Program 208 – Tribal Rhythms

Nico Wind

Nico Wind

The Hand Game

with Nico Wind

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Music:
Hand Game Songs
Thomas Big Spring and Floyd Heavy Runner
No publisher listed

Arlie Neskahi:
In Native communities across the west, from Oklahoma to British Columbia, people play an old game. No one knows how old it is, but some say it was played when people could still talk to the animals. It’s called the stick game, bone game, or hand game, depending on where you are. It’s a game of chance, concentration, and power, and it’s played to the steady rhythm of a drum.

Music
Hand Game Music

Originally played wherever people gathered, at summer root digging grounds, or trading rendezvous, these days, people play the game in tournaments held on reservations all over the west. Today, on Tribal Rhythms, Nico Wind takes us on the hand game trail, for a listen to the music of the stick game.

Nico Wind:
The hand game is both a game of skill and a game of chance. To the outside observer, it looks easy. Two or more players sit opposite one another. In front of each team on the ground is a pole that the players tap.

In this game, played between neighbors and friends in a back yard in Browning, Montana, Kenneth Old Person sings while his team hides the bones. Players hold small cylindrical bones in each hand. One is all white. One has a black stripe around it. The other team tries to guess which hand holds the bone with the stripe. They guess by using hand signals, pointing with the thumb and forefinger. Each time the hiders fool the guesser, they win a stick. The goal of the game is to win all ten sticks. Kenneth Old Person.

Kenneth Old Person:
When everybody helps on the team that sings, and sings out, the hiders will make sticks easy. It seems easier to make sticks when the game is lively. But some of them, they just sing, you know, just lulling you. You’re not enjoying your gambling, you know. So I like to get on some guys where they like to, you know, real sing. It seems like you win like that. [chuckles]

MUSIC

Wind:
Today, most players use hand drums and attend tournaments on Reservations across the west.

Celestus Arrowtop:
Each tribe that plays hand game has their own songs.

Wind:
Celestus Arrowtop is a full-blood Blackfeet from Browning. He and his wife are attending the annual Stick Game Tournament on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee, Montana.

Kootenai and Blackfoot playing stick games at Sandpoint Beach , Idaho .

Kootenai and Blackfoot playing stick games at Sandpoint Beach, Idaho. 1931. Photo by Ross Hall. Courtesy of Sandpoint Online Magazine. http://sandpointonline.com

Arrowtop:

These songs are made by the head game player, and some of them are real beautiful songs, and some of them are old, traditional songs that were sung years and years ago.

Wind:
The music of the hand game is meant to taunt and distract, and to draw power to the hiding team. The rhythm of the drum does not vary, although the tempo can rise and fall. It’s hard to imagine the intensity during a heated game if you haven’t experienced one. You’ll feel the pulse. You may want to move or pick up a drum and join the team. Listen to this song, as sung by Blackfeet Thomas Big Spring and Floyd Runner.

Music:
Hand Game Songs
Thomas Big Spring and Floyd Heavy Runner
No publisher listed

Wind:
During tournament competition, players gather in facing rows. Bets are counted, rolled up in a handkerchief and placed in a clearing between the teams. The team leaders play a little set to determine which team goes first. Then the winner pulls his outfit from a bag.

Arrowtop:
The hand game outfits consist of four bones, one clear one, and one with a mark. There’s five sticks on each side, and one in the middle; it’s called a kick stick. Now, each hand game player has their own outfit. They have – me, I’ve got 24 outfits.

Music
Tournament Song

Wind:
To the passionate players, the hand game is symbolic of life itself. Games can go on for days at a time, and although bets are placed, it is the spirit of the play that counts. Head guessers, or team captains, challenge each other, year after year, constantly improving their strategies, and memorizing their opponent’s moves.

Arrowtop:
All people have habits, and if you can just remember that habit that this person had. And it’s a strong game of concentration, and a lot of challenge. You’ve got to chal­lenge that guy. As a guesser, I always challenge that person, you know.

Music:
Hand Game Songs

Wind:
The hand game is all consuming, sometimes played through the night, the drum never stopping, the sticks are passed from one to another in endless competitive rounds.

Arrowtop:
At the beginning of the hand game, it was all men. The women would sit back here and watch. Now the women are – it’s like in everyday life, the women are more or less taking over, because they’re guessing now, and they’re doing their own sing­ing, and some of the women are really tough hand game players. In fact, they’re really good hand game players.

Wind:
Sylvia Gayton is a Chippewa/Cree and an avid hand game player.

Sylvia Gayton:
Well, these songs I sing, they come from way back, but you know, today they revise them to make them, I guess, you know, modern. But the songs that – I’ve sang some of my grandfather’s songs, and you know, the old ones. It seems like the old ones are better for, you know, playing because they give you better luck, I would say.

Wind:
Sylvia Gayton is totally blind, but, with help from her family, she still attends several tournaments in a summer.

Sylvia Gayton:
Well, with me, I just put my whole self into it, you know. That’s the only way you’re going to win. If you sit with a long face and all that and not enjoy yourself, well, it seems like you just, you know, you can’t win that way, by doing that. But with me, I just put my whole self into it, and I – you know, I dance around and everything, and that’s the only way you can win and get lucky, but if you just sit there like a bump on a log, you’re not going to get anything that way. I think it just pulls your team down, too. But if they see you being, you know, whole self into it, then they’re right with you, so you pull them with you.

Music:
Sylvia Song

Wind:
Although money is the main trade now in the competitive tournaments, the hand game used to be played for blankets, cooking pots and other valuable goods. Hand game winnings may have accounted for a good deal of the trade that was done at market centers throughout the west.

Arrowtop: In hand game, you’ve got to build a tempo, and the only way you’re going to do that is with good singing and good drumming. You get them people feeling it, and your game will run a lot smoother, and you’ll do a lot better.

Wind: Watching the faces of the players can be revealing. People laugh, pose, and devise elaborate movements to divert the other players’ attention. Becoming careful at observing and adept at distracting is all part of the strategy. These skills are honed in the midst of the fun.

Music:
Hand Game Songs
Thomas Big Spring and Floyd Heavy Runner
No publisher listed

Wind:
The hand game is a time to gather together, to participate, and to feel a part of community. Most players agree, whether from Browning, Montana or Vancouver Island, the game is not about winning or losing. It’s about playing.

For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Nico Wind.

Neskahi:
Tribal Rhythms is written by Milt and Jamie Lee, produced by Clark Salisbury and Larry Johnson, and hosted by Nico Wind. Thanks to Canyon Records for the use of songs from their album “Hand Game Songs,” and to Larry Johnson for permission to use material from the video “Hand Game.”