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The stick game.

The Stick Game, sometimes called hand game, is a favorite among Native peoples across northern and central North America. It's a lively gambling game. 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 is in. But read on. It gets a bit more complicated.

Equipment Needed

Though there are variations in both equipment and play, here is a list of the supplies found in most stick game sets:

* Four similar bones, many measure 3 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. These were often cut from deer leg (metatarsal) bones. Two of the bones are marked with a black band around the middle-Modern bones may use paint or plastic electrical tape for the mark, older bones usually use a wrapping of leather. Occasionally a cloth or leather bag was used to store these game pieces.

* Counting sticks. Games will have two sets of these sticks with from eight or ten in a set. These may be 1/2 inch thick and around 10 inches long. Each team is given their own set of counting sticks so each set is marked in some way to differentiate one team's set from the other.

* One more 1/2 by 10 inch stick called the "kick stick." The kick stick is decorated differently from the counting sticks.

Setting up the Game

Two teams are formed. Teams do not have to be equal in the number of players. (The core of each team is usually a family group.) The two teams sit on the floor or ground, three to four feet apart, facing each other. One team gets one set of counting sticks, the other team gets the other set.

Often a pole or board is on the ground immediately in front of, and parallel to, each team. Team members use sticks (not the counting sticks) to pound on the pole accompanying the stick game songs as if drumming.

Beginning the play (this is similar to the coin toss of a football game).

The kick stick is placed in the middle of the space between the teams. Each team gets one marked bone and one unmarked bone. One person on each team is appointed to be the hider. The hiders sit side-by-side. He (or she) encloses one bone in each of his hands inside his fists so that the opposing team can't see which bone is in which hand. Once the bones are "hidden" he places his hands on his knees signaling the other team he is ready.

There is also one person on each team appointed to be the guesser. He or she must guess in which hand the opponent (sitting across from him) is hiding the unmarked bone. Both hiders hide their bones at once. Both guessers guess at once.

If both guess correctly, it is a draw and the bones are hidden again. If both guess wrong it is again a draw and the bones are hidden again. But if one guesses correctly and the other team guesses incorrectly, the correct guesser's team wins both the kick stick (much like an extra point) and gets both sets of bones. This officially starts the game.


The game gets noisy with enthusiastic singing of team songs and drumming. So the guesser must use hand motions to make his guess. When he believes he knows which hand the hider has the unmarked bone in, he points, not to the hand but to the side of the hider's body that the hand is attached to. This exaggerated gesture helps avoid confusion in the noisy arena. Once the guess is confirmed the hider must show the bones so that all know if the guess is correct.

Continuing the play

When one team wins the kick stick and both sets of bones, the game officially starts. The team with both sets of bones gets to hide both sets of bones. Two hiders are appointed and these two each have a set of bones to hide. The opposing team appoints only one guesser. He must guess which hands the two hiders hold both unmarked bones in--at once.

* If he thinks both unmarked bones are in the hiders left hands, he points way off to their left side.

* If in their right hands, he points way off to their right side.

* If he suspects the hiders have them in their outside hands, he points with both hands, one to the left and one to the right.

* Finally, if he suspects the inside hands, he points to the ground between the two hiders.

Possible results of the guesses

1. The guesser might guess both wrong. If this happens, his team must surrender two counting sticks to the other team. The hiders then hide again and the guesser must try again.

2. The guesser might guess both correctly. If this happens, his team then gets the two sets of bones to hide but no counting sticks are surrendered either way.

3. Or he might guess one correctly and one wrong. For the wrong guess, his team owes one counting stick to their opponents. For the correct guess his team gets that set of bones; BUT his team must win both sets of bones before they can begin to hide. So his opponent continues to hide one set of bones and he continues to guess.


The only way to win the game is to win all of your opponents counting sticks (including the kick stick if they have it).

There's a bit more to the play including learning the songs and making false guesses. Plus, variations occur from one reservation to another, but this little article ought to give readers enough information to be able to enjoy watching a stick game contest at a powwow or to try playing with a group of friends.


Players bet heavily on this game. In the old days, bets included horses, blankets, and beadwork. Now it is mostly money-winner take all. Bets are made and matched before the game starts. Side bets are also made on each guess.


Many Native players rely upon supernatural powers either to help disguise the bones or to aid in guessing. Hiding and guessing gestures may reflect natural actions of a player's spirit helper-a leaping deer, burrowing pocket gopher, or a swooping flicker.

Social Implications

The Stick Game provides a fun social time for Native people. It was also a way for good hiders and good guessers to gain social status. Their teams, usually family or village members, also gained status by having a good winning streak. Because of the large bets, the stick game was a way to keep Native economy moving by continually redistributing wealth. Finally, it is said that the stick game was a nonviolent contest used to settle conflicts and establish "who was boss" in days gone by.

Further Reading And Viewing

Further information on the Stick Game can be gained from: Walker, Deward, Jr., ed. (1988). Plateau: Handbook of North American Indians, V. 12. Smithsonian Institution, 1998, pp. 573-583.

Hand Game: The Native North American Game ofPower and Chance. Film by Lawrence Johnson. (DVD). Available from Written Heritage


Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Thompson, Scott M.
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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