- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - Stick game is older than recorded history, yet it remains largely unknown to people outside Native American culture. Its rules are deceptively simple, but demand a player remain intently focused; sometimes for hours at a time.

And though it can be played as a simple pastime between friends, the prize money at competitive stick game tournaments can easily exceed tens of thousands of dollars. At a recent stick game tournament on the Tulalip Reservation outside Seattle, the total prize money was $100,000 with a first place prize of $30,000.

Earlier this month, as many as 80 teams traveled to Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to take part in the Pat “Bum” Calf Boss Ribs, Sr. Memorial Stick Game Tournament. Some traveled from as far away as Idaho, Wyoming and central Alberta for a chance at winning some of the guaranteed $22,000 in prize money.

Others came merely for the pleasure of game, to make new friends, renew their ties with old ones, and to pay tribute to a respected tribal elder who loved to laugh and loved to play stick game

“Stick game and horse racing were his favorite things,” said Forest Calf Boss Ribs of his father, “Bum,” who passed away last October. “He called stick game his second job.”



At its core, stick game is just a guessing game - but it is rich in pageantry, history and cultural tradition.

The game is played with two pairs of “bones;” decorative cylinders small enough to be concealed in the palm of a player’s closed hand. One bone in each pair is marked, the other is plain. The game also includes 11 counting sticks, which are used to keep track of the successful or failed “guesses” of each team.

To start, two teams of two to five players sit facing each other in opposing rows separated by a distance of several feet. One team begins as the “guesser” trying to correctly select in which hand an opposing team member has hidden the plain bone.

Guess correctly and the bones are turned over to the guessing team to hide. Guess incorrectly and the guessing team must hand over one of its sticks to the hiding team. The first team to win all 11 sticks wins the game - and usually some cash that goes along with it.

While the rules are few and relatively simple, the play in hand game is only one component of wide array of activities going on around it. There are complicated head movements, fast hand signals and a constant chorus of drumming and singing.

While the guessing team is choosing which hand to select, the hiding team attempts to distract them with hand and facial gestures. The hiders move their arms erratically - or not at all - accompanied by traditional drumming and singing that fills the hand game arbor with a cacophony of rhythmic yelps, whistles and singing voices.

Hiders not only conceal the bones with their closed hands, but behind their backs, under a cloth or beneath a drum - until the guess is about to be made. Then they hold out their closed hands, still concealing the bones, until the guesser signals which hand he or she believes the plain bone is in.

Both young and old play, and the games can go on well into the night.

“It can go on and on for a number of hours or it could be a 10-minute game,” explained Andy Napoose, who came from a small town outside Edmonton to participate in the tournament, and to spend time with the Calf Boss Ribs family. “It depends on how good the hiders are.”

The stick game is unique in that it spans tribes and generations. The precise origin of the game is unknown, but is has been a part of Native American culture since before the first Europeans reached the western half of North America. That connection to the past makes the stick game far more significant to native peoples than just a form of amusement.

“This stick game has been with first nations people for generations,” Napoose said. “Any Indian Days or powwow you go to, there’s bound to be some stick game going on. It’s what brings all first nations people together, to have a good time and to have fun with the game.”

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Information from: Great Falls Tribune, https://www.greatfallstribune.com

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