“Ron’s essay on the Stick Game is the best and most insightful description of this game and its spiritual underpinnings extant in the literature” -Karl Schlesier, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

Stick Game or ‘The Witches’

“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.

This Stick Game chapter will seem perhaps a bit tedious to some in the first several pages.. but the intent here is not only to tell the stories but to actually teach the basics of this ancient aboriginal divination. A bit of perseverance in these first pages pays off well in subsequently following the stories of the game itself.

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.

I know that my presence as a Pointer bothered a lot of the Indians I faced in competition over the years. Floyd Heavy Runner’s daughter, Sarah, once made a somewhat hilarious observation in casual conversation that I can relate to this. I was enjoying lying in the prairie grass by a campfire at one of our outdoor summer campsites by the Badger Canyon, there were visiting Indians, everything was relaxed and cool. There is always joking going on, these are incredibly fun and self deprecating people who, when among themselves, make jokes about nearly everything having to do with life. Someone was telling what could be taken as a racist joke, a joke story about a ‘honky’, these stories did not bother me, I made my own jokes about my race, as the Blackfeet did theirs. When the joke had been told, I noticed one of the visitors looking somewhat wide eyed at me, for a reaction. Sarah also noticed and chimed in, “Don’t worry about Ron, he doesn’t realize he’s not an Indian.” That drew even more laughs.

Having Indians like Sarah, people who did not concern themselves with my race, on my Stick Game teams, and faced with racially conflicted Indian opposition on many occasions at the games, I believe gave me an advantage that very few may have ever known when playing the game. Add the fact that further, I had the most knowledgeable possible teachers and was a meticulous student of the game, and you sometimes met with a recipe for disaster as an Indian facing me in the game for the first time. No matter how good a player you were, not far into the game, fear could strike you. I had become a master of the obscure rules and technical detail. Also, I played the race card in subtle ways, to my psychological advantage, when faced with racially conflicted Indians. Stick Game is War, and short of cheating with the Bones, or getting angry (never get angry at Stick Game, a cardinal rule, if you get angry, you are really finished), you do whatever it takes to win.

One time I was faced with a Pointer I knew did not like me, did not like Whites. He was typically one of the better game leaders in our region. By this time I was also known as a premier Pointer. He was confident he could beat me, it would be a Coup for him to beat the Whiteman, and he was playing a strong game. So I resorted to a very dirty tactic, for me it was time tested and true against the racist Medicine Men that play the game. I noticed he had a lot of confidence in one song in particular when his team was singing and I made myself learn that song, listening, on the spot. Having won the Bones back, I signaled to my singers to sit quiet and I took a drum and sang his song back to him, making no move to chose my hiders, but singing several stanzas, the first ones correctly, to show him I had his song, and the subsequent stanzas I deliberately fucked up, while looking right at him and saw an expression that made it appear he had herniated his rectum right there. And then, without missing a beat, I converted to one of our teams songs, which my singers immediately picked up, and handing the drum back to its owner, I delivered the Bones to my hiders, now my entire team has picked up the singing and we took all of his sticks, game over.

Another time, a woman Pointer at Flathead, facing me for the first time, and having heard of my reputation, stated carelessly across the no-mans-land as we were preparing to play, “So I hear you are a ‘big time’ Bone handler.” With a straight face I fired right back “I will leave handling the ‘Big Bone’ to you”, an oblique reference to male anatomy. Coming from a Whiteman, that otherwise totally fair taunt killed her gaming ability, wrecked her psychology, before we ever played. An easy win for me.

On another occasion, I was not leading the game, but was playing as a hider. Our team’s leader was Ed North Piegan, a Canadian Blackfeet who had married a Browning Indian that was a relative of mine, Wilma Wells. I was doing a good job winning sticks, and the other team was nearly defeated. Chosen again to hide, after Ed had won the Bones back, Ed smiled approval at me from his chair, and as he was leaning forward in my direction, tossing me the Bones to hide again, and in full hearing of hundreds of Indians, a woman player, sitting close to Ed and pointing to me, shouted to the opposing team over the din of the drums, “This is your worst nightmare, look there, it is a Honky with the Bones.” Ed nearly fell out of his chair laughing, he knew my real value as a player.

Every Pointer has to wait, at times, for his or her turn to take a games leadership. Sometimes your turn comes up sooner if you are sitting on a persistently losing side that changes Pointers often. But even in that situation a good Pointer may have to wait. Such was the case for me with the big Inter-Tribal games at the Browning Indian Days Celebrations in the 1980s’. I never had the seniority of the other good Blackfeet Pointers and most of them would turn out for these games. So I was, in a manner of speaking, quite a ways down the list at these events. During those summer celebrations when the Blackfeet hosts were winning, and the games did not often change Pointers (I was always a ‘home team’ player), most times I had no opportunity to point at all. But I always got to play because I also was a good hider, not only a Pointer. There were, however, two memorable occasions that I was able to lead Blackfeet teams against other tribes teams at these big events.

On one of these occasions, there was a sort of inter-tribal team of All Stars, a select group of top players from several Canadian tribes that had made the trip together as a team, to take on the Browning Blackfeet at the Stick Games. The strategy of assembling this special team for the occasion had paid off. These Canadians, mostly Crees, had not lost a game since they had begun play, now it had been two days. The Blackfeet persistently took them on, again and again, Stick Game Indians at home just don’t give up. They can’t. These Crees could go home and brag that they had whipped their old enemies, the Blackfeet, but they would never be allowed to say they ran the Blackfeet out of their own games, that just would not happen.

One of my Blackfeet ‘Blood Brothers’ from Brockett, Andrew Small Legs, had been playing on our side since the beginning of this fiasco for the Blackfeet home team, and now it was his turn to take the Point. But he exercised his right to give his turn away to the Blackfeet player of his choice, and he gave the game to me. Andrew told me, “I have seen what you can do. I know you can take these people down.” It was about 9 PM. I had my big game. The Pointer for this amalgam of Crees was about 35 years old, and a friend of mine, Lloyd Chippewa, like myself a Vietnam veteran, was his main assistant. They had picked up Lloyd, a Montana Chippewa/Cree, and a good player, for advice on the Indians they would encounter at these games. Lloyd had played against our Blackfeet, and me, many times. I had also played with Lloyd, in the past, when we had banded together against common foes, such as at the games on the Flathead Reservation and at Fort Hall, Idaho, against the ‘Snake’ (Shoshone) Indians. Lloyd and I had also played together at Wellpinit, Washington, in a sort of informal national finals Stick Game event. We knew each other’s game well. But nobody on the side opposing me, including Lloyd, was prepared for me to take this game’s point, it was a complete surprise. Up to that moment, I had only sat and watched these games. But now I was sitting beside my brother Andrew, ready to begin. And these particular Crees, Lloyd excepted, had never faced a Whiteman leading a Stick Game before. That was their problem. This was the Big Time, and I would play my most skilled game, there would be no room for mistakes.

Looking across and seeing Lloyd, I wanted to modify the game I was most fond of, my technique that Lloyd knew, but I repressed that urge. I did not dare, at that point, deviate from my game scheme. It was a tested means of play, I had learned it from very old people some years before, it was good, and I did not want to place myself in unfamiliar territory by adopting a different technique. My game was good enough to give even Lloyd, who grasped it, a least a bit of a difficult time and he was not the main Pointer for their side, Lloyd had had no chance to explain me to his Pointer, consequently, importantly, the main body of Indians I faced would not realize, initially, that I would employ a very old method of play, complete with arcane rules. In Stick Game, you have to play up, to the level of game your opposition brings you. And you might be surprised to discover Stick Game is diverse in strategy, much like Chess, and there are many techniques that can be employed.

After four tries, the Crees won the Kick. They were singing, I put my kit away. Now I leaned back in my chair, close my eyes for 30 or 40 seconds and let my senses take in their drumming. I allow their drums into my head, and note any thoughts, visualizations or sensation the sound evokes to emerge, the ego is consciousness set aside, now I am in the disciplined meditative or waking dream state learned from fasting, a state of subconciousness I have learned to evoke at will. 30 seconds can seem like a long time in this state. I have found where I want to be, I see some things.

I will play the north-south variation of my game. There will be no middle or outside signals in my points, only both their right hands or both of the hiders left. I am willing to give up a stick to do that. Now I sit forward, opening my eyes, and look towards the hider to the north, my left, but keep my eyes unfocused and looking past this player with a set of Bones. I am studying the player with my peripheral vision, looking for energy fields. There is something dark clinging to her right side, perhaps the unmarked bone is masked there by her concentration, she is visualizing the marked bone as being on her right and directing that thought towards me. I make my decision regarding her, but make no indication of it, and turn my unfocused gaze to the other player. I see the dark energy on his right side as well, perhaps the unmarked Bones are set up that way, imbued with a dark masking energy to ward off a guess, and my several misses, while playing for the Kick, reinforce the thought. Suddenly I send my left arm north, forefinger extended, guessing both players right hands and nod. I have caught them both, now we can sing. Andrew looks across at the other side with the slightest cagey smile, he knows these Crees are in for a tough time.

Now I am surveying the Indians playing on my team, while standing with the four Bones in my hands, our people are singing and no one looks at me- it would be poor form while I am deciding who should hide. My people had been getting whipped around the clock up to now and I want hiders who have seen my play in the past, in games I have won for them, and have a confidence boost at my taking both sets of Bones with my first shot. But it cannot be Andrew, he is my 1st assistant in this game and hides with me either as a last resort if I get in trouble, or to make the kill, nearing the end of a game that goes our way. Meanwhile Andrew does nothing- unless I need him to make a point against a hider that gives me trouble.

I see a woman that is smiling and taunting, looking confident, and she seems familiar to me, I throw one set of Bones to her, the other set I give to a Browning woman that has played for me before. Their Pointer shoots and ‘kills’ my players, they both throw their Bones to the other side. Now I am using my ‘gaze’, my unfocused sight again, and I can see the dark energy on both their hiders, but it would require a shot from me to the Middle and I won’t go there. I pick up a stick and give it to Andrew, designating him to take this shot, but I also lean over to him and say just one word: “Middle.” Andrew takes the stick and acts as though he is in his own meditative state to divine the Bones, then suddenly points the stick to the ground and nods, the Middle, and both hider throw their Bones back across to us, Andrew hands me the Bones together with the stick, which I place back on the ground. Now we are singing and I return the Bones to the same women that were ‘killed’ on the last point against us. I want all my team to see my faith in my players.

Both of my hiders are looking at me and I make a peculiar fist signal to them both, use the ‘War Club’, hit them, both nod understanding and turn to concentrate on hiding without giving up clues, straight faces, unfocused gaze, refusing to react to, or notice, any of the many distractions directed at them by the opposing team. The opposing Pointer is looking at me now, I had just stalled his runs and momentum in these games, and he is checking out this Whiteman that runs a team like a professional. Well, I am a pro, and I notice one of his better players from earlier that night, a woman, is besides herself, barely able, actually not very well able to contain her outrage at what they are confronted with. I take note of that, her rage likely will be useful. Lloyd is just taking it in from the other side, he does not want to lose, but he knows it would be futile to try and explain what they are up against during the actual game, it would only distract his Pointer. His best chance is just to sit back and hope his Cree team can cope. They couldn’t. It was a short game that lasted perhaps twenty minutes and their streak was over. Winning the Bones back only twice more, and winning only two sticks, other than the Kick, which they ultimately were unable to hang on to, my hiders had gained confidence over the obviously rattled Crees. The two Points that I gave up a stick each, winning only one set of Bones on those points, happened when the energy showed me their hiders were on the ‘Outside’ and ‘Middle.’ I could not let Andrew take all those shots without chancing giving away clues that I could ‘see’ through to the bones and/or was playing a game with an element of Taboo. The old ones that had taught me the north-south variation, forbid shots to the middle and outside: it was a ‘Medicine Rule.’ So shooting only north or south, but able to ‘see’ the energy, I was able to always pick up one set of Bones on the first shot. When there is only one set of Bones being hidden for the second shot, there is no middle or outside, there is only north-south. So when they went outside or middle, my trade off was only one stick for both sets of bones, not bad. My hiders didn’t have that problem. At the moment the game ended, a Blackfeet women from our team, who could speak their language, told them in Cree “It took a Whiteman to beat you.” Their leadership, including Lloyd, disappeared for a short while to confer about the next game. Normally they could have left with their winnings after a loss following a long string of wins, not being a home team, but not under these circumstances. Now there was the matter of the Whiteman having defeated them, they could not leave without a victory over me. Now they were back in their chairs and ready to play again.

I had suspected Lloyd would be my next Point opponent, that was a near given, but what I really wondered was whether they would bring out a different set of Bones. The Bones we had used in the previous game obviously had been ‘Doctored’, the ‘ward off’ energy associated with the unmarked Bones in that set had worked against my team until I sat down to take the lead, but now the power of those Bones had fled to me. I liked them. Lloyd was asking the Pointer of the previous game for a Bone set. It was the same set. I brought out my Bone set, Lloyd had his set of Bones and we both hid for the Kick guesses. I had won the game, so Lloyd had to guess me first, and he indicated his choice of my hands. I did not show any expression or open my hands, but I guessed Lloyd while deliberately trying miss. He showed his bones, I had missed, and I did not even show my Bones, but simply threw them back into my bag as though Lloyd had caught me. I wanted to play with their Bones. They began singing, unknowingly taking a ‘thrown’ Kick, and Lloyd was preparing his game set for the upcoming play, dividing the sticks between us.

This would not be a north-south game on my part. Lloyd knew that game well and it would be too difficult for me. That was history, behind me, and besides the fact for this game. Anyway, I wanted to destroy this Cree team psychologically, devastate them right here, right now, while I had this advantage over their Bone sets. I only had to read the energy, which was clear to me, and I intended to take them down hard, as hard as I could.

My first shot was the ‘Middle’ and it killed them both. I have the Bones and we are singing. Lloyd looked surprised at me, but only momentarily. Lloyd was a consummate professional, a seriously good player of the game, and would not easily lose his composure. He won the Bones back handily. But he had a problem he was as yet unaware of. His team could not hide from me, their Bones had become traitors. Again I ‘Killed’ both his hiders, the Bones came back over to my side. We won a stick, and then Lloyd had the Bones back. Now, a third time I shot them down double and Lloyd is looking at me with a strange look, like ‘How did you do that’, but it was nothing compared to the look of the Cree woman that had been outraged at this entire circumstance, since I had taken the lead, a game back. She clearly wanted to really kill somebody, probably me. Now my team’s hiders took the next several sticks. Lloyd wins the Bones back again, and now, one of his hiders is this angry woman, and it is the first opportunity of the night I have to guess her. But she has a surprise in for me, and it appears she is on to me. She brings out two scarves to cover the Bones in her fists and suddenly I could not ‘see’ the energy of the Bones in her hands, she had nullified that advantage. Now I upset her some more, with a hand signal, I waved her off, I would not be guessing both her teams players at a single shot, and turned my attention solely to the other hider and promptly ‘Killed’ him, retrieved that set of Bones, and only then turned to her, with my full attention. She is looking right at me, angry, determined, and unafraid. I can’t let this turn of event get under my skin, I am not going to change my game now, it is too late for that, so I decide it is just a guessing game at this point, on any given guess with her, it is 50-50. I missed, tossed over a stick, she ducked to rehide, too fast, when she brought out her scarves again and looked up, it was right into my point, I had my arm extended already, just a pure guess, but she ran into it, and I had caught her. We had all of the Bones again, she had nearly thrown hers directly at me, not the cursory toss, and we could sing again now, and I took my time choosing hiders for my side, buying time to think over this new development.

This woman appeared to be angry for reasons other than I had initially thought. Clearly, she saw something that nobody else on her side was seeing, appearing to be on to me, demonstrated by her scarves, she was obviously upset, but she had not totally lost her composure, she was not afraid of me, she believed she could take me on, and that is not the rattled confidence typical of a racist Indian being humiliated by a Whiteman in a game they never believed a Whiteman should play. At least not in my experience up to this time. I was puzzled. Now, I was not so sure my quiver held the arrow with her name on it. But I could not just roll over, I had to come up with a solution to this player, otherwise she might go on a tear with the Bones. Meanwhile, my players are winning sticks, and Lloyd’s game is in trouble anyway. But the game still could go either way. Many times it has happened that a team with a pointer of Lloyds caliber, and just one effective hider, such as this angry woman possibly could be, can come all the way back, from a single stick, to win.

I had an idea, and Lloyd had won the bones back, but he was down to 3 sticks, including the Kick. I knew an obscure point gesture the angry woman might not know. The shot would have to be the ‘Outside’, everything would depend on luck, pure and simple. I did not even look for the ‘energy’ in the other hider, the player hiding other that this woman, the outcome of that hider, on this shot, would have to be incidental. I took up a stick, and grasping it between thumb and forefinger, precisely in its center, I held it, hand up, horizontal to the ground and nodded. She sat up sharply, neither showing the bones and ducking, or throwing them across. Now she looked at Lloyd with a ‘What does that mean?’ expression. Lloyd made to her the most common, one of several ‘Outside’ gestures, thumb and forefinger spread apart, and she was caught, it was a correct guess on my part. Very luckily, I won the Bones back from the other player as well. Now the angry woman had been, finally, at least momentarily shook up, and Lloyd had seen that. We took one stick, Lloyd won the Bones back but was now down to two sticks. However, Lloyd did not have confidence in the angry woman and did not return a set of Bones to her. I shot the outside again and won the Bones back and we again took one stick before Lloyd won the Bones back, now he had only the kick. Now Lloyd and the pointer from the previous game hid the Bones, their last ditch effort. Neither one of them believed I would come back a third time with an outside shot and they both placed the unmarked Bones in that position. It would not have mattered. I could ‘see’ the Bones and I shot the Outside shot again, a third time, and then we took the last stick with Lloyd’s next, and last guess. The game was over. Lloyd was stunned. It had been a fast game again. About 20 minutes.

After a short break, the woman was back, with a ‘god only knows where she found him’ Indian, this old man she sat with, to take me on for my third game, looked like a photo of Geronimo. He was wearing a Grizzly canine necklace. And together they beat me. Solidly. Andrew took the point for our side and we played them again.. in one of those collective contests of will that I hate, a game that dragged on all night. We lost again.

On another day, Lloyd and I, as friends, discussed the first two games in particular. After we talked, I was laughing in retrospect at what had happened. What neither Lloyd or I had known at the time these games were actually being played, was that this woman had, earlier in the day before I played, noticed me and pointed me out to the other Crees from Canada. She had seen me play at Flathead, was convinced that somehow I had been schooled in the old ways, informing the others I could “really play the game.” Without exception, the group had dismissed her account as preposterous. Whitemen can’t do that. Perception of your player’s judgment is paramount, and she was not trusted with the Bones in the first game against me. And that is why she was so mad.

A couple of years later, on a second memorable occasion I was to lead a Blackfeet team against another tribe, it was again against a group of Canadian Crees. It was towards the end of Indian Days in Browning, actually the last night of the Pow Wow and my Heart Butte family, the Wells, had been taking a beating. Towards daybreak, I took the lead and ‘thumbed’ my way to our first win. ‘Spud’ Wells one of my nephews, looked at me immediately following the victory and said “Do it again!”

Using your thumbs to point is a reverse guess, and I resorted to this because none of the good pointers in our family, and these were several very good pointers, had made any headway against the team we faced. Everyone had been consistently deceived into the wrong guess. So I used my thumb from the beginning, and pointing with the thumb only means the opposite of the direction you have pointed. It was working. When I felt pulled to a direction with my guess, I pointed that way with my thumb and I was beginning to knock them down, ‘killing’ the Bones, the first consistent success we had seen that night. These were not easy games, and into this second game, already a hour long, I had to shit, and it was desperate. I thought maybe I might have to rupture my big intestine to keep sitting there much longer. But I could not leave, I was the only pointer present that had handled this opposition with any success, and my family could not afford me to take an absence at this moment. There is no ‘Time Out’ in stick game, the only recess is between games. I was trapped. Now, desperate to escape this trap, for the first and last time ever in all my years of playing this game, I resorted to a truly dirty trick to win. I wanted the game over as soon as possible, but I was not willing to lose, to make a run for the toilet.

Choosing my moment, the next time their side had both sets of Bones, and when their hiders were ready, I used both my thumbs, my right hand thumb out and clear for all to see and pointed to my right, which by itself would mean both the opposite players right hands, but at the same moment, I also pointed with my left thumb, to the left, opposite direction, however with this thumb held closer into my body so that my players to my right could not see this part of my guess. Now, everyone but my own players to my right side have seen me make the real point, not both the hiders right hands, but the middle. When one of the opposing hiders properly expected a stick and to hide again, my players to my right, seeing my false guess intended only for them, became upset and the game stopped for a beginning argument. The entire opposition knew they were correct, my players to my right had the perception I had made a different guess, however they were not correct, and I did not immediately correct things with my players, but for just a couple of moments let the dispute develop to a point that the entire opposing team was beginning to get angry as well. Only at that critical moment, before it got really out of hand, I corrected my players, tossed the stick across and everyone sat down to play again. But now the opposite team was upset collectively, I still had my players to my left that did not become involved with the arguing, they were not upset, they saw nothing wrong, only wondered what had happened, and using them, the game was over in only a few minutes, we won. I jumped up to run for the nearest toilet, the sun was up, and as I turned around, I saw the last portable toilet on the Pow Wow grounds had just been loaded onto a truck, and it was being driven away.

My Stick Game stories would not be complete if I did not mention The Blackfeet Elder, Oral Historian and Grandmaster Stick Game player William Running Crane, aka ‚Goat’, who also schooled me in the Blackfeet Oral History account of the Treaty of 1895. Goat is one of the finest traditional Blackfeet Indians I have ever known. I could never do Goat full justice in these stories. But I will say here that Goat is without question the most amazing Stick Game player I had ever encountered. It would be easy for me to write off Goat’s incredible displays with the bones as that of a master magician, to all appearances pushing the bones into his ears and blowing them out of his mouth, if it were not for a single encounter I had where Goat insured I would never doubt his powers as real. I was in a very small game, facing Goat, one of those games that is just fun, only a few dollars riding on the game and a small handful of players, four or five, on each side. I had often in the past seen Goat give a small pop or jerk with his hands when guessed, before opening his hands to reveal a miss and he would collect a stick. Now, in this little and otherwise meaningless game, Goat taught me about that little convulsive motion as the highest order of the game as it has ever been played, by drawing my attention to something I was doing that I might otherwise never have noticed or understood.

Goat was guessing me, and I automatically slipped into the dream state learned from fasting, I had to play my best, but I could not block out his eyes penetration, they glittered even when I was not looking. For that fact, I was keenly aware in which hand I held the unmarked bone. There was no point to avoid looking at Goat, under the circumstance, when he guessed me. So I gazed directly at Goat waiting for the guess.

Goat guessed, he pointed, and at that moment I felt a small jump in both my fists, and opening them, it was revealed to both Goat and myself.. Goat had missed, but actually not. The bones were the reverse position of how I had hid them, they had switched without my opening my hands. I was playing in Dream Time, in the awake world. Goat saw this, I was doing something more typical for him to do.. and he made me look at it.

I won that game and Goat told me “I challenge you.” Goat wanted me to play him in a one on one Medicine Game, an old time power exhibition right then, right there, in the style of the old Blackfeet ceremonial rules, a game he knew I could play. I told Goat “I won’t, I’m afraid of you.” Goat replied to me “You’re not afraid of me.” But then he let it go. He was right, I was not afraid of him. I was actually afraid of how far that contest would go in public, I did not then and don’t to this day know the extent of my own powers relating to the game. I knew, however, that Goat’s power was great. In retrospect, too late, I realized I was wrong to pass on the challenge. Only the real Medicine people in the crowd would have witnessed the actual sorceries, the phenomena, and a game that would be strictly entertainment at the highest level for their sake. The uninitiated would only have seen an especially entertaining game. It was a colossal missed opportunity on my part.

But I made it up to Goat. Later, I bought a photo of a Mountain Goat, an old Billy Goat resting on a mountainside, from the nationally known wildlife photographer Tom McBride. I gave that photo to Goat as a gesture of my respect. One of Goat’s grandsons told me a year or two later that Goat would quietly invite visitors at his Heart Butte home into his bedroom: to see that very special photo of himself in its place on the wall.

Later on, about 1990, I was stuck when I played Stick Game. I could not run with the bones anymore. So I forced myself, strictly as a matter of logic and not medicine, to run, not stay, until the other players sensed I had my edge again. It wasn’t true. I stopped playing.

Excerpt from Penucquem Speaks by Ronald Thomas West

Related:

Life in Indian Country

Collected stories, folklore and anecdotes concerning my many years life with Blackfeet Indians and traversing Native American territories

Ron Drawing

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