Native American Technology and Art

Native American Board Games

"Playing Leader"

A traditional Plains Cree game long known in Saskatchewan was called musinaykahwhan metowaywin, or "Playing Leader", The playing pieces were small green painted pegs carved in the shape of men, one larger than the rest, which were inserted into holes in a square board with an etched cross diagram

This two person game pits the Leader, or "oke-mow" against the other player’s thirteen Little Pegs. Players move the pegs following the lines of the board. The Little Pegs progress steadily forward to surround the Leader, while the Leader endeavors to escape and capture any unprotected Little Pegs. The game, traditionally played by men, was often wagered on for stakes. A difficult game requiring specialized strategies, players often excelled at either jumping with the Leader or surrounding with the Little Pegs.

The Papago of Arizona play a similar game called "Coyote and Chickens’ with the coyote represented by a red bean and the chickens by twelve grains of corn, and a more challenging version with twelve chickens on each side. The name of another game from Taos, New Mexico translates as "Indian and Jack Rabbits" which is played on squares marked in the sand. These games are reminiscent of the European game of Fox and Geese.

"Jump the Creek"

Kiowa Indians in Oklahoma traditionally played a stick game of "Ahl", literally meaning ‘wood’, with four willow stick dice. The original version of this game, recorded by Stuart Culin, was played on a large cotton cloth over a yard square. In the center of the cloth was a flat boulder, called the "Ahl" stone. Traditionally considered a woman’s game, using their pointed awls to mark their positions, this version substitutes a wooden board with pegs for the players. The game has two players; one "kneels" along the west half of the north-south creek, and the other is stationed along the east half of the north-south creek.

Two "awl" pegs, one white and one brown, represent the respective players. Each player places their peg at their starting position, which are the western and eastern starting banks of the south creek. The western player moves their awl peg clockwise around the board, and the eastern player moves their peg counter-clockwise, as shown by the arrows on the board.

There are four stick dice that determine the number of spaces a player will move. Three of the sticks have flat sides marked in red with plain white rounded backs; The fourth dice, the ‘trump’ stick, is called ‘sahe’ by the Kiowa because of it’s green painted flat side. When a player reaches or passes their starting bank at the south creek they win a stick counter. Counters may also be taken from an opponent.

"Hunting Animals"

Renditions of this game have been played for hundreds of years by Native Tribes of the Southwest. The size and materials used to make the board and playing pieces varies but the rules are unmistakably similar.

Two players have an equal number of pieces, wooden pegs, corn, pieces of corncob, charcoal, or black and white stones which are placed on opposite sides of the board on all the intersections of the lines except the central point. The players move or jump in any direction, abandoning unused rows of the board continuously confining the area to move about in.

The Hopi in Arizona call their version of this game tûkvnanawöpi which uses a stone slab of etched squares and triangles, each player starting with twenty "pokmoita", or animals. When a piece is jumped, the captured animal was often placed in trays carved into the board called ‘houses’.

The Keres in New Mexico call this game Aiyawatstani, or "chuck away grains" using twenty two pieces on each side. An Acoma Indian described that Iyatiko, "the mother", made this and all the games from ancient times when people first came out of the ship-pap (si-pa-pu) to the north

"Serpent and Stones"

Long ago, an extended etched stone board was found on a house top in Zuni, and was described to be a traditional two player game of the name kolowis awithlaknannai. The kolowisi is a legendary sea serpent. As water is a precious resource in this area, the feathered serpent is a highly revered figure and his representation often appears in the Native pottery decoration of the Southwest. The game is played using black and white pieces called the awithlaknakwe, or stone warriors. These two sets of stones were sometimes pebbles and sticks, or plain and perforated pottery disks. The set of diamonds and triangles on the board resembles the pattern on the back in some portrayals of the Zuni serpent.

The stones are placed on all the intersections of the geometrical drawing except the central one. The first player moves to the center, where his ‘man’ is jumped by his opponent. The stones may be moved in any direction so long as the lines are followed. The object is to jump and capture all your opponents pieces.

"The Square Game"

A three-in-a-row game adopted by Natives of New Mexico, California and Arizona from the Spanish several hundred years ago. A Mono game using wooden pegs is called yakamaido, ‘square game’, or Indian checkers. In the Pueblos of New Mexico this game was called pitarilla or picaria, (similar to Spanish for ‘little stones’), and used a stone board with etched lines and playing pieces of pebbles or grains of corn. Used by the Cochiti of Arizona, a similar board has horizontal and vertical central lines extending beyond the squares.

Versions of this game are found from Europe and Ancient Egypt, also called Nine Men's Morris, Merrills or Mills. In the first phase of this two person game, the players alternate turns placing individual pegs the board. In the second phase of the game, after all the pegs are on the board, the players take turns moving their pegs in attempts to get three-in-a-row, which is rewarded by capturing any one opponent’s peg. The object of the game is to remove the opponents pieces or immobilize them so they can not move.

Resource: "Games of the North American Indian", Culin:1975

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