Game playing is a pastime enjoyed by most people. Native Americans are no
The origins of many games were with the tribal gods. Because of this, games were
played ceremonially to bring rain, ensure good harvests, cure illness, expel evil spirits, or
give pleasure to the gods by demonstrating physical fitness. Though games are usually
played for fun and pleasure, Native American games also played a role in the education
of children by helping them develop skills necessary to be successful adults.
In general, boys and girls played separately, though they often might play the
same games with variations in the rules. Certain ceremonial games were forbidden to
women, particularly those games which might disrupt the protective powers of hunting
and warfare spirits. In addition to games similar to boy’s games, girls played “house,”
sometimes with miniature tipis or igloos. They also had dolls made from various
materials such as wood, grasses, corn husks, animal skin, or bone. Doll play helped girls
learn the skills of childcare.
Native Americans highly honored skilled athletes just as they honored brave
warriors. Many games played by men and boys served to train them in skills needed for
warfare and/or hunting. These games tested a boy’s skill, dexterity, agility, strength, and
stamina. The Cherokee Indians refer to stickball games as “the little brother of war.”
Children played most of the same games as adults. In addition, they enjoyed
races, tug-of-war, hide and seek, and blind man’s bluff types of games.
Native American games fall into two general categories: games of chance, the
outcome of which depends on luck, and games of skill. Games of chance are played with
sticks, dice, or involved guessing. Skill games require physical and/or mental abilities.
In the past, many games were played with balls made of animal skin stuffed with grass or
hair, or inflated animal bladders.
This kit includes an assortment of games of both skill and chance, plus directions
for variations of running games. There are games suitable for both indoors and outside
play, as well as a variety of group sizes.
Equipment for several players or two teams are included in the kit. Also, there
are directions for simple and inexpensive versions of the games. These could be made at
home or as part of a classroom study.
We suggest that when large numbers of children are using the kit, several stations
be set up and the group divided so everyone would be playing different games but at the
same time. By rotating groups, the children could have an opportunity to learn and play
most or all of the games. Since a variety of games are in the kit, teachers are encouraged
to select the games that best suit their needs.
Since Native American games developed skills, have students identify the skills
that each game they play would develop. Then, have the group discuss ways these skills
would help Native American people of long ago and how the skill could be useful to us
Once widespread, today primarily in the Southwest
Bull roarers are used in ceremonies by the Pueblo Indians to call the Wind Spirits and
bring rain. Children sometimes play with them. Hopi children may only play with them
in the spring when there are no crops in the ground to be harmed should a wind come.
The fear of a wind storm is so great among the Paiute and Apache plains dwellers that
children are forbidden to play with bull roarers.
Equipment: Bull Roarers (also known as Moaning Sticks) consist of a flat stick 5 or 6
inches long with a hole near one end. A cord is tied through the hole on one end and the
other end is attached to a stick serving as a handle.
Play: Grasping the handle, the child whirls the bull roarer over his head. A buzzing
sound should result. Be sure the player has plenty of room with no other children nearby
to avoid contact with the whirling stick.
Ancient cliff dwellers and Pueblo
Any number may play, but each player must have a buzz toy.
Equipment: Buzz toys consist of a flat bone or wooden disk 3” in diameter with two
holes pierced near the center. Two small pieces of wood for handles are attached to a
doubled cord that goes through the 2 holes.
Play: Holding a handle in each hand, the disk is wound by whirling the string until it is
twisted tightly. Then the string is pulled and released alternately causing the disk to
unwind and rewind producing a humming or buzzing sound. Indian children would use
their spinning disk to touch another child’s disk and try to stop it from spinning. When
played this way, the child whose disk is still spinning after others have been stopped is
the winner.
Many tribes across North America
Any number may play. Turns must be taken.
Equipment: A ring or pierced bone, hide, grass, shell or wood, a string and pointed stick
or bone for a handle.
Play: String is tied to pierced object at one end and pointed stick on the other. Player
swings the pierced object or ring up into the air and tries to put the pointed stick through
the hole. Some tribes in Canada play this in the spring because it is believed to hasten the
coming of the sun.
NOTE: Versions of several games like the bean game, bull roarers, and ring and pin are
found all over North America. Anthropologist think this wide distribution is a result of
these being very ancient games rather than the result of contact by tribes in later times.
Klamath (Northwest Coast)
Any number may play. This is traditionally a girls game.
Equipment: None.
Play: Players line up behind a starting line. Taking a deep breath, they run as far as they
can while yelling loudly. When a player runs out of breath he/she must stop and stand
still. The player running the greatest distance before running out of breath wins.
Nootka (Northwest Coast)
Any number may play.
Equipment: None.
Play: Players sit opposite each other in two lines or in pairs. Each tries to make the
opponent laugh. First to succeed, wins.
Chippewa (Northeast Woodlands), Inuit (Arctic)
Any number may play.
Equipment: None.
Play: Game of silence. Last one to speak wins. This is said to be Inuit mothers; favorite
game for children in the winter.
Cherokee (North Carolina & Oklahoma)
Two or more players.
Equipment: A shallow basket (paper plate), seven flat sided beans or peach pits marked
with paint or marker on one side only.
Play: Object of game is to toss and catch beans flipping then from unmarked side up to
marked side up. Before play, decide how many turns each player will take. Players
alternate turns, but scores for each turn are totaled. All 7 beans are placed plain side up
on the bottom of the basket. Holding sides of basket, carefully toss beans up and catch
them trying to flip beans over to marked side during the toss. Count the number of beans
landing marked side up for your score. If any beans fall out of the basket player loses
that turn and gets no score. After all players have taken the designated number of turns
add the individual scores. Highest score wins. Tooth picks or corn kernels can be given
to children as scoring pieces. Each child can count his markers at the end of the game.
This game is good for young children learning to count.
Zuni (New Mexico)
2 or more players
Equipment: One corn cob, flat stone to hold the corn cob, two flat stones to toss. If you
want to form teams, each team should have a set of equipment.
Play: Set the corn cob on end on a large flat stone. Players stand behind a line four feet
away. (As skill improves, players move back to greater distances from the cob.) The flat
stones are tossed toward the corn cob. Player tries to knock over the cob and have the
stone bounce back towards him. If cob is knocked over and stone falls behind where cob
was standing there is no score. If stone knocks over cob and lands even with the cob’s
upright position the player gets another turn. Scoring only occurs when cob is knocked
over and stone lands in front of the cob’s standing position. Player then scores one point.
The number of turns for each player or the winning score is predetermined and the player
with the highest score or first to reach the designated score, wins.
Havasupai (Southwest)
2 to 8 players, usually men
Equipment: 3 flat sticks, 3 inches long, white on one side, red on the other.
Play: Players take turns tossing the dice. Sticks are tossed up to land on flat surface. All
three white sides equal 10 points or counters (tooth picks or corn kernels if used), 2 white
and 1 red equals 2 counters, 2 reds and one white equals 3 counters, and 3 red equals 5
counters. Toothpicks may be used as counters. Highest score wins.
Pueblo (Southwest)
2 teams of even numbers, usually boys
Equipment: 2 sticks, four inches long and one inch in diameter.
Play: Select 2 leaders who then choose sides. The players stand in parallel lines behind
their leaders. A line is drawn in front of the leaders and place the sticks on this line, one
in front of each team. At a given signal, the leaders run forward and kick the sticks as
hard as they can, each one taking the stick in front of his team. The rest of the players
follow, getting into the race by taking their turn at kicking the stick whenever they get a
chance. The players must not pick up the stick at any time. They must kick them out of
any brush or hole that they may get into. Before the race a goal must be decided upon, at
which place the players are to turn homeward. The players must all pass this goal before
they turn about and go in the other direction. If they fail to pass it, they cannot kick the
stick again. The first team to kick its stick back to the starting place is winner.
In the early days, the young men were required to run for many miles every morning to
enable them to become fast runners and strong at bearing heat and cold. Kicking the
stick is one of the games they used for training. Adults usually ran for several miles out
of the village before they started homeward.
Zuni (New Mexico)
6-20 players
Equipment: sticks, five inches long, one for each player and a fist sized ball or stone for
each player.
Play: The players are divided into two sides, facing a goal some thirty feet away. Each
player has a stick of wood and a ball or even a stone the size of a fist, which he knocks
toward the goal with the stick. The side that gets all its balls or stones across the goal line
first wins. Indian children often decorate the sticks by painting or carving them. A track
or circuitous route can be marked out rather than a straight course to the goal. This type
of course would be more challenging to older students.
Zuni (New Mexico)
Any number may play.
Equipment: Corn shuck shuttlecock.
Play: Players try to see who can bounce the shuttlecock off the palm of their hand the
highest number of times. Using the back of the hand presents more of a challenge.
Dakota Sioux (Prairie-Plains)
6-20 players
Equipment: Pieces of cloth or paper large enough to stand upon. One fewer pieces of
cloth than the number of players.
Play: The players form a ring, each one standing on his blanket, which marks his
“owanka,” or place. (The places may be marked by a piece of cloth or paper.) The
places should be about two feet apart. One player without a blanket stands in the center
of the ring. The others constantly change places with one another, while the one in the
center tries to step into a space left vacant for a moment. When he succeeds, the player
displaced must stay in the center until he in turn is able to find a vacant place.
Navajo (Southwest)
2-20 players
Equipment: Vine or wooden ring 4 1/2” in diameter ½ painted white, ½ painted green
and 2 pegs about 12” long. Pegs should be placed in the ground about as far apart as
players can toss the ring.
Play: The players line up and start pitching the rings in turn. The player stands by one
peg and tries to toss the ring close to or over the other peg. If ring falls so white side
touches peg it counts one. If green side touches it counts two. Tossing ring over peg
counts ten. The amount of points necessary to win (say ten) should be decided upon in
advance and may vary with each game.
Pima (Southwest)
12-30 players, usually boys
Equipment: one small pebble
Play: The players are divided into teams and a leader is chosen for each. The teams line
up facing each other a few feet apart. A goal is marked off about fifty yards distant form
the first player on each team. The leader of the team that has first turn walks along
behind his players, carrying a pebble or some small object in his hand. He pretends to
place it in the hand of several players as he passes along, and actually does place it in one
hand. When he reaches the end of the line, the leader of the opposite side guesses which
player had the pebble or object. If he guesses right, he takes the object to hide in the
hands of his team. If he guesses wrong, the player at the far end of the line having the
object runs and jumps over the upheld leg of the man at the head of the line. This moves
his side one man and the length of the jump nearer to the goal. The same leader hides the
pebble once more and the play continues. The team that fools the other team the most
and can jump the greatest distances will reach the goal first and win.
RACES (The 3 races below require no equipment)
Northwest Coast
Play: Players line up behind starting line. At signal they begin to run imitating a bear’s
shuffling gait – place left hand and right foot forward at the same time, then right hand
and left foot forward. The first over the finish line wins; or the one with the best
imitation of a bear may win. Older Children can return to the starting line to make the
race longer and more challenging.
Lesson: Observe ways of nature around you (in this care, the bear’s movements). It also
teaches that speed is not always as important as correct play.
Northwest Coast
Play: Players line up 4 feet apart along the starting line. At a signal, players drop on all
fours and move sideways, crab like, to the finish line. Older children should return to
starting line but not turn around at end of course rather just reverse directions.
Sometimes it is easier to run this way in one direction than the other, so both directions
should be included for older children.
Northwest Coast
Play: Players line up along a starting line. At a signal, they must squat down clasping
their fingers around each leg just above their ankles and hop in this position to the finish
line. If a player falls over but does not let go of his ankles he may continue. Any player
releasing hold of his legs must start over. First over finish line wins.
Arapaho (Prairie-Plains)
2-20 players, usually boys.
Equipment: hoop laced with string (spider web-like) leaving a hole in the center and a
stick, three to four feet long.
Play: The holes in the hoop are named for animals beginning with the center and moving
toward the rim. One player stands at a distance and rolls the hoop by the player with the
stick. That player throws the stick at the hoop trying to pierce the center hole. Each
player has a predetermined number of chances tossing the stick. The player piercing the
center or coming closest to the center the most times wins.
Blackfoot (Prairie-Plains)
2-12 players.
Equipment: 2 small oblong bones, one white, one with a black ring around it.
Play: The players are divided into two sides and seated in two lines opposite one another.
The leader of one side takes the two small oblong bones, one in each hand. The leader
changes the bones from one hand to the other, moving his hands and swaying his body,
trying to make it impossible for his opponents to guess in which hand he holds the
marked bone. If the opposing side guesses right, they win a point. The side guessing
correctly continues to guess until they miss. Then their leader must try to fool the other
team. First team to get 10 points wins the game.
Chippewa (Northeast Woodlands)
2-6 players or 2 even numbered sides
Equipment: Eleven brightly painted sticks and ten counters (tooth picks) for each player.
Play: Players on each side sit facing each other. The leader of the side having first turn
holds up the painted sticks and quickly divides them so that one hand holds five, the other
six. The player opposite quickly guesses which hand holds the odd number of sticks by
tapping that hand. If he guesses correctly each one on his side gets a counter from the
opposite team and the next team member gets to guess. If he guesses incorrectly, his
team must give counters to the opposite team and the sticks pass to him and his team.
Players on each team play in turn at guessing or dividing the sticks. The player or team
with the most counters at the end of a designated time wins.
(Some sample copies are included in resource kit packs.)
BEAN GAME: 18” heavy paper plates with a rim (Chinet) serve well as a basket. Dried
large lima beans may be found in any grocery store. Students might enjoy decorating
their paper plate “baskets” with Native American symbols or motifs.
BULL ROARERS: An adult size tongue depressor (drug stores and craft supply stores)
with a hole drilled near one end will work as the sounding portion of the bull roarer. Any
medium weight string about 18” long can be put through the hole and tied in a knot
leaving a loop. I prefer heavy duty crochet thread (Cro-Sheen) found in variety stores.
No handle is necessary but one can be made from a stick. Symbols pertaining to water
are appropriate for decorating the bull roarers.
BUZZ TOY: Large buttons are successful substitutes for a wooded disk.
RING AND PIN: Paper towel cones may be cut into rings with a hole punched in one
side for the string. Plastic curtain rings (large ones for young children) work well but are
more expensive. Your butcher might be able o get you bone circles from hams or other
meat cuts if you want authenticity. Tie one end of an 18” to 22” string around a stick or
Popsicle stick or tongue depressor and pass the other end through the ring and tie.
CORN COB GAME: Flat stones from a creek or two poker chips glued together make
good throwing stones. A dried corn cob cut flat on one end is easily obtained in the
summer or fall or dry one from a meal at home. The stone for the cob to sit upon is not
STICK DICE: The depressors can be cut in 3” lengths and painted appropriate colors
with magic markers.
STICK COUNTING GAME: Colored unsharpened pencils will work well, especially
with younger children.
BALL RACE: Sticks can be cut from commercial dowels or obtained from the woods.
They do not have to be straight or smooth, just strong. Old, “dead” tennis balls would
work well in this game.
SNATCHING PLACES: Large paper grocery bags could become “blankets” but might
be slippery. Carpet scraps or samples or pieces of foam rubber carpet cushion should
work also.
Craft shops have hoops and rings in various sizes which can be made into gaming pieces.
Hardware stores carry wooden dowels in various diameters which can be cut to specified
lengths for games requiring stakes or pegs.
Lavine, Sigmund A. The Games the Indians Played, Dodd, Mead and Company,
New York, 1974.
Underwood, Thomas Bryan, The Story of the Cherokee People, Cherokee
Publications, Cherokee, NC, 1961.
National Museum of Man, Ottawa, publication “Oracle”
Cat. #R34-2/14-1979.
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