“Considering the Stick Game, each time you pick up the Bones, you take your life in your hands.” Floyd Heavy Runner
I had a Love/Hate relationship with many of the Indian Stick Game players, some loved that the fact I could play the game, and win, and some hated the fact that I did it as a Whiteman. Sort of like the rise of American Soccer chipping away at one of the last domains where Mexico has ruled over an American nation that has historically humiliated them in so many respects. To some of the Indians, it was the same feeling at Stick Game, my skill at the game just hurt them, what would the Whiteman take next, there was damn little left that he had not already grabbed. I have little sympathy for that point of view, and it misses the point as concerns me. This simply was a game that I loved.
On the other hand, there were Indians that thoroughly enjoyed the fact that I would, time to time, take the ‘Point’, or leadership of a team, and destroy the opposition, game after game, throughout the course of a night. These Indians were the ones that did not get caught up in the Red/White politic, but were purely into the technical detail of the game, the game for the sake of the game, and admired my skill. Skill and winning was all that mattered. And that is the approach of the better Stick Game players.
Stick Game, closely scrutinized, analyzed in its totality, could fascinate or disturb a lot of white people, for diverse reasons. Giving the anthropologists something to think over, Stick Game is identical in its mathematical principle and cultural application, to the values of the I Ching, the Bones values representing the old & young Yin & Yang, and the divination revealing the relationships of Man to the movement of energy in Nature. I realized these people are identical to the Taoists in their theory of the world -as it applies to this game- and the game is, culturally speaking, an elder brother of the oracles of Chinese Civilization. The Whiteman’s physical scientists could consider the games ability to shred their laws of mathematical probabilities, when a team goes on a winning streak, perhaps leaving their physicists stumped. The 900 toll number telephone psychics, and the new age channels, could give up their fraud and amateur efforts, respectively, in exchange for the real thing at Stick Game, and they would not stand a chance. And among many other natural phenomena they freak out over, the Evangelists can freak out over the Sorceries, or Witchcraft, associated with the game.
Stick Game has replaced Inter-Tribal Warfare and Horse Stealing as the equivalent of the Olympics in the Western tribes of native North America. The game is everything in the Indian world that is not Western or White. It epitomizes the pre-western, aboriginal method of thought.
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Stick Game takes its name from the sticks that are employed as a sort of chit- keeping, the tally of points earned or deducted. Other names for the game, in various forms and applications are; Bone Game (for the bits of bone used in the games required divinations); Hand Game (after the players hands hiding the bones); Feather Game (aka Holy Hand Game, for the requirement to interpret the divination by a special feather attached to a divining stick- a variation more typical of formal decision making in a religious context); or just Game. Most Stick Game is played in a common gambling and entertainment form. In this form, you will find the open field combat of the Medicine Warriors, the Witches and the Sorcerers. This is the form of the game that I loved.
The mechanics of the game may seem simple. It is not a simple game.
I knew the game well in two forms, Blackfeet style and, more importantly, Flathead style: Flathead style is the most common inter-tribal form used at most of the common, or ‘open’ gambling games, regardless of the games tribal location. So I will talk about the Flathead style, because if you visit a western states pow wow, and see this game in public, chances are that Flathead style is the game you would see being played.
‘Taking the Point’ is leading a side in a game. A ‘Point’ is making a divining choice. The ‘Pointer’, is the leader of your war party, and makes the guesses, leads the singing or designates a song leader, chooses your teams hiders, the ones that will conceal the ‘Bones’, in short, the Pointer is the chief of your team for that game. Traditionally this leader keeps the ‘Point’, so long as he or she continues to direct winning play of the game. If there is a loss, in any given game, more often than not, the leader, which had led a team to defeat, will surrender the ‘Point’ to another player for the next game. Usually the change of point follows some informal seniority order within the group making up that team.
A typical game kit is 11 sticks, five each with identical designs but different colors and a ‘Kick’ stick that incorporates the design in both colors, and two sets of Bones: each set of Bones has one marked Bone, and one unmarked Bone. Each Bone set must generally follow these specifications: Each Bone must be easily concealable in a fist, and the marked Bone must be clearly marked and easily differentiated from the unmarked Bone.
To begin a game, the two team leaders face off, each with one set of Bones from their respective game kits. Now the two leaders play for the ‘Kick’ stick. Each of them hides their bones in their fists, perhaps placing their hands behind their backs or under their shirt to conceal from the other which Bone went to which hand. But now they must reveal their respective fists clutching the Bones for the other to see, perhaps placing their fists on their knees, or holding them in front of their bodies, arms crossed. Now with gestures of a fist or head, they guess each other, each looking for the unmarked Bone of the other. If necessary, they will guess again and again, until one has guessed correctly and the other has missed with his guess. Then the game begins. Whoever wins the Kick, their team has the absolute advantage to start the game. The Kick winner’s game kit is used, their sticks and bones will be played. The other puts his Bones and sticks away. The Kick winner hands, or tosses to the other team, five of his sticks. Then he puts the Kick stick, already won, away. Each team leader now, sometimes very ritualistically, arranges the five sticks per team on the ground between the teams, these ten sticks belong to the earth, and neither team is in real possession of them yet. The Kick winning team is already drumming and singing. They presently possess both sets of Bones.
I have played in games with 200 players and singers, and 30 or 40 hand drums, back in the 1970’s, when Stick Game was still really big. The teams’ array face to face in long horizontal lines. There is probably about a ten foot ‘no mans land’ between them. At the richer tribes, I have seen as much as US$18,000 wrapped in a large scarf, or a shawl, lying on the ground between the teams, the collective wager for a single game. Often these games largely represented, in their makeup, the historical warfare between the differing tribes. Often times, the older songs employed in these games represented accounts of past victories against the foes they were facing.
Now the Kick winning leader, perhaps standing up to better survey who is present and playing for him, decides who will hide the Bones for his team. He will take his time to choose, and then delivers the Bones to his hiders. By this time, the opposing team leader is perhaps looking deliberately disinterested in his opponents magical incantations, acted out in pantomime with the Bones. Fists clutching Bones, especially in the hands of the women, are sometimes doing something akin to Hawaiian Dance moves, as the singing and drumming team taunts him, daring him to guess. He can take his time, but he must make a choice. A game can last ten minutes. A game can last ten hours. You never know what to expect.
The Point in this initial run of the game presents 4 possibilities, looking at the drumming and singing Indians facing him, the diviner, the Chief of the team that wants to win the Bones to his side, must first make an accurate determination of what he is faced with. He knows the mechanics, his Point must be either the ‘Outside’, the fists facing him in that choice would be the right hand of the hider facing him on his left and the left hand of the hider facing him to his right, the ‘Middle’, the fists of the arms between the hiders facing him, opposite of the previous, or, he must call open both the left fists or both the right fists of the hiders on the team presently singing. One guess, two hiders. He must find the unmarked Bone of each. He points his right forefinger to the ground directly to his front and nods affirmation, his guess is the Middle, and the hiders must open their hands and reveal the Bones. Both hiders suddenly bring their fists together, they have been caught, the singing stops, he has won the Bones. The Bones are thrown across the no-mans-land to the man that just made this first Point, now his Indians begin to sing, but only the Bones have been won, and with them the right to hide, the sticks have not moved from the ground. It is like winning the serve in Volleyball, there is no score on the exchange. Now the circumstance of play is reversed between the teams.
Now the pointer who had won the Kick is faced with divining, his opposition is singing and taunting, the drums are loud, and in this incredible din he must be able to find his sight, be able to see the unmarked Bones through the concealment and bring them back. He makes his shot, extending his right arm, forefinger pointing directly off to his right, he has guessed both opposing players left hands when he adds the required affirmation to his guess, in this case he simply shouts above the din, Hey!, the opposing hiders, both women, chirp “Ki –yi-yi-yi, and the entire singing team is instantly frenzied, fingers shaking to the beat at the guesser who has just missed both the hiders’ positions with his guess, the opened hands revealing his mistake for all to see, he has guessed the marked Bones, he reaches to the ground and picks up two sticks, throwing them across the no- mans-land to the singing team, their hiders have ‘ducked’, bones and hands concealed from view as they prepare the bones positions, they are entitled to hide again, now the fists emerge back into to view, the singing team is animated now, singing loudly together, these women hiders are experts. The Pointer looks at the ground trying to block out the noise, and gather his concentration. Now the Pointer must decide if the women hiders have ‘stayed’, or if they have ‘run’ with the Bones, he has to guess them both again, and deciding both women have changed hands with the unmarked Bones, believing they have ‘run’ he makes the identical guess as before, again both women give the Ki-yi-yi-yi, bringing their team to its feet, now standing, dancing in place to drums, sing and play, they are on a roll, the women exhibit their open hands, neither unmarked Bone had been moved, they had both ‘stayed’, the Pointer had guessed the two marked Bones again. The pointer again picks up two sticks and throws them across to the singing team and then gestures to the singing team that he has passed the next guess to a woman sitting next to him, perhaps this woman can divine the women hiders. The hiders have ducked and now the fists come out again, inviting another mistaken point. Now this newly designated woman Pointer is the focus of the taunts, as she attempts to concentrate on making a good point. She closes her eyes and places her face in her hands, elbows on her knees sitting in a folding chair, she looks without physical sight for the bones and ‘sees’ the younger woman has run, she has switched the Bones positions in her hands, but she cannot ‘see’ the older woman’s Bones, her ‘sight’ is blocked, she can only guess. Eyes open and looking now, she attempts the physical sight scrutiny of the older hider. Nothing is revealed. Still she can only guess. Suddenly this woman makes up her mind and points to the ‘Middle’ and nods her affirmation that this is indeed her decision, the younger woman throws her bones across, busted, but the other woman hider again gives the Ki-yi-yi-yi opening her hands to reveal the mistake.* Now the woman pointer throws one stick across and give the set of Bones she has won back to her original team leader. The singing team is sitting again, all eyes are on their remaining hider, will she run?, will she stay?, the original pointer takes the single set of bones and ducks with them, it appears he will guess her one on one in the same style as is sometimes used to win the Kick stick. Now he comes out with his fists and holding his fists in the air, he shouts Hey! Notifying the hider he has decided.. but she will not show, she shakes her head in the negative, he must open his hands first, he put his hands back under a blanket on his lap, as though undecided, but this woman knows all the technical detail of the game, the obscure rules, she has called his bluff, his hands had concealed nothing, a trick, but she did not bite and he looks foolish now, and actually that was his intention for her, to make her look foolish and break her rhythm. His confidence is shaken. He gives the Bones, this set presently employed for the purpose of guessing, back to the woman that had won them, but she has seen his confidence shaken, and that pulls her confidence down too. But she makes the guess, holding her hands extended, palms up with a bone in each, and with her trademark nod in the affirmative, this is her guess, and the woman hider is chirping again Ki-yi-yi- yi, and the singing team’s leader now reaches down and picks up a stick from the ground in from of him, there are only four sticks left on the ground, some of his singers are now waving ‘bye-bye’ in their taunts at the opposition that cannot divine their woman hiding the Bones. Now many of the players on the guessing team, not having drummed or sang since winning the Kick, are looking glum or serious, being taken down from the get-go in a game is unlucky, embarrassing. Now the set of Bones with the guessing team is passed, guess by guess, to different players trying to stop the woman hider on the singing team and with each mistake another stick is picked up from the ground by the singing team, until all are gone. Now the guessing team has only the Kick stick to defend. The pointer pulls it out and stabs the Kick stick into the ground like a stake. He throws the bones, his own Bones that have failed him, onto the ground, and points his forefinger in the direction the Bones indicate the guess.. wrong again, the game is over. Finished. The winning team jumps on the bet, matched amounts of money, waiting in the no-mans-land. It may have lasted 15 minutes.
* with the information provided up to this point, you now have all the necessary knowledge to determine on which side each hider is facing you, old or young, your left or your right, and in which hand each held the unmarked bone for this guess. Can you sort it out?
The preceding description is a general picture of the game, as I have seen it played many times, and describes what happens when a team of journeyman players runs into a set of crack players. This has happened, much as described above, countless times. But it is the exception, not the rule. There is no typical game, games last 30 minutes, an hour, 2 hours, 10 hours (I hated those games.) It is a matter of not only skill, it is about collective will.
I am not going to give up all of my Stick Game secrets, the old Medicine Ways shared with me, here. What point, example given, would there be in telling you that the white, very old wild dog shit, Coyote shit from the prairie, is good protection against a particular kind of Indian witch at Stick Game, when that same Indian witch, when not sitting opposite me at Stick Game, is my friend? I mostly won’t go there, the where’s, whys and how’s of that. Anyway, that sort of thing is truly dangerous, if you do not know how to read the context of the sorceries going on in a given game, something like that little piece of crap can, in a manner of speaking, explode in your face. But there is plenty I can, and will tell. Some of it perhaps useful to a player that might read this, some of it interesting to people who just want to know. I will reconstruct some of my own play in games here, intended as instructive/entertaining descriptions.
(Ron West lived on the rez for a number of years and is best known in Heart Butte. His writing about Blackfeet is accessible at his website: email@example.com His education includes theology and international dynamics, including war.)