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Chasing the bones--stick game bones.

The Stick Game ... is a favorite among Native peoples across northern and central North America. A player holds two short bones, one in each hand. One bone is marked with a black band, the other is plain. His or her opponent is to guess which hand the unmarked bone contains. [1]

The Bones

Stick game bones are called "bones" even though they may be made from other things. "Chasing the Bones" is a term used for "playing the stick game." [2]

Four bones are needed for a game set, two plain and two marked-usually with a dark band around their circumference near the middle. Old tradition identifies the marked bone as "male" and the unmarked ones as "female." [3] Others call the marked bone the "black" bone, the unmarked one the "white" bone. [4] (In the stick game, the team which finds the unmarked bone is the team that gains a point.)

Types of Bone

There seems to be no regional lore regarding any one type of "bone" as being the best: bone, bamboo [5], PVC pipe, tapered bone hair pipes, and antler have all been used. [6] Four to four and one half (4 to 4 1/2) inch long bone hairpipes seem more accepted among people of the Great Basin and the Crow than among the Plateau and Blackfeet people. Some modern sets on sale at powwow concession stands are molded from durable plastic. More important than the material they are made of, is their size. They must be large enough to be easily grasped but not so large that enough of the marked or unmarked bone shows during play revealing which bone is in which hand. Samples seen at powwows and in artifact collections, the largest (excepting the "hairpipe bones") was 3 inches tall, 2 inches in diameter--most bones being a bit smaller; 2 inches tall, 1 inch in diameter.

Individuals may have bone preferences often guided by their spirit helper (called sumesh or weyekin). Deer bones are said by some to retain spiritual power of the deer; "They're quick (deer) but there's more to it than that. They're hard to hit and they blend in when they hide." The stick game player relating this was comparing, among other things, quickness of the deer to the agility of the hider to successfully confuse opponents. Another comparison was hitting a live deer with a bullet to "hitting" the correct bone with a point or guess, explaining that "bear bones are good ones also because bears root around in the ground. When they're doin' this, they are showing us how to hide the bones." Again, "rooting around" is likened to mixing up the bones under a hat or shirt tail, a common method of switching the marked and unmarked bones from hand to hand while "hiding." [7] Bones of cougar and horse are also reported to have been used. [8]

Making Bones

Nearly every source, both oral and written, mentions the use of deer or elk leg bones (metatarsals). Easily obtainable, two nearly identical game bones can be cut from one deer leg bone. Bone makers caution to cut all four bones from either the front legs or the back legs of the same deer so that no hint of difference can be seen by observing the bones' ends as the hider holds the bones. One bone maker collects deer legs during the fall hunting season and hangs them on a tree limb away from dogs and coyotes, to dry for several months. Once the skin shrinks over the bone, the bones are cut to size. The skin and remaining meat and tendons are peeled off. (The hooves and dew claws are saved for other craftwork.) Boiling for several hours removes most remaining tissue and marrow, then soaking in chlorine bleach for 30 minutes or so whitens the bones as well as removes last traces of softer tissue. "Get them bones as white as you can, he advises, you've got to be able to see which one you've got (picked), see right through their hands. White bones will let you see which one to pick right through their hands." [7] Smooth the edges and sides with fine sandpaper so they are nice to handle. Bone splinters can be uncomfortably sharp. Some game bones have been sanded to almost an oval shape.

An anthropologist tells of other sources of bone. "These bones must invariably be from the cannon bone of an animal or from the radius or ulna of a human.... If it could be arranged, the skeleton of some very famous gambler was secretly exhumed. His luck went with his arm bones"[9]. Another account from Flathead/Salish country tells of using human bones: "Using game bones made from human humorous bones numbs the hands of the opposing team when they touch and try to hide them. That is unless one washes his own hands in advance in wild rose tea. This gives him (or her) immunity from human bone (ghost) power. Humorous bones have a more consistent diameter than do radius or ulna bones.

"Using gambling bones manufactured from the bones of a famous gambler made one practically unbeatable, but at a certain amount of risk. For example, a story was related in which a person made such a pair of bones from a deceased woman. He enjoyed a fantastic run of luck. However, at night the ghost of the woman appeared to him and insisted on sleeping with him. He finally was forced to get rid of the bones after which the ghost never again appeared." [10]

Marking the Male (marked) Bones

Methods of marking the bones are as varied as there are bone makers. Some simply have a band of black paint applied around the center. Black electrical tape is also common on modern bones. Molded plastic bones may have variously colored bands inlaid around the center. A team in the 1980 Spokane Indian Reservation tournament had their marked (male) bones wrapped with gourd stitch beadwork. Stainless steel domed caps nicely finished each end of all their bones. Older "male" bones are often wrapped with hide or sinew, stained black. Black string was a simple solution to marking bones. [11] Bones which are inletted where the wrapping goes are considered "better" by most players because the wrapping won't slip off the bone. A novice player once said, though, that she liked the wrapping thick so she could feel it. There were times during games, she admitted, that she could not recall which of her hands the marked bone was in, so thick wrapping allowed her to feel which bone was which.

Any bones having a history of consistent good luck for a player or team are handed down from generation to generation. "Even without assistance from supernatural beings, ordinary bones can acquire power. A set of bones that have proven lucky in play pick up an aura and are then given 'respect.' This entails their being kept wrapped in cloth or buckskin when not in use. They are not to be taken out and handled, exhibited, or given to children to play with. It is felt that lack of respect will dilute their luck." [10]

As for added decorations on stick game bones, engravings and metal end caps colors are used. Some gamblers will not play against a team who wants to use their own decorated bones. The thinking is, the decorations may actually be some form of spiritual power giving an unfair advantage to the opponents. Plain bones or even modest ones of plastic are those most used in modern stick games.


[1.] Thompson, Scott. (2012) The Stick Game. Whispering Wind. 41:1, pp. 12-13.

[2.] Tatsey, John. (1971). The Black Moccasin. Spokane: Curtis Art Gallery. Edythe Hardman (Spokane/Makah) personal interview.

[3.] McCarty, Ella. (1972). Spokane Village Life. Video recording, Cheney: Eastern Washington University, 19 July 1972. Animal People: Teacher's Guide. Seattle: Daybreak Star, n.d. p. 7

[4.] Stick Game Songs. 1973). Audio recording, jacket notes. Phoenix: Canyon Records.

[5.] Smoqueshin Days Powwow, Spokane, 1970.

[6.] Ella McCarty (Spokane) personal interview 7-19-80; Wellpinit Labor Day powwow 1980.

[7.] Unnamed Spokane tribal member, told to me at Wellpinit, WA, September, 1994.

[8.] Animal People: Teacher's Guide, p. 7

[9.] Turney-High, Harry Holbert. (1937).The Flathead Indians of Montana. Menasha: American Anthropological Association, Memoir # 48, p. 52.

[10.] Brunton, Bill. (1998). The Stick Game, in Walker, Deward Jr., ed. Handbook of the North American Indians, Plateau, Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institute, p. 581.

[11.] Turney-High, Harry Holbert. (1941). Ethnography of the Kutenai. Menasha: American Anthropological Association, Memoir 56, p. 161.

To learn more about this exciting Native game, watch Hand Game, a DVD available from Written Heritage, or read Bill Brunton's chapter "The Stick Game" in Deward Walker's Handbook of the North American Indians: Plateau (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1998).
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Author:Thompson, Scott M.
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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