Recreation and Games

Among the Woodland Indian, games were played not merely for recreation, but also for significant religious reasons: To honor the spirits and to cure the sick.

There were both games of dexterity and games of chance, and betting was also customary. In addition, there were games for children. Later, modern cards and card games were adopted from Whites. Games were played by men, by women, and by the children, but only rarely did the two sexes, as adults, play together.

Wrestling and Kicking

Wrestling was popular with the men, as were foot-racing and bow-shooting, all done in a competitive spirit. Among the Menominee as well as the Ho-Chunk, a rough game called Ato'wi frequently started when a crowd was gathered, and usually deteriorated into a free-for-all fight. Someone shouted “Ato'wi” in a loud voice, and immediately the men began kicking each other on the buttocks as hard as they could, all the while shouting Ato'wi. The object was to see who could keep their temper best and for the longest time.

Moccasin Game

The moccasin game was played by men, and wagers were invariably placed by those watching the game. Four men (some tribes used five, others eight) sat on opposite sides of a blanket. Nearby was a drummer (for the Menominee) or a drummer for each player (among the Ojibwe). There were special songs for the moccasin game, and the drummer sang and played a tambourine drum. The equipment consisted of four tokens, one of which was marked, four moccasins or small pieces of decorated cloth, and sticks for counters. The object was to hide the tokens under the moccasins, in full sight of the opponents, who then had to guess which moccasin concealed the marked token. There were many pretenses of hiding and removing them, so that one's opponent found it difficult to accurately guess where the marked token was hidden. Four attempts were allowed, and then the next player had a turn. The Potawatomi used just one token with four moccasins. The Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee used a "striking stick" to turn over the moccasin thought to hide the token. When neighboring tribes visited each other, the players were usually chosen from opposing tribes. Early White settlers, who also enjoyed gambling, adopted the game so zealously that in Indiana, a statute expressly forbade gambling at the moccasin game and other gambling games and stiff fines were set.

The Hand Game

The hand game was another guessing game, which consisted of hiding two small objects in the hands of the players. The opponent was to guess the correct hands in which the objects were hidden, for any number could play. Fairly small articles were used: a horseshoe nail wound with string or a pebble sewn into a piece of cloth. Sharpened sticks were thrust into the ground to keep score.

Double Ball

The double ball game, played only by the women, somewhat resembled lacrosse. The double ball was composed of two small, oblong deerskin bags joined together by an eight-inch deerskin thong. The Potawatomi played with five on a side, each woman equipped with a straight stick three or four feet long. The Ojibwe, however, had many more players on a side, and each one used a pair of sticks with slight curves at the striking ends. The object was to hit the opponent's goal, the goal posts being about 300 feet from each other. As in lacrosse, the goalies endeavored to protect their own goal. The double ball was thrown into the center of the field, and points were scored when a player finally hit the opposing goal with her two sticks (or stick) or with the double ball. This game was for sturdy women who could run swiftly. Individual’s sticks had identifying marks of paint and colored ribbons. Among the Potawatomi women, it was played much like lacrosse, with sponsors who called and started the game and furnished prizes but did not play themselves. The men spectators yelled and whooped when a goal was scored, and the woman winning a prize would give it to a spectator (very possibly her cross-uncle), who was obliged to return a gift of equal value at a later time.


The dice game was played mostly by women in winter, in place of double ball. The game was sponsored by a woman to honor her guardian spirit, and the ceremonial preliminaries were similar to those of double ball and lacrosse.

Among the Potawatomi, after a feast, a blanket was spread out on the floor, and the women divided into two teams and sat facing each other, each side in a semicircle. Any number of women could play, but there were only four prizes, usually lengths of cloth in various colors. The gaming equipment consisted of a wooden bowl and eight dice. Six of the dice were thin circular disks; one was carved in the form of a turtle, and one represented a horse's head. They were formerly made of buffalo rib, but horse ribs were common in later times. One surface of each die was colored blue or sometimes red, and the other was left white. The bowl was held with both hands and the dice were shaken to the far side of the bowl. Then the bowl was given one flip and set on the floor and the score was counted, as follows:

All of similar color except 2: 1 point

All of similar color except 1: 3 points

All of similar color except turtle: 5 points

All of similar color except horse: 10 points

All of similar color: 8 points

All of similar color except turtle and horse: 10 points

The scoring varied according to each tribe, and each woman kept her own score using beans in front of her. Each woman shook until she missed twice and then passed the bowl in clockwise rotation. The first to score ten points won the game, and her prize-a piece of yard goods-was given to one of the men spectators, who in turn was obliged to reciprocate with a gift of equal value in the future.

Cup and Pin

The cup and pin game is one of the oldest and most widespread games in North America and had several names: bone game; cup and pin; and ring and pin. It was played by both men and women. Ten deer dewclaws or deer toe bones were strung on a narrow piece of deer hide. At one end was an oval piece of leather with small holes, 25 in some cases, and at the other end was a long needle of bone or wood. During later times, a brass thimble replaced the bone next to the leather, and a darning needle was substituted for the bone needle.

The rules varied, but among the Ojibwe, many people could play and were divided into two teams. Together, they decided how many points would make a game and how many points would be given for the most difficult play, which was catching the bone or thimble closest to the pin. Each player continued as long as he continued to score, passing the cup and pin to his opponents when he failed. To play, each person held the needle and swung the string of bones forward to catch one or more of the bones on the needle, the object being to hold a number of bones on the needle. Each bone counted as one point, and if all the bones were caught, that player scored ten points. To catch the piece of leather scored as many points as there were holes in the leather. As players scored points, the total score was shouted by all the players. The total number of games won was indicated by sticks placed upright in the ground.

Snow Snake

Snow snake was played in winter by men and boys on the frozen lakes or in long grooves made in the snow. The snow snake was a hardwood stick two to six feet long and a half to three-quarters inch thick. The stick had a slightly bulbous end that resembled the head of a snake, with eyes traced on it and a crosscut to mark the mouth. The entire stick was carefully smoothed. With his forefinger, a man would hold the tapered end lightly, his thumb on one side, while he balanced it with his other hand. He took a short run, then bent and flipped the snake so it would race along the top of the ice or snow. Wagers were made on whose snake could travel the farthest. Snow snake is no longer played by the Indians of the western Great Lakes, but is still popular among the Iroquois. Their snakes were longer -- from four to eight feet -- and are also polished, waxed, and weighted with lead at the head end to gain distance. The Iroquois prepared a snow ramp, which gave additional speed at the release. By dragging a log through the snow, they pressed down a track that was sometimes a mile long.

Children's Games

In addition to the girls' dolls and the boys' bows and arrows, the children learned all the games mentioned at an early age. In addition, they had a few of their own games. They played a game similar to cup and pin which required less dexterity, using a pointed stick and a bunch of grass tied to an end of a short string or cord. Another simple game was the hoop game, which was simply a birchbark hoop which the children rolled around. Mothers would encourage their youngsters to roll these hoops just before dark so they would tire and sleep well. Another game consisted of a small ring fashioned from a leg bone of an animal, and a sharp metal point set in a wooden handle. The ring was set on the ground and the awl that was thrown toward it, the purpose being to stand the awl upright inside the ring.