Originally published by Windspeaker in Vol. 18, Issue 7, 2000
By Pamela Sexsmith, Translated by Norman Moyah Cardinal
It may come as a surprise to some, but traditional warfare is alive and well on the Plains.
Taking a contemporary turn, it has evolved into a grand whoop-up that unfolds, all year round, in the hand game tents.
Hand drums vibrate, voices chant, singers cry out, as seemingly tireless players, energized by the joy of the game, battle on through the day and into night, almost as if their lives depended on it.
"There is a lot of taunting and mind play that goes on in the hand game tents. Working and singing together as a team, they send a clear message. 'Never say die. We are not going to give up. We can produce.'" said Billy Wapass, Jr., champion hand game player from Thunderchild First Nation.
"It is very intense. You have to play to experience the power and strength within the game. Time goes so fast that your mind is nowhere else. No matter how bad your life is going, it shuts out the world, takes you away. That's the healing part of the game, leaving the outside world behind.
"It is also a mind game that goes deeper than words. You are always trying to figure out your opponent, who is always trying to figure you out. If you over-think the game, it can work against you. When I play, I don't think in Cree or in English. I think in the language of the game."
Thirty-three-year-old Wapass comes from a long line of players.
"My 74-year-old uncle, Roy Thunderchild, told me a story from his childhood. The Saulteaux from neighboring reserves would ride over on horses to challenge our tribe at Thunderchild. He can remember them losing everything, the bridles, packs, horses and even the wagons, just to come and play."
His own father, Cree Elder Billy Wapass, Sr., first learned to play with his grandfather, Peter Wapass.
"I grew up watching his generation play. I learned how it was given to us by the spirits, so sacred and powerful that even the sick would get healed from it.
"The game started with the Cree and has spread through North America. We are all part of a big hand game family now. We meet at gatherings throughout the year and shake hands. The wars from the past are over.
"It is totally a guessing game, very joyful. You can drown your sorrows, forget your pain, and get healed all over. It cleanses you in many ways. The origins of the game are a deep secret, very sacred. I am a keeper of the story, of how the hand games were given to us, and have passed it down through my family," said Wapass, Sr.
Billy Wapass, Jr., who calls himself a full-blooded Cree, has been playing since he was old enough to remember. After accepting a traditional gift of white- and rose-colored flags and an offering of tobacco, he shared his family's version of the ancient legend.
"The first time I heard this story, it spoke of a Blackfoot war party that raided one of our camps. After the raid, they went back home, anticipating that the Crees would cross into Blackfoot country and retaliate.
"Back then, you could not step down. They had to cross the Saskatchewan River and when [the Crees] arrived, they were ambushed. Back then, the enemy always left one man alive to tell the story of what had happened during a battle. During this raid, a Cree warrior was hit in the head and severely injured. He was so badly beaten that he only made it back to the river. He was ready to give up when he saw what we call in our language me-megwaysak, which translates as elves.
"He had seen one pop out of the sticks. They had always been in our stories but he didn't know if it was real. The elf disappeared and came back several times. The fourth time the elf appeared he came straight to him and told him that he could help him. He took that Cree man in his hands and carried him down into a deep hole underneath the riverbank where the elves lived. There was a grandmother, grandfather and the wife. They sent for another elfin family to play the hiding game.
"Too sick to move or care, the Cree Indian laid there while two elf families sat on either side of him, singing, chanting and hiding the bones. After they had played for four days, the man became well enough to travel. When he got home to his village, he brought the story and a gift of sticks and bones. That is how we got the healing game, how my father told it to me," said Wapass.
"My grandfather in Frog Lake said that the Cree warrior also brought back a song and since then, we have been making our own songs. I have actually dreamt of a song that I do sing today. We say 'eke opawatama,' that means 'it came to us as a gift in a dream.' I know that this kind of stuff happens because it happened to me. I dreamt my song this winter and sang it when I awoke. I was very surprised when it was given to me. I have a strong sense that I may have earned it by praying and believing in my culture. After hearing me sing it at tournaments, other are now singing my song.
"We like to say that there are winning songs. The more hype you get, the more chances you create for your hiders to pull sticks from their opponents, the purpose behind the drumming, singing, and chanting," said Wapass.
"We also have an honor song given to us that is sung before the beginning of each tournament. In that way we honor the me-megwaysak," he said.
There are subtle variations that occur in the same story in different regions and tribes.
There are 11 sticks in the game and two sets of bones, one striped, one clear.
"The bones used today as game pieces, commemorate the battle. The striped bones represent the fallen warrior and his battle wounds. The clear bones represent the strong warrior, healed and whole, ready to fight again," said Norman Moyah Cardinal.
The king stick is the eleventh stick. The ultimate advantage is gained if you win it.
Each side will try to get as many sticks as they can until they earn 10 sticks. To win a stick, you have to hide the plain bone away from your opponents. When they hit the striped bone, (an unlucky guess) they owe you a stick, and you hide again until they hit both sets of plain bones. It is then your opponents turn to hide until they can get as many sticks as they can. There are a lot of illusions, tricks and sleight of hand used.
If you lose the king stick, many believe that you lose the power that your set possesses.
"When you win the king stick, you get to use your own sticks and the power that comes with them to manipulate your opponents, said Wapass, Jr. "I believe that using elk bones helps me to see through the hands of my opponents when they are hiding. The power of the animal is very strong.
In this fast paced game, players point to indicate their guesses.
"The Cheyenne and Blackfoot point a different direction than the Cree. [The Cree point with a closed upright hand.] The Stoney Indians point with a feather. The Blackfoot point with their thumbs, the Cheyenne with two fingers. North American tournaments are played the Cree way. Some tribes play men against the women," said Wapass Jr.
A game can last from five minutes to more than six hours.
"If you are very peaceful and at one with yourself, you can concentrate better. When you go to a sundance, a sweat or a cultural ceremony, you become one with yourself, feel good about yourself, and that will come out in your game. If you are not feeling good about yourself, that will affect the game and play against you. It helps to be spiritual and stay grounded in your culture.
"To be at one with yourself, you must purify yourself before you play the game. It gives you the power to believe that you can beat your opponent. You must also know how to acknowledge a worthy opponent and show that respect is there. You never give up, keep trying and give the game every respect. The winners always shake the hands of their opponents, a gesture of good faith and sportsmanship," said Wapass.
"Nobody likes to be defeated but you can't carry a lot of bad feelings or take it to the heart. When people leave after a weekend of playing, even after defeat, they don't even remember. They go with good memories of playing the game. That is the healing property. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the game itself. A certain amount of respect goes along with being the victor, because they feel that you know something they don't, or that you are very strong minded and spiritual," said Wapass.
Receiving the teachings and learning the game is something that must be earned.
"If someone shows interest, learns the songs, makes their own hand game set and shows interest and commitment, I will teach them. There are a lot of people interested in learning, but I never tell all. You learn through experience, as well as being told orally. I feel comfortable talking about my experiences, because they are mine," said Wapass.
At a recent tournament at Frog Lake First Nation in Alberta, one of the young men mimicked the head shaking movements of an angry bison.
"That is what we call a signature move, a powerful image of a charging bull," said Wapass. "The player is saying, 'Come and get me.' As Cree people, we have a lot of sign language. With fingers pointing over top of your head, you are saying, 'I am not going to change my game. If you want to get me, you have to come and get me.' The bison is very stubborn and will stand his ground. He will not change his game. It is part of the battle and psychological strategy," said Wapass.
Some will make a movement like a snake or the motion of a bear, moving their hands back and forth. There are many different cultural meanings and expressions of spirituality," said Wapass.
"To show that you are not cheating, you use the open hand gesture, one plain and one striped bone in an open hand. I show the striped one in front because that is the one I want them to pick.
"When I say I respect the game, that means having fun, not getting mad. Once you get into it, it captivates you and you become very focused, caught up in the wave of the game. It is addicting, a good addiction.
Windspeaker is owned and operated by the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, an independent, not-for-profit communications organization.
Each year, Windspeaker.com publishes hundreds of free articles focused on Indigenous peoples, their issues and concerns, and the work they are undertaking to build a better future.
If you support objective, mature and balanced coverage of news relevant to Indigenous peoples, please consider supporting our work. Whatever the amount, it helps keep us going.