HomePublicationsThe Tracker MagazineVol 3, No. 1, First Quarter 1984

The Tracker Magazine - Vol 3 No. 1, 1st Quarter, 1984

Sla-Hal or Bone Game or Stick Game
By Mac Oreiro, Lummi and Al Moser

There are many versions of how the stick games were given to "the old ones" by the Great Spirit, because each clan and tribe views the Great Spirit and the animals from different perspectives. The games are known by'a number of names, but basically they were similar in technique and rules, and a hand drum was used for the gaming chants and songs. The following is one version of the Sla-Hal legend.

Long, long ago, before man or any human being walked the earth, the Great Spirit created a man and He did not know where man should be placed in the universe. He made a trip to earth and thought this would be a good place to leave him, so He called to all the Great Animal People to build a council fire and to gather all the Great Animal Chiefs together. The Great Spirit began telling about this new thing He had made called "man", and He told the Animal Chiefs He did not know where to place man. The problem was that there were, and still are, two types of animals - the "night" animals and the "day" animals. What had happened was that the Great Spirit had made so many animals that they could neither walk the earth all at once nor live in harmony with each other. So the Great Spirit in His wise thinking made some of the animals walk, hunt, and play only when there was daylight, and others, the night creatures, that would roam the earth for food only during the night when Grandfather moon would be watching the earth.

Well, the animals started asking the Great Spirit all about this new thing man. What good is this thing for? How does it move? What does it eat? Then one of the animals asked whether it was a day animal or a night animal. One of the animals spoke up and said "Oh, it's a night creature". Another animal said, "Oh, no, it's a daytime creature". Then all the animals said that they wanted to be friends with man and they all started to quarrel amongst themselves. The Great Spirit did not like this happening, but he did not know what to do. He could not have the day and night animals fighting like this. He thought and he thought, and while he was thinking, the animals began to quiet down around the Great Council Fire. "I have an idea," said the Great Spirit. "I really don't know where to place this new thing called "man" so I'll have you day and night animals play a game, and the winners will have the new thing called "man". So the Sla-Hal (bone or stick) game came into the lives of the "old ones" and is played even to this day.

The bone game is a contest of dexterity, strength, and intuitive feelings which comprise an important part of Native American community life which has its roots deep in the past. When guests arrive from up and down the coast for a potlatch at any encampment or reservation, the entertainment would begin. During the daytime part of the entertainment would be team games such as "shinny" (a form of field hockey), tug-of-war, races, target shooting, and wrestling by hair pulling or bear hugging. In the evenings, groups would gather around the fire for more formal gaming, which might involve high stakes gambling. It was important, and still is, for players to have the aid of their Guardian Spirit Powers or Tamanawis, because such games became only a matter of chance or luck if the players' powers refused t help. The games might go on for days and there are stories on the coast of players, in the heat of the mood, gambling themselves and their families into slavery.

A number of these games are still played at Indian gatherings throughout the West coast, the Great Northern Plains, British Columbia, and Alaska. One of the bone, stick, or Sla-Hal games is described below. It can be played by either individuals or teams. The game is accompanied by a rhythm beaten out on skin hand drums or on drumming planks. Players and onlookers regale the opposing team with taunts and jeers and chanted gambling songs that are noisy and animated.

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The actual game is a variation of the old shell game using plain (female) and marked (male) bones which are hidden in the hands, and employing a quantity of sticks to keep score. The object of the game is to win all the sticks by guessing in which hand the opponent is hiding the unmarked bones (which gives the choosing team a turn at hiding the bones) and then keeping the opponents from guessing in which hand the unmarked bone is hidden. For each wrong guess, the guesser must give a point stick to the hider's team. The game may be played with seven to thirteen or more point sticks and in team play two sets of bones are used. Teams line up facing each other with the team captain in the middle and the other guesser team members on each side of him. An extra stick or "kicker stick" is given to the side winning a preliminary guess to see which team goes first (hides the bones first). Usually each team uses five point sticks, which has become standard during contemporary times.

The captain of the team controlling the bones usually passes one set to a teammate on his right and one set to a team member on his left - he does not hide them himself, and during the course of a game manv different people are chosen to hide the bones. Hiders place their hands and the bones out of sight under a coat, shawl, blanket, mat, or place their hands behind their backs, making certain the other team cannot see which bone is in which hand. The hands are then brought out with the bones concealed in them and the guesser's chosing team must then simultaneously guess in which hand each hider has the plain bones. Guesses are shown by a hand signal accompanied by a nod and a sound like "HO" (without the nod it amounts to a tricky ploy to check the hider's reactions). If the guesser correctly guesses the location of both plain bones ("hits" both), he receives both sets of bones and it becomes the team's turn to hide the bones. No point sticks change hands. If he "hits" one, he receives that set of bones but the set he guessed incorrectly ("missed") will be hidden again, and he must pass over one of his team's point sticks to the hiding team. He continues to guess for that set of bones (and passes over a point stick each time he misses) until he gains control of both sets, and then it becomes his team's turn to hide the bones. Should the guesser miss both sets, he must give over two point sticks and both sets are hidden again. The game continues until one team wins, by controlling all the point sticks and the kicker stick.

Bets are made before the beginning of the game, each team collecting an equal sum of money to place on the entire game. Team bets can amount to several thousand dollars and individual bets may be made on each guess as well. Individual bets are made by holding up a bill and catching the eye of someone on the other team, who nods if the bet is acceptable. When two people are hiding the bones, the bettor must indicate which hider the bet is on by a right or left movement of the head. These bets are collected after each guess.

The side which is hiding chants, drums, sings, and attempts to interrupt and distract the guesser and his Spirit Powers. The guesser may also make numerous preliminary guess-like motions or fake guesses, without nodding so as to check the reactions and attentiveness of the hiders. It takes a poker face to be a hider and much concentration to be a chooser. The games are noisy and animated. Knowing even the basics of the Sla-Hal game, a novice can enjoy the excitement of the game, whether it is a spontaneous or "tournament" bone game.

A word of warning, the games can be very lengthy and tense, but do not get too carried away with betting; bead, leather, and money bets are fine, but the neighbors talk if spouses and children are gambled into bondage.

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