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Snow Snake, The Ancient Native American Winter Sport, Gets Popular

Snow Snake, The Ancient Native American Winter Sport, Gets Popular

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On Friday, February 26 2021, a city park in Madison, Wisconsin will host a unique sporting competition . Newcomers and experienced practitioners alike will be given the opportunity to play snow snake, a wintertime game that has been popular among Native American peoples for more than 500 years. In this deceptively simple but technically demanding game, players throw long, polished sticks along narrow, curved snow tracks. When playing snow snake, the idea is to get the sticks to slide for as long and as far as possible, with accumulated distances from multiple throws deciding the winners in individual and team competitions.

How The Snow Snake Game Was Recently Revived In Madison

This upcoming event at Warner Park in Madison was the brainchild of Arvina Martin, an alderman on the Madison City Council and a member of the Ho-Chunk nation . Martin learned about the existence of the game only a year ago, when she saw a social media post about it put out by the Ho-Chunk Cultural Preservation Office.

“I saw them making the actual snow structure for it and playing it,” she explained. “I was like, ‘oh, I really want to play. I want to know what this is about.’”

The Snow snake track, Warner Park, Madison. (City of Madison)

The Snow snake track, Warner Park, Madison. ( City of Madison )

Martin eventually contacted Bill Quackenbush, a representative of the Cultural Preservation Office, and in cooperation with the City of Madison Parks Department they arranged for an introductory event to take place this Friday afternoon. Men and women and boys and girls of all ages are invited to participate, and Quackenbush will be on hand to give lessons and explain the rules and procedures to prospective players.

“This is something that was probably played around here previously by Ho-Chunks that lived here,” Martin said. “It’s a game that’s indigenous to here … it’s not only learning something about the culture that is indigenous to Madison, but it’s also fun.”

Snow Snake Game Rules And History

Historical sources indicate that the snow snake game has been played by indigenous people living in the northern United States and in Canada for several centuries. The list of nations that were (and still are) familiar with snow snake include the Ho-Chunk, Sioux, Ojibwe, Oneida, Wyandotte, and the Iroquois, most of whom occupied the expansive region surrounding the Great Lakes in the time before European settlers arrived.

Snow snake being played by the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. (US National Park Service)

Snow snake being played by the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. ( US National Park Service )

Friendly, large-scale competitions pitted indigenous nation against nation. These joyous events were the Native Americans ’ version of the Winter Olympics, bringing various peoples together to forge stronger inter-tribal relationships. Even today, well-attended snow snake competitions are still being held in public parks and on native lands in the northeast and north central United States primarily, from November through April.

The object of the game is to throw or slide a long waxed or polished hardwood stick along a curved, downward-sloping groove or ditch carved out of snow. Depending on the skill and age of the player, these sticks could range in size from two-to-three feet (one meter) to six-to-ten feet (two-to-three meters) long.

If the snow was deep enough the groove could be created right on the ground (or on top of a frozen lake) by dragging a rounded, smooth log along the ground for a considerable distance (perhaps for a quarter-mile, a half-kilometer, or more). In other instances, a long snow-bank would be laboriously built up, with the groove painstakingly being cut or carved out on top.

As the snow track was exposed to sunlight, the snow on top would alternately thaw and refreeze. This created a slick and icy sliding surface, which made it possible for the best players to propel their snow snakes for some truly impressive distances. Some claim that the best players were able to get their sticks to slide for a mile (1.6 km) or more, but this is almost assuredly an exaggeration (and a fairly wild one at that).

Being hand-made, the curved ditches were highly irregular and bumpy, which inevitably caused the sliding sticks to wobble, weave, and undulate as they sped along. The movements of the sticks were very snake-like, thus giving the sport its distinctive and memorable name.

As is often the case with athletic competitions, this sport emerged from a utilitarian practice. Wintertime communication networks in Native American communities linked settlement areas via grooved ice tracks in the snow. Messages would be attached to smoothed wooden sticks, which could be flung back and forth at high speeds and for significant distances.

Full-size snow snakes used during the 2019 Ganondagan State Historic Site Native American winter games. (DanielPenfield / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Full-size snow snakes used during the 2019 Ganondagan State Historic Site Native American winter games. (DanielPenfield / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Snow Snake: A Game for the Ages

In 1855, a German explorer named Johann G. Kohl visited Ojibwe settlements on the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior , during the heart of a long, cold winter. He offered the following description of snow snake design, manufacture, and practice:

“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 know, while gradually tapering down in the handle. They cast these sticks with considerable skill over the smooth ice.”

Nearly 170 years later, native peoples who’ve perfected the art of surviving and thriving survive on North America’s most frigid wintertime landscapes are still playing this same game. Several nations have formed their own semi-professional teams , who travel around the country participating in various competitions for pride and glory. They are keeping an ancient tradition that has united native peoples for generations alive, for the benefit of generations yet to come.

Top image: Snow snake junior class at Warner Park, Madison.     Source: Arvina Martin / Madison365

By Nathan Falde

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