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Native American Sports

Native American Sports


Popular Games. Despite the diversity of Native American cultures, some games were widespread. The rules of a game might vary, but several games were popular in large regions of the West. Native Americans occasionally incorporated games into religious ceremonies. Heavy betting was common with most games.

Lacrosse. The best known of Indian games is lacrosse. It was most common among the tribes of the Atlantic seaboard and around the Great Lakes, but it was also played in the South, on the plains, in California, and in the Pacific Northwest. It was played with a ball made either of wood or of buckskin, which was caught with curved rackets with a net on one end. The goal was usually marked with two poles although in some areas only one was used. In 1860 J. G. Kohl, a white traveler in Wisconsin, examined some lacrosse equipment. He admired the fine carving of crosses, circles, and stars on the white willow ball and praised lacrosse as the finest and grandest sport of the Indians. Although he was unable to see a game, he claimed that the Indians often play village against village or tribe against tribe. Hundreds of players assemble, and the wares and goods offered as prizes often reach a value of a thousand dollars and more.

Shinny. A kind of field hockey known as shinny was among the most popular Native American games. It was usually played by women, but sometimes, especially on the plains, might also be played by men. Among the Sauk, Foxes, and Assiniboine Indians, men and women played the game together, and among the Crows, teams of men played against teams of women. Native Americans in the East, on the plains, in the Southwest, and on the Pacific Coast played shinny. It was played with a ball or bag, often made of buckskin, which was hit with sticks curved at one end. The ball and sticks might be decorated with paint or beads. The length of the field varied from two hundred yards (among the Miwok Indians) to a mile or more (among the Navajos). The object of the game was to hit the ball through the opponents goal. The ball could be kicked or hit with the stick but not touched with the hands.

Snow-Snake. In regions of the West cold enough to have snow and ice in the winter, snow-snake was played. Its rules varied even more than those of lacrosse or shinny, but in general the game involved sliding darts or poles along snow or ice as far as possible. The projectile could be only a few inches long or might be a javelin up to ten feet long. The game was usually, but not always, played by men. Among the Crees, who played a variant of the game in which the dart had to pass through barriers of snow, only men played the game. Among the Arapahos, on the other hand, snow-snake might be played by adults or children but was most commonly played by girls.

Hoop and Pole. Hoop and pole was another widespread game with varying rules. In general a hoop was rolled along the ground while men tried to knock it over with spears or arrows. The hoop was usually relatively small, from three inches to a foot in diameter. The hoop might be open, but often the players stretched cords or a net across it. The hoop itself was often of wood but might be made of corn husks, stone, or iron. It was sometimes decorated with paint or beads. The score was determined by the way the hoop fell when hit by the pole. The game was most frequently played by two men although in some cases more participated.

Among the Apaches

In the 1860s Col. John C. Cremony described a Mescalero Apache game as follows:

There are some games to which women are never allowed access. Among these is one played with the poles and a hoop. The former are generally about 10 feet in length, smooth and gradually tapering like a lance. It is marked with divisions throughout its whole length, and these divisions are stained in different colors. The hoop is of wood, about 6 inches in diameter, and divided like the poles, of which each player has one. Only two persons can engage in this game at one time. A level place is selected, from which the grass is removed a foot in width, and for 25 or 30 feet in length, and the earth trodden down firmly and smoothly. One of the players rolls the hoop forward, and after it reaches a certain distance, both dart their poles after it, overtaking and throwing it down. The graduation of values is from the point of the pole toward the butt, which ranks highest, and the object is to make the hoop fall on the pole as near the butt as possible, at the same time noting the value of the part which touches the hoop. The two values are then added and placed to the credit of the player. The game usually runs up to a hundred, but the extent is arbitrary among the players. While it is going on no woman is permitted to approach within a hundred yards, and each person present is compelled to leave all his arms behind.

Source: Stewart Culin, Games of the North American Indians, volume 2, Games, of Skill, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp. 449450.


Stewart Culin, Games of the North American Indians, volume 2, Games of Skill, Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).

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