Native American games you can play with your children

November is when school children typically learn about the history of Thanksgiving in the United States, often accompanied by a unit of study about Native Americans.

When our daughter was a 2nd grader she participated in a program sponsored by Texas Parks & Wildlife in which she researched and developed Native American games of Texas and then taught them to her class. Below are some of the games she learned that can be played by children and families.

Moccasin Game

The moccasin game is the most common guessing game in all of the North American tribes. Another name for this game is “Hidden Ball Game.” The Apache played this game only in winter and only at night. Songs and ceremony went with the game. The Apache believed that if someone sang the moccasin game song at any time other than a winter night they would be bit by a rattlesnake. An Apache myth is that the moccasin game was played a the beginning of the world with day-hunting animals against night-hunting. The winning team would decide if there would be sunlight or darkness. Since there was a tie, they agreed to have both.

There are many variations of this game because it was not written down. Most Plains Indians played it with two teams sitting on a blanket facing each other. The first team hid a small object in one of four moccasins while the other team looked away. Then the second team tried to guess where the object was hidden and touched that moccasin with a long stick. When the Comanche touched the moccasin with the stick he said “Tsoq!” which meant “that.”

There was a pile of tally sticks or other counters (like dried bones, pebbles, or beans) between the two teams.

  • If the first guess was correct, the guessing team took 10 sticks.
  • If they needed two guesses, they got 6 sticks for their team.
  • If they needed 3 tries, they took 4 sticks.
  • If it took all 4 tries to guess correctly, they didn’t get any sticks.

When the sticks in the pile were gone, players could take from the other team. Play continued back and forth until all the sticks were won.

To simplify play, award 3 sticks if the first guess is right, 2 sticks if two guesses are needed, 1 stick for three guesses, and no sticks if all four guesses are used to find the hidden object.

Corncob Dart Game

Since many of the Indians of Texas were hunters, their games often taught skills used in hunting. One example of a game of skill is the dart game. The Kiowa and other Plains Indians made darts out of short pieces of buffalo rib bone or corncobs with feathers stuck in one end.

To play, lay a hoop in the grass ten feet away from where you stand. (We covered a hula hoop with natural rafia.) Then try to throw a dart into the hoop. Alternate between two players or two teams. You can paint one end of each corncob so you can tell the teams apart. A player scores one point only when he gets a dart inside the hoop and his opponent doesn’t. Play continues until one team scores ten points.

Another game of skill is to try to throw the darts through a hoop as another player rolls the hoop in front of you.

Basket Dice Game

This is a game of chance played with two-sided dice. The objects used could be peach pits, flat sticks, stones, or bones with the sides of the dice distinguished by color or markings. There was no law about how the markings were made. Each village had its own markings and each tribe had its own rules for scoring. Some variation of the game was played by almost every tribe in North America, including the Plains Indians of Texas. It was usually played by women and children.

The dice were tossed up into the air and caught in a shallow basket. When played with four dice, scoring is like this:

  • 4 face up: 5 points
  • 4 face down: 5 points
  • 1 face up, 3 face down: 1 point
  • 3 face up, 1 face down: 1 point
  • 2 face up, 2 face down: 0 points
  • Dropped any: 0 points

After each toss, the player takes the right number of counters (beans, bones, sticks or pebbles) from a pile. As long as a player scores points, he keeps his turn and tosses again. If dice land with 2 up and 2 down or the player drops any of the dice, his turn is over and play passes to the other team.

When the pile of counters is gone, players take counters away from each other. Play continues until one team has all the counters.

Another version of this game is to give each player a small (3-oz.) cup and play with counters that are nearly identical in size such as Lima beans. As each player scores points, he puts that number of beans into his cup. The player who fills his cup first is the winner.

Dewcloth Painting

Children can draw or paint Native American symbols on a long sheet of brown carpenter paper. Or using symbols, let children tell a story. You can paint symbols with food coloring on the rims of sturdy paper plates and enjoy a snack of berries, pemmican, and corn chips.

Grown men can learn from very little children for the hearts of the little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss. 

Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Sioux

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