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Traditional Indian Games And Toys

A Paper By Susan Aucoin
December 2001

The only way to maintain the culture of any ethnic group is to pass the traditions and beliefs on to the children. What better way to do this than with games and toys? Our own American culture is passed on, and changed, by the toys we give our children and by the games we teach them. Traditional American games such as jump rope or hide and seek, have been played by children down through the generations. These are games played in groups that teach cooperation. Toys, such as dolls and erector sets, begin to teach children skills that they will use as adults. As our culture changes we give different toys to our children; or perhaps it is because we give different toys to our children that our culture changes. Indian culture has been affected dramatically over the past three centuries by European influence. By taking a look at traditional toys and games we can get a perspective on what life was like for the Native Americans before that change took place.

It was with this thought in mind that I began my search for information. My first opportunity to find toys was at a powwow I attended in September. There were many fine examples of basket making, beadwork and the like, but very few toys. It seemed the powwow was geared more to adults. There I found dolls and child-sized bow and arrows made in the traditional style. The arrows had blunt tips to ensure that the children could play with them without injury. The dolls were in traditional dress; some were on cradleboards.

The most helpful thing at the powwow was being introduced to Nancy Lecompte who is the Research and Program Director for Ne-Do-Ba, a non-profit organization established to explore and share topics relating to Abenaki Indians. She gave me information on books and web sites that helped me research my topic. Among the web sites she recommended to me was, where I found useful information on many games. The books she recommended, such as Indian Handcrafts, showed examples of traditional Indian toys.

To complete my research, my eight-year old son, his friend, and I planned an excursion to the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. To my great delight, and to the delight of the children with me, I found an exhibit on toys and games. This was a hands-on exhibit, which encouraged the visitor to play with the games and toys displayed there. The instructions for playing the games were posted and, also posted, was an introduction to the exhibit that became the theme for my Finals project: "There is more to games than just playing around. Games have been played for learning, entertainment and even for worship. They are a way of handing down tradition and knowledge to other generations. Indian games are played by both adults and children. Tradition and skill goes into making the game pieces, learning the rules and practicing the skills."

There seems to be less information on toys than on games. This may be because Indian children had few toys. The families traveled from campsite to campsite with the seasons and therefore limited what they had to carry, including toys. Yet still, toys were a part of Indian children's lives. Parents attached dangling toys to babies' cradleboards, "-sometimes strings of animal teeth, a tiny canoe, a rabbit's foot-for the eyes to follow and the little hands to grasp at..." (Favour 14). Dolls were fashioned from corn stalks, cattails, corncobs and other indigenous materials. Little girls decorated and beaded cradleboards and dolls' clothing. Girls also constructed dolls' mats and tiny wigwams, and in doing so, were being trained by their mothers. Young boys had small bows, slings, spears and fishing equipment to play with. As the boys became older they learned to make these things for themselves and to use them for hunting small prey. Play had a purpose other than amusement; play was designed to teach the child something useful, something they needed to learn. There were, however, some toys with no useful purpose other than amusement. The Buzzer was such a toy. It was constructed of a circular piece of bone or antler with two holes in the center. It was threaded with a piece of sinew. The sinew was attached to small pieces of bone or wood that were used as handles. The child would grasp the handles and alternately pull and relax the sinew making the circular piece spin and buzz.

Indian games were numerous. There were games of dexterity such as archery; racket ball, which is similar to lacrosse; canoe tilting; and snow snake. Snow snake was a popular Penobscot winter game. The "snakes" were three to six feet long and carved from wood. The game was played by sliding the snakes down a track in the snow on a hill. The snake that went the farthest won. The winner took all the snakes. There were games of amusement such as Little Pines, which was a woman's game. It was played by placing a tied cluster of pine needles on a board; the cluster of needles was tied together to resemble a woman's skirt. The board was shaken gently making the pine needle women dance. This game had no winner or looser; it was played for fun. Cat's Cradle was another amusement. It is the same game that many of us learned as children. A piece of sinew was tied end to end to form a loop. The loop was threaded through and around the player's fingers to form a design. The next player took the string in such a way as to form another design.

Gambling was a form of entertainment enjoyed by adults. Betting took place on many games of dexterity like the various ball games. There was one gambling game that was particularly popular: Bowl and Dice. The dice were circular discs made from bone or antler, with one side plain and one side ornamental. This game was simple in its play, yet complicated in the way the score was kept. The dice were tossed in a bowl, and sticks were awarded for getting five or six dice with the same side showing. Counting sticks of various sizes were awarded. These sticks were placed in piles, which kept track of how much they were worth. Bowl and Dice was often played in a large gaming house made from poles set in the ground and covered with tree boughs. Indians of New England played this game in the 1600s for animal skins, furs, kettles or axes. Sometimes entire villages wagered against other villages over the two individuals chosen to play.

There were similarities between Indian games and European games. Indians had their equivalent of lawn darts (Jarts), badminton, lacrosse, hockey, soccer, volley ball and pick up sticks. But one thing seems to separate Europeans and Indians: the importance of play. Europeans seem to value work higher than play, while Indians seem to have found more satisfaction in their games and amusements. As written in Indian Games, Toys, and Pastimes of Maine and the Maritimes, "With summer lasting only a few brief weeks, with the ever-present threat of starvation, these families still spent many hours in play. And perhaps this fleeting impression of a people's natural and essential gaiety triumphing over a demanding environment is most significant of all" (19). This could be a simple lesson for all of us who seem to have much too much work to do; take time to play and enjoy your life.

Works Cited
Favour, Edith. Indian Games, Toys, and Pastimes of Maine and the Maritimes. Bar Harbor: The Robert Abbe Museum, 1974


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