August 4, 2007

ancient sla-hal bones identified, also known as the Bone Game or Stick Game


Sla-Hal, Bone Game, or Stick Game are three ways to call a very popular game played amongst Northwestern Indian Tribes. Indian people of all ages have enjoyed gathering and participating in this exciting and traditional game for generations. Since time immemorial, some in the Pacific Northwest tribes say. And now there’s physical proof.

A set of 14,000-year-old rodshaped bones now in the Washington State
Historical Society Museum is evidence that it’s not just a saying, a couple from the
Snoqualmie Tribe say.

The bones, found in the late ’80s with many other artifacts in Douglas
County, are a complete set of sla-hal bones — the oldest found, said Marvin
Kempf of Rockport.

Marvin and his wife, Michele, under the direction of Katherine Barker, a
Snoqualmie Tribe elder and tribal archivist, were preparing Tuesday to
present large photos of the ancient bones at the evening’s Paddle to Lummi cultural

The game, which combines songs, spirituality, intense
competition and guesswork, links today’s tribal members with their ancient
ancestors, the couple says. Tribes throughout the area still play sla-hal,
often calling it the Bone Game or Stick Game.

The object of the game is to correctly guess where certain game bones are located. When our ancestors played the game, the winnings would include clothing, blankets, shawls, horses and buckskin. Today the stakes can be worth thousands of dollars.

The most important part of the “Bone Game” are its pieces. To play, designated “leaders” will need two pairs of bones. Each pair will have one plain bone (female), and one marked bone (male). There will also be ten “tally” sticks and an additional stick that would be known as the “Kick Stick” or “King Stick”. These sticks will be used for keeping score. It is these pieces of the Sla-hal game that give it it’s common names of Bone Game (from the bones) and Stick Game (from the score keeping sticks).

The players sit on the ground or on benches in a straight line formation, each team facing the other. Each side selects a team leader. The leader has the two pairs of bones.

When the leader starts his song, which is accompanied by drumming and the pounding of sticks by each player, the game has begun. He then chooses two people who will hold the two pairs of bones. They will hide their hands behind their back or under scarves and switch the bones around.

The song and drumming continues as the players try to cover and hide the black band around the bones with their fists. The players will do all of this in rhythm with the music. Eventually the leader of the opposing team will motion to the other leader that they are ready to guess the location of the unmarked bones.

He uses a set of hand signals to make his guess. Each time he guesses incorrectly, he must throw one of his score keeping sticks to the opposing team. The “Kick Stick” will be the last stick given up.

When the opposing leader has guessed where both unmarked bones are, the bones will then be given to his team and the game continues as before, with his team hiding the bones.

Once one team has won all of the tally sticks and the final kick stick, the game is finished. The jackpot is then distributed among all the teammates on the winning side. Spectators usually watch while the game is played, many placing side bets on the outcome. A Stick Game can go on for hours and hours, with the scoring sticks passing from one side to the other many times as one team nearly wins, then loses their sticks again to the other side, and back again, before the final stick is won.

Sla-hal, or the Bone or Stick Game, and it’s customary side betting, are an integral part of most northern powwow’s weekend entertainment.

Tribal lore has it that tribes in the Pacific Northwest have
played sla-hal since “time immemorial.” The tradition also became popular with many of the Plains Indian tribes, as well.

“We are still the same people we were 14,000 years ago,” Michele said. “And
we’re playing the same game.”

From wearable art in silver jewelry and woven cedar hats to edible
tradition in smoked salmon, American Indian culture from throughout the
Pacific Northwest and beyond was on display throughout the Stommish Grounds

Some tribes performed songs and dances in a vast white tent near the rocky
beach. Outside, beneath the summer blue sky, vendors sold items that ran
the spectrum from ceremonial to irreverent. Coast Salish artistic motifs
adorned shirts, jewelry and hats. Silver and turquoise squash blossoms and
other Southwestern tribal jewelry was on sale, too. So were reindeer hides,
sweet grass braids and hand drums.

Learning more about the roots of sla-hal would get people closer to their
own tribal roots, said Michele. The game is linked today with high stakes;
winners take home pots of thousands of dollars. But you can hardly tell the
story of how tribes began playing sla-hal, the Kempfs say, without telling how the tribes came to be.

Michele tells it like this:

Animals and humans were fighting it out, and
running out of food. The creator gave humans and animals a game to play —
sla-hal — and decreed that whoever won the game could eat the other from
then on.

But humans were losing, down to their last stick, and beseeched the creator
to take pity on them, Michele said. So the spirit let humans win the game,
and also gave them four laws — to turn away from greed, lust, hate and

“The spirit gave us a gift, to show the people who we are,” she said.

From then on, Michele said, people used sla-hal to settle disputes through
“bloodless war.” The game has also been used in healing, she said.

Researchers who found and studied the bones for nearly thirty years weren’t certain what they were,
Marvin said. Some theorized they were sled runners, he said. But Marvin,
who grew up playing sla-hal, said he held replicas of the bones in his
hands and had a hunch. He asked how many there were — 13, including two
small ones — and he said he knew.

“I could not stop smiling,” he said.

The Kempfs have been traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest to share
photos of the bones with tribal elders, in the traditional way of sharing
such important news. Each shared their own stories about sla-hal and its
origins, Michele said, each one like a small part of a larger story.

But they couldn’t get to everyone, they said, and Barker advised that it
was time to get the word out more quickly. And the Paddle to Lummi event,
with representatives from dozens of Pacific Northwest tribes, seemed like
the perfect place, they said.

“Our elders, when we bring this out, they cry,” Michele said. “It is so
deep inside of them.”

Tribal Games
About Raven SiJohn

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