Gooniikaa-Ginebig Ataadiiwin

The snow snake game was once one of the most popular winter sports in North America. It was played by tribes from Maine to California and from Oklahoma to Alaska. The snow snake game was played wherever there was ice or snow, and something to throw. The game continues to be played today by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and is being revitalized by many tribes in the twenty-first century after 100 years of lapse.

A girl throws a snow snake on the ice and is surrounded by her classmates.
8th graders from LdF Public School play the snow snake game in 2015. (Photo by Colin Connors)

Snow snakes are wooden poles that are carved and weighted to slide well over snow or ice. The purpose of the game is to see who can slide their snow snake the farthest on a specially prepared track. The snow snake game is a test of both skill and strength, and a good throw can easily clear several hundred yards. If the the snow conditions are just right, a deft hand might send a snow snake a mile or more.

Students play the snow snake game on Lake Mendota with the city of Madison in the background.
8th grader James Valliere from LdF teaches students at UW-Madison to play the snow snake game. (Photo by Joel Ninmann / UW-Madison University Housing)

The sport’s popularity in earlier times was documented extensively by European and non-Indian, American travelers, ethnographers, and collectors in the nineteenth century. Walter J. Hoffman lived among the Minnesota Ojibwe and Wisconsin Menominee in 1887-1890 and wrote these observations:

“[Snow snake] was played during the winter, either in the snow or on the ice, and the only article necessary consisted of a piece of hardwood, from 5 to 6 feet long and from one half to three fourths of an inch thick. The head was bulb-like and shaped like a snake, with eyes, and a crosscut to denote the mouth. This rounded end permitted it to pass over slight irregularities in its forward movements. The player would grasp the end, or tail, of the snake by putting the index finger against the end and the thumb on one side, opposite to which would be the remaining three fingers; then stooping toward the ground the snake was held horizontally from right to left and forced forward in the direction of the head, skimming along rapidly for a considerable distance.”

The sport has its history in hunting. During the final stages of winter as the days get longer and the intensity of the sun stronger, the top layer of snow thaws during the day and freezes at night. This change creates a hard crust of ice on top of the snow and is the reason why the month of March is known in Ojibwe as Onaabani-Giizhis, or the “Crust-on-Snow Moon.” The hard crust made travel easier and provided hunters with new opportunities to catch their prey. Long spears could be thrown like snow snakes across the ice to strike large game that had bedded down, without the hunter coming too close to spook the animals. Among the Ojibwe, shorter “rabbit-clubs” were used to stun or kill small game.

As a sport, the snow snake game was adapted by each tribe by for its own traditions, environment, and resources. Snow snakes came in all sizes—ranging from less than 10 inches to over 10 feet in length—but many were about 6 feet in length. On the American plains where wood was scarce, various tribes traditionally used buffalo rib bones to make a slider with two feather tails. The game might be played on level ground or on a sloping track, while other versions might add obstacles made of snow to the course. The rules of the game depended on tradition and circumstance as well. The game might be played by individuals or by teams. When played with teams, scoring was cumulative as in other sports such as bowling, track, and swim. The player or team that sent the snow snake the farthest the most number of times was declared the winner.

Three boys hold up their medals.
Proud winners at the 2016 Ojibwe Winter Games. (Photo by Biskakone Greg Johnson)

Making Snow Snakes Today

Snow snakes today resemble snow snakes made in centuries past. Traditionally, players owned several lengths and styles of snow snakes for playing in different snow conditions and temperatures. In addition to the 5-6 foot long snow snakes described by Hoffman, the Ojibwe commonly played with short snow snakes that were only about 2 feet in length. Both short and long snow snakes were elegantly designed, as described by Johann G. Kohl, a German traveler who visited the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin in 1855:

“The Indians are also said to have many capital games on the ice, and I had the opportunity, at any rate, to inspect the instruments employed in them, which they called “shoshiman” (slipping-sticks). These are elegantly carved and prepared; at the end they are slightly bent, like the iron of a skate, and form a heavy knob, while gradually tapering down in the handle. They cast these sticks with considerable skill over the smooth ice.”

Today’s snow snakes are no less exceptional, and both long and short snow snakes continue to be used in the annual Ojibwe Winter Games in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. Snow snakes can be made from almost any hardwood, and a piece of timber can be given the rough shape of a snow snake in a few minutes with a tablesaw and bandsaw.

A good snow snake has to be finished by hand. A crooked knife or draw is used to round out the snake before it can be sanded smooth. What makes a good snow snake? A flat bottom gives the snow snake its stability when sliding. A notch cut into the tip of the tail gives your index finger a place to guide the snow snake when throwing and to better control its direction. A lead weight set into the head of the snow snake will add momentum to your throw and carry your snow snake farther. A unique fire-tooled decorative motif will ensure no one mistakes your snow snake for his or her own. And several coats of polymer finish will help reduce friction and protect your snow snake from the elements.

Six snow snakes lie in the snow and display fire-tooled and brightly painted decorations.
Snow snakes in their natural habitat. (Photo by Joel Ninmann / UW-Madison University Housing)

In competitions, the goal is have a snow snake that can out-perform all others. Greases were traditionally used to reduce friction. Each team had its own secret formula, and recipes were family-guarded secrets. Different greases made of waxes, fats, and oils were applied in-game depending on the temperature and snow conditions. Today, ski waxes can be used if you are looking for a competitive edge.

Making The Track

 Lac du Flambeau is blessed with many lakes. Frozen ice is ideal for making a track on because it provides a level playing field and a slick surface for throwing. To make a track like those used at the Ojibwe Winter Games, shovel out a lane of snow a few hundred yards long and you are good to go. Take care to keep the banks of the lane straight and solid; you don’t want snow to crumble down onto the track.

P1080127
An 8th grader casts a snow snake at the 2015 Ojibwe Winter Games. (Photo by Colin Gioia Connors)

Don’t have a frozen lake? Try making a track with a log in the snow. The Ojibwe have used this tried and true method for centuries. Drag a straight log through the snow and sprinkle the trough you have created with water. When the water freezes, you will have a nice, icy chute for throwing snow snakes. If you have enough people with snow shovels, try building an elevated track. This can be a fun project for a large group of people. Build a waist-high wall of snow and run a chute along its length. To build a chute, drag a log and hammer it into the packed snow as you go, or else build your wall around the log and pack down the snow as you go. Build a level track or gently slope it downward to give the snow snake more velocity.

P1070850
Community elders, ENVISION students, and UW-Madison students play the snow snake game at the 2015 Ojibwe Winter Games. (Photo by Colin Gioia Connors)

 Don’t have a log? Try an age-old method that brings children too young to play into the fun of the sport. In a report from 1907, C. C. Willoughby observed the following from the Penobscot in Oldtown, Maine: “One or more of the players would take a boy by the feet and drag him down some incline, thus making a track, or path, in the snow.” The kids are sure to love you for this one.

 Looking for some variation? Try building a small jump at the beginning of your track. Both Kohl and Hoffman observed the Ojibwe playing a variation of the game with a track that began with a snow ramp that literally sent snow snakes flying down the track:

“The Ojibwa play the game in a similar manner [to the Menominee], but they sometimes place a ridge of snow slightly inclined away from the player in order to give the snake an upward curve as it leaves the hands, thus propelling it a considerable distance before touching the snow or ice.”

 However you build your track, take care that it will not damage your snow snakes or hurt another player or bystander. Be respectful, be healthy, and have fun!

P1080124
8th graders spectate at the 2015 Ojibwe Winter Games. (Photo by Colin Gioia Connors)

How to Play Snow Snake

 Rules vary according to different traditions and by circumstance. All players should agree on the rules and the number of points needed to win. The following guidelines serve as an example.

 The Snow Snake Game

 Players form teams of equal number or compete as individuals. The game is played in rounds. Each player throws his or her snow snake once per round. The snow snake is thrown underhand.

For 2 teams: The team with the longest throw wins 1 point for the round. The first team to win 3 points wins the game.

 For 3-4 teams: The team with the longest throw wins 2 points for the round and the team with the second longest throw wins 1 point. The first team to win 7 points wins the game.

 For 5+ teams: The team with the longest throw, the second longest, and the third longest win 3 points, 2 points, and 1 point respectively for the round. The first team to win 10 points wins the game.

 A Game of Push

 Push is a turn-based game for two players with one snow snake and requires a double-long track. The goal is to throw the snow snake father than your opponent. It is a game of strength, skill, and endurance. A game between evenly-matched opponents can last a very long time.

Mark the center point of the track. The two players start an equal distance from the centerpoint. Player One begins his or her turn by throwing the snow snake toward Player Two. If the snow snake stops in front of Player Two, then Player Two advances to the snow snake. If the snow snake passes Player Two, then Player Two retreats to where the snow snake stops. This is Player Two’s new starting position. Now it is Player Two’s turn to throw the snow snake toward Player One. Player One advances or retreats to retrieve the snow snake. Play continues in turns. The first player to cross the center point wins.

A diverse group of smiling students play the snow snake game on Lake Mendota.
Students from LdF, UW-Madison, and abroad play the snow snake game at UW-Madison. (Photo by Joel Ninmann / UW-Madison University Housing)

Sources

Culin, Stewart. 1907. Games of the North American Indians. Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, 1902-1903. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. (See especially pp. 399-420) 

Densmore, Frances. 1929. Chippewa Customs. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 86. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. (See epsecially p. 68) 

Hoffman, Walter J. 1896. The Menomini Indians. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. (See especially pp. 244-45) 

Kohl, Johann G. 1890. Kitchi-Gami: wanderings round Lake Superior. London: Chapman and Hall. (See especially p. 90) 

Morgan, Lewis H. 1851. League of the Ho-de’-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Rochester: Sage & Brothers, Publishers; New York: M. H. Newman & Co.; Boston: Gould & Lincoln. (See especially pp. 303-4) 

Oxendine, Joseph B. 1988. American Indian Sports Heritage. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. (See especially pp. 104-11)

Parker, Arthur C. 1909. Snow-Snake as Played by the Seneca-Iroquois. American Anthropologist 11(2): 250-256.

Snowsnake.” Dene Games. Accessed March 31, 2016.