Sticking to Tradition
By Heather Bleecker and Bray Aldrich
Pablo, MT, United States
Step into the rhythm of Native American traditions with Stick Game, also known as Hand Game. This timeless contest of chance unfolds through hand gestures and sign language, with rules and materials tailored to the unique customs of each tribe. Played today in places like Montana, the game’s adaptability has allowed it to persist through generations, fostering spirited play that binds communities together.
Gear for the Game
Playing Stick Game requires specialized equipment, beginning with two pairs of white bones:
- two plain, unmarked bones (sometimes referred to as the female)
- two marked bones with a stripe in the center
In addition to the bones, the game involves a set of 10 counting sticks. One additional kick stick, designed differently, is the most important and remains hidden until a winner is determined.
Traditionally, the pieces used to play Stick Games were made out of bison or American buffalo bones, specifically the ribs. The counting sticks were cedar wood. Nowadays the counting sticks and bones display decorative patterns using paint, tape, or beads.
Present-day Stick Game set. Photo credit: Debbie L. Bell
Rules of Play
Stick Game typically involves two teams, each taking turns as the hiding and guessing sides. Before the game begins, two individuals are chosen to determine which team gains control, similar to the start of many sports matches. This selection is an honor and may be given to someone who holds a specific social, spiritual, or ceremonial standing within the tribe.
The outcome of the initial hide-and-guess phase grants one team control, giving them the authority to conceal the kick stick. The team that controls the game is the hiding side and maintains this position while stashing at least one bone in players’ hands.
Gameplay gets going with the guessing team using hand gestures to discern the location of the bones. No words are exchanged. Once the set of bones has been found, the team that is hiding and the team that is guessing switch roles.
The ten counting sticks, split evenly between the two teams, change hands as points are won or lost. The hiding team’s goal is to prevent its opponent from guessing where the bones are, thus taking counting sticks and potentially winning the kick stick. The team ending up with all ten of the counting sticks gets a chance to win the kick stick. When that happens, a champion is declared.
Show of Hands
Hand gestures are used to guess the location of the bones.
- The guesser points left with their index finger when they think the bones are in the hiders’ left hands.
- The guesser points to the right when they think that the bones are in the hiders’ right hands.
- The guesser points with all fingers straight out and hand vertical if they think one or both bones are in the hiders’ inner hands.
- The guesser makes an “L” shape with thumb and index finger if they think the bones are in the hiders’ outer hands.
For the inside hand, the guesser is selecting if they think that one or both bones are in the inner hands when there are two people hiding on the same team. The guesser can then find no bones, only one bone, or both bones. If they find none, the team guesses again. If they find one, they receive the bone to hide and the guess again. If they find both bones, control switches and the hiding team becomes the guessers. The same occurs for the outside guess.
In the realm of Stick Game, noise elements pose a practical challenge while carrying a deep spiritual significance. Handheld drums made of tan hide are beaten with drumsticks to create an ongoing rhythm. Alongside rattles, singing, and cheers, these sounds are a profound spiritual offering to the players.
The blending of noises weaves a rich atmosphere, embodying the collective energy and prayers of the community. Sounds not only impact the contributor’s team but heighten the difficulty for the other team to discern the location of the hidden bones.
Games of chance are deeply rooted in the historical and cultural context of Native American communities across North America. In 1907, anthropologist Stewart Culin estimated that games using dice existed among 130 tribes belonging to 30 linguistic groups.
Stick Game itself has a long history passed through many generations. Oral tradition reports that it was used to barter for land usage along with companionship. Once contact with white settlers was made, Native Americans used Stick Game to trade for goods such as horses and cattle like they would when trading with other tribes.
Indian women playing Stick Game at the midsummer celebration on the Glacier National Park Reservation, Montana, in 1910. Courtesy of Picryl.
Clues about the ancient origin of Stick Game can be traced back to a narrative known as Coyote Loses His Eyes. Within Native American storytelling, coyote stories carry numerous traditions and teachings. These stories are shared during the winter months, specifically after the first snowfall. As winter gives way to spring and the snow melts, the telling of these stories ends. This sacred practice extends beyond tradition, underscoring a profound respect for spiritual balance and ensuring that these stories are shared in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth.
In the tale of Coyote Loses His Eyes, a pivotal moment unfolds during a Stick Game match. Playing against a group of humans, the blind Coyote wins every round. By the end of the story, Coyote has regained his sight.
Currently Stick Game finds its place in various traditional gatherings like powwows, celebrations, and, in recent times, tournaments. It brings everyone together, creating a lively atmosphere of laughter and excitement. The games can extend over hours as participants engage in friendly competition, making Stick Game an enduring source of communal enjoyment.
Have a suggestion for this story? We’d love for you to submit it!
- In a series of Stick Game rounds you notice the guesser has been alternating their guesses between the left and right hands. First, they guessed right, then left, then right, and so on. Based on this pattern: what will be the guesser’s next two guesses?
- If you are the guesser, what is the probability of guessing correctly?
- How many different ways can the bones be arranged? Think about the organization of the bones and the guessers’ choices. Create a tree diagram, table, or organized list.
- Find the theoretical probability of each outcome.
- Watch or play Stick Game and keep note of the different outcomes. This is the experimental probability. Did your experimental probability align with the theoretical probability? Why or why not?
Social Justice Question
How does playing Stick Game and passing down its traditions in Native American communities help people understand and appreciate their culture better? How can learning about Stick Game contribute to recognizing and respecting the customs unique to each tribe?
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