these games, including battering ram, kicking, and grass cuts are ones which should be strictly avoided by modern leaders of games. Another dangerous sport that young men and boys liked to play was racing directly toward each other in certain foot races. This was, in fact, a rather typical way of running races, and was favored in many widely separated tribes. A safer form of Indian Foot Race, based on the Indian head-on race, is given in this book. Older boys played team games resembling shinny, and lacrosse.

The Indian children in those parts of the Americas where each winter brought snow found many snow games to provide exercise and fun. They had snowball fights, built and stormed snow forts, made toboggans from rawhide, strips of wood, and bark. The word toboggan is of Algonquin origin. The youngsters also used to play exciting tracking games in the snow, either making trails of their own or following the tracks of many kinds of animals. Their fathers and older brothers played more difficult games, Snow Snake, for example. This game has been so often described in books dealing with American Indian life, and suitable equipment and the play area are so hard to make and lay out, that it will not be dealt with in this book. Instead, another less-known game, called Snow Boat—a game dear to the hearts of the warriors and youngsters of the Six Nations, and especially the Seneca and Iroquois—is described in the chapter on "Skill Games."


Quite frequently the games of Indian youngsters of all ages were copied from or based on the games of their elders. The boys played games which their fathers played, while the girls played many of the games enjoyed by their mothers. The children also liked to imitate the motions of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish; the calls and cries of birds and animals, too, became a part of their mimicry. The spirit of competition was as keen among these young Indians as it is among modern children, so each one tried to be a better imitator than his companions. This trait developed into competitive imitative games. To see some of the best imitators portraying the motions of various birds and beasts is a revelation. So perfect is the mimicry that it is quite easy for one versed in the ways of the wild to distinguish immediately just which bird, beast, or reptile is being created.

Ceremony, ceremonials, and taboos entered into the juvenile versions of games just as it did in the pastimes of grownups. Certain games could only be played at certain times, or seasons, of the year. Indian children liked to be pushed high on a swing. Often the swing "ropes" were made of tough rawhide or tough, woven plant or bark fiber, while the seat was made of a piece of bark, or a skin or blanket folded to assure a soft seat. One drawback about this amusement was that it could only be carried out in the fall—after the leaves had fallen, was the rule of some tribes.


References to many of the games in the following pages frequently occur in the myths, or origin myths, and legends of a great number of tribes. In these tales the culture hero, often a supernatural being in disguise, defeats all human contestants in challenge-games and contests requiring skill, strength, speed, cunning, or magic.

To give one example of the connection between myths and the field of games, the Navaho say that their forefathers were taught to play string games, like Cat's Cradle, by the Spider People, which accounts for the weblike patterns woven. Certain myths and religious beliefs dictated whether men and women, or only men or women, played many of the games. For instance, the women of certain tribes were thought to have been given the gift of the game of Double Ball from the moon. Because of this belief, the game was played, with practically no exception outside of a few California tribes, only by women. Men of the Pueblo People connected the game of Hoop and Javelin with their War Gods and, for that reason, women never played that game in the Southwest. Though varied forms of this game, such as Hoop and Pole and Lance and Pole, were played by many tribes throughout the Americas, it was never played by women of these tribes either.


Practically every Indian nation and tribe from coast to coast believed in various omens, often totally different ones in widely separated sections of the country, foretelling success or failure in tribal games. Such omens were taken so seriously that they could even cause a change of day for long-planned ceremonial games. If the members of some tribes heard the hoot of an owl on the night preceding the games, the games were postponed until a day that was not marred by ill omen. A shooting star, or lightning, seen on the night before a contest was considered a good omen, and the tribes which saw either of these signs felt certain that their players and teams would be favored in the games next day. Personal dreams, or signs actually seen by individual players, deeply affected them and had a good or bad effect on their form, according to the nature of the sign, in the games in which they contested.


Since the Indian tribes throughout the Americas played scores of different games which we would call "games of chance," it is an astounding fact that they neither believed in nor knew anything of luck or chancel The Indians believed that signs of good or ill omen were actually expressions of encouragement or warnings sent directly by one of the supernatural beings who made the path of the Indian smooth or rough, for reasons which he did not understand or, as a rule, try to fathom. Because the Indian felt helped or hindered by the many different supernatural beings who influenced his daily life, he tried to please and appease them with gifts. Sometimes these gifts were small: a few gaily colored beads left in a hole in a rock or tree or some tobacco hidden deep in the forest, where only the being he wished to reward or bribe could find it. At times the gifts were munificent and magnificent: prized ponies, beautiful blankets, wampum or dentalium shells, being among some of the varied gifts given by great and generous chiefs.

This introductory chapter, thus far, has dealt with general background material. Specific introductions and explanations having a more direct bearing on certain games will be found to preface various sections in which the games appear.


The book is divided into eleven chapters of 150 different games, each chapter dealing with a special category of games. Under each game heading, the areas in which the game was commonly played are indicated. It is neither helpful nor possible to list the different tribes that played the various games, as quite frequently a number of the games set down were played by eighty or more different tribes. The headings tell whether the game is played by boys or girls, or both (games marked for boys or girls can of course be played by both boys and girls contesting or by mixed teams of boys and girls); the age group which may appreciate the game most; the number of players who can best play the game; whether the game is played by individual players or teams; and whether it is a game suitable for outdoor or indoor play, or both.


The age range for which a game is most suitable is stated in the heading above each game. The actual ages indicated by the terms used are: Elementary—7 to 11 years; Junior—12 to 14 years; Senior—15 to 18 years.

These ages have been worked out in the field as an approximate scale which can be used for modern players. They would not apply to Indian players, since Indian boys were usually regarded as men when they reached the age of thirteen and girls were young women of the tribes at the same age. On the other hand, so many of the grown-up Indians lacked what today is called sophistication, though they had a full share of wisdom, dignity, and high spirits, coupled with a love of play, that Indians of almost any age would have played and enjoyed the majority of games in this book, provided they had been directed by an alert and capable games leader.


The name of a game directly followed by an asterisk (*) indicates that it is an adaptation of an actual American Indian game, arranged for modern players. The deviation from the actual game has been introduced for the purpose of making certain games safer, less complicated, more amusing for modern players, or better adapted to their play-ways. In most games the suggested adaptation follows the description of how the game was actually played by the Indians.


The method of keeping score suggested for the various games is the one which proves the simplest and most effective for modern Indian bands. Modem chiefs can use their own scoring methods.


Indian words and phrases have been avoided as much as possible in this book, as their translation into English best serves the purpose. The words coup and grand coup and to count coup have been used at times. They refer—as leaders of modern Indian bands know—to honors and exploits and the winning of challenge-games and challenges, as the Indians used these words to describe war exploits, after adopting them from French pioneers.


From time to time throughout this book, markers, and staples to hold them in place, have been mentioned. Definite boundaries and the start and finish points of all games which require them should be plainly indicated. Handy markers can easily be made from strips of stout, tough cardboard, painted yellow or white to assure visibility. These markers can be 12 inches long and 3 inches wide. Markers can also be made from small circles or squares of cardboard, cloth, or even paper. Tough paper plates of various sizes also make good emergency markers.

All markers of the kind mentioned should be securely held in place so that they cannot be dislodged by the running feet of players. Homemade wire staples can speedily be made to hold such markers in place. A piece of strong but pliable wire 10 inches long and about ¼ inch in diameter should be bent in two places toward the middle of the wire in order to make a flat-topped staple with a top of about 3 inches. This will give the staple two legs 3½ inches long. The length of the staple legs is best decided by the hardness or softness of the ground into which they have to be thrust. Prepared holes may be made in plate-markers or strip-markers through which the staple legs pass before being pushed into the ground. These staples are, of course, always pushed down flush onto the marker so that there is absolutely nothing left above ground for the players to trip over.


Running and Relay Games


Northwest Coast—Woodland


A number of games played by the Indian youngsters of the Northwest Coast and Woodland tribes were played by running as swiftly as possible around various lines or patterns of standing trees. Sometimes one player chased another around these obstacles in a sort of tag game, while at other times the object of the game seemed to be for the players to become as dizzy as possible by circling trees growing close together. All such games were dangerous, as all of the versions offered too great a chance of running into a tree at full tilt. This perfectly safe adaptation for modern Indians can still use the Indian name of Kiwa Trail, as the trail followed is just as twisted, or crooked, as the one pictured by the Chinook name. Modern chiefs can call the game Twisted Trail. They will find it still presents all of the difficulties and fun of the original game but without any of its risks.

Six round or square cardboard markers about 8 inches in diameter are required for each "trail." Paper plates make good markers for this and similar games. A line is marked on the ground about 30 to 40 feet or more in length. Each trail is laid by placing the first marker 10 feet away from the starting line and the other five in a straight line with it, one long pace apart, say about 4 feet. The desired number of trails are laid out in exactly the same manner with lanes 8 feet in width between the lines. The pattern is completed by marking another long straight line on the ground 10 feet away from the end (the sixth) marker. With everything now ready for play, the name of the game appears to be a misnomer—but wait till it gets cracking!

A player lines up just behind the starting line and directly opposite the first marker on the trail. There is one player for each trail. When the chief gives the "Gol" signal, each player must run completely around each marker, keeping as close to it as possible, until he has circled all the markers, always traveling in the same direction, and reached the finish line. The first player to arrive there counts coup and wins. For older players this race can be run in both directions, the winner being decided by the arrival back at the starting line, after having circled each marker on the way back to the starting point also.

As a team relay, Twisted Trail also provides good fun. Teams of from three to six runners line up behind the starting line. On the word "Gol" the first runner starts out and circles all markers until he reaches the finish line. Then, and not before, the second runner goes into action, and the race continues in this way until the last runner on each team has followed the Kiwa Trail to its twisted end. In this relay form, all runners can be asked to race along the trail in both directions, as described in the individual race, before touching off the next runner.

This relay can also be carried out by having teams, with an equal number of runners in each, race half of its number from each end of the trail. In this way, the first runner on the team at the starting line touches off the first runner at the other end of the trail, and so on, until all have taken part.

Additional fun and difficulty can be had by placing the markers closer together and using ten instead of six markers, or having players run twice around each marker, always traveling in the same direction! Runners who take part in any of these versions of this race will find that it is a dizzy event.


Excerpted from Handbook of American Indian Games by Allan A. Macfarlan, Paulette Macfarlan. Copyright © 1958 Allan A. Macfarlan. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
1. - American Indians at Play,
2. - Running and Relay Games,
3. - Racing and Kicking Games,
4. - Hunting, Stalking, and Warfare Games,
5. - Tossing and Catching Games,
6. - Throwing and Rolling Games,
7. - Games Requiring No Equipment,
8. - Skill Games,
9. - Guessing Games,
10. - Group Challenge-Games,
11. - Man-to-Man Challenge-Games,
12. - Ceremonial Games,
List of Illustrations,

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