A Few Native American Games
Hoop and Spear Game
Goal: To have fun; to learn to stop a rolling hoop with a model spear and how to toss that spear with maximum accuracy: to better appreciate the skills of the ancestral Native Americans and the skills of all our ancestors – who, for literally thousands of years, on whichever continent they lived, hunted with spears.
Procedure: One person rolls the woven wooden hoop while and another tosses the wooden spear (with protective corn cob tip) at the moving target. If students wish to compete with one another, a suggested scoring method is to allot 3 points for a spear that goes to the very center of the jute net, 2 points for a spear thrown into the next ring of netting, and 1 point for a spear caught in the outer ring.
There are many different ways to roll the hoop. Sometimes we use a bouncing effect and encourage the youngsters to imagine that they are learning how to hunt a rabbit. This game offers another opportunity to mention that the cultures of Indigenous People emphasized compassion and kinship with other living beings. It was customary to avoid causing any unnecessary suffering – even to creatures such as rabbits. In keeping with these values, Native children learned important skills while playing this this hoop and spear game. Such a game helped future hunters improve their aim so that they could direct their spears accurately into the prey’s vital organs (such as the lungs or heart). This would ensure that the creature’s death would be speedy, and its pain would be minimized.
Goal: Learn to coordinate one’s muscles and throw accurately. The intent is to toss the small cloth bags (filled with hickory nut shells, acorn caps, or other bulky natural materials) so that they land beyond the decorated boundary stick (which is ideally about 5 or 6 feet long). That stick (or a length of rope, jute or yarn) is laid on the grass or leaves perpendicular to the trajectory of the toss. For an added challenge, the cloth bags must land within the confines of two imaginary lines extending at right angles from the ends of the boundary stick. (Think of the playing space as an H with the contestant at the base of the H. The flower-and-leaf bedecked stick forms the horizontal element. The tossed bag must land within the confines of the extended verticals of the H.)
Procedure: The player lies on the ground with his or her head toward the goal. Without being able to see the goal (!), they must toss the bags backwards over their shoulders. To receive credit, the ball must land beyond the boundary stick and yet not be too far to the right or left (as described in the first paragraph). Usually, a contestant tosses three times during each turn and there are three bags available to toss. However, one bag will suffice provided someone retrieves it for the player after each attempt.
This game is usually very popular with students. It develops their ability to direct a thrown object through awareness of muscular feedback – not vision. It develops muscles on the inner parts of the arm that might not receive much deliberate exercise in ordinary daily activities. It also challenges students’ ability to aim accurately at an object that’s actually behind them. (It was always surprising to me how eager they were to try this task.) The game’s level of difficulty can be readily adjusted by moving the boundary stick farther from or nearer to the contestants at the conclusion of a round. Perhaps in the past, such an activity benefitted participants’ skills with bows & arrows or spears.
Corn Darts (a game played during harvest festivals in the Southwestern US)
Goal: Toss the corn cob darts into the cornhusk ring in such a way that the darts land within the ring and stay there. This is a game where students learn not only to aim and toss carefully, but also to control / govern their strength. This is the case since darts tossed too forcefully simply bounce out of the cornhusk ring – and do not count. You can mention that this game reminds us all that it’s important not only to have power and good aim, but also to be able to moderate that power and direct it well.
Procedure: If students wish to compete with one another, the players in a round can each take three tries from a given distance. (Adjust the distance from the ring based on the skill level of the participants.) After everyone has had their turn, who’s landed the most corn darts within the circle? Try tossing the darts again from a greater distance to increase the challenge.
Students can also structure the game so that they compete in terms of distances thrown. Given three tries, what was the farthest distance they could stand away from the ring and still have the corn dart reach and stay within the corn husk circle? In this variation, it works well if students remain standing on the spot where they launched their longest successful toss. (They might need to mark that place with a leaf or stone – when they step further out for yet another try. They should return to that mark should the subsequent try prove unsuccessful.).
This variation also presents a good occasion for students to work thoughtfully with measurement. What tool or method can youngsters invent (using readily available materials – perhaps even their own foot or a nearby stick) to measure distances from the launching spot to the cornhusk ring? Once they’ve settled on their measuring unit, they can record the actual distances covered by their successful tosses in whatever units they’ve created. Depending upon the interests of the students, they might convert their final results to standard measurements once they’ve returned to their classroom.
Students can also play this game as an individual activity. They can work on improving their ‘personal best’ after initially determining how many corn darts stayed within the ring during a specific number of throws. Alternately, they could discover how far or close they need to stand so that most of their darts reach the target. Then they could try to improve their accuracy from a more distant starting point.
Throughout the game, it’s often helpful if the facilitator offers a little coaching and encouragement to the players. If the teacher models this, it can help keep the game’s mood upbeat and playful. The children often accept this as a signal that such a way of participating is fine (or you can even overtly mention this). It’s especially positive when the youngsters join in or just take over that role of coaching and supporting one another. Personally, I think the hushed, tense atmosphere of a competitive golf tournament is not the game scenario we’d like to replicate!
Goal: Earn the most counting sticks before the game ends. Try your luck and enjoy the company of your friends!
Procedure: Before the game, paint five clean apricot pits / stones black on one of their sides using acrylic paint or perhaps a permanent marker. Leave the other side in its natural ochre color. When the apricot pits have dried, place them in a woven wicker dish of the type used for holding paper plates at picnics – or put them in some other pretty, shallow wooden bowl. Also, before playing, collect thirty or forty small twigs to serve as counting sticks (students can quickly do this as part of a walk). Clipped cattail stalks (about an inch or two long) work exceptionally well. These sticks or clipped stalks serve as tally counters and can be kept for future games in a nicely formed woven basket with a lid.
To begin, students sit on the ground in a circle. The first player takes the dish and gently thumps it against the ground so that the apricot pits bounce up and fall back.
The player earns:
2 counting sticks if all five pits land in the plate showing the same color.
1 counting stick if there are two pits of one color and three of another.
0 counting sticks if four of the pits are of one color and the remaining one is different.
As long as a player is collecting sticks, he or she keeps the dish and continues playing. When the four-and-one color combination appears and no sticks are earned, the player relinquishes the basket to the person whose turn is next. This individual takes the dish and be their turn. The students who has gathered the most tally sticks when the stick supply has been completely distributed (or the game is stopped ) is deemed the winner.
For the earliest English description of the game – with its complete rules, refer to William Wood’s 1634 work New England Prospect, ed. by Alden Vaughn, Amherst: University of MA Press, rpt. 1977, p.104. I provided my students with a *laminated calligraphy copy of the rules as Wood described them in Old English, together with a simplified modern version that they could use as a reference. They seemed to enjoy both the game and the historical reference!
The Listening and Stalking Game
Goal: To silently approach and stealthily remove a stick placed next to a seated student whose eyes are closed or blindfolded – without being detected and tapped.
Procedure: One child is seated on the ground in the center of a ring of children. That child holds their hands above a small stick or some other object. They close their eyes, or, if they’re comfortable with this, wear a blindfold. The other children form a standing circle around the child. At a start signal, the circle rotates around the seated child as quietly as possible. At a stop signal from the teacher (or designated student), the circling youngsters halt, and one child is selected to leave the circle. That individual moves stealthily towards the center youngster – as silently as possible – and attempts to slide the stick out from under their hovering hands without being heard and tapped. If they are successful, they get to select the next person who’ll be in the center. Alternately, if the seated center child hears and taps the ‘hunter,’ he or she has the privilege of selecting the student who will take their place as the listener.
This game can be played on various surfaces with interesting effects. Examples include a leaf-covered lawn or a somewhat open spot along a rocky trail. To seriously increase the listening challenge for the center child, the other students can continue circling even as the stalking youngster begins moving towards the stick.
Principle Sources for Games and Crafts
These are particularly wonderful resources. From my perspective, they merit the effort required to seek them out on-line and / or to purchase them as used books:
Indian Handcrafts: How to Craft Dozens of Practical Objects Using Traditional Indian Techniques by C. Keith Wilbur. Chester, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 2001.
Native American Sourcebook by Barbara Robinson. Concord, MA: Concord Museum, 1988. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED406321.pdf
The Wabanakis of Maine and Maritimes: A Resource Book about Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac, and Abenaki Indians by the Maine Indian Program of the American Friends Service Committee. Bath, Maine: Maine Indian Program, 1989. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED393621