Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Amusements of the North American Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



When not bound down by stern necessity, the Indian at home was occupied much of the time with dancing, feasting, gaming, and story-telling. Though most of the dances were religious or otherwise ceremonial in character, there were some which had no other purpose than that of social pleasure. They might take place in the day or the night, be general or confined to particular societies, and usually were accompanied with the drum or other musical instrument to accentuate the song. The rattle was perhaps invariably used only in ceremonial dances. Many dances were of pantomimic or dramatic character, and the [Inuit] had regular pantomime plays, though evidently due to Indian influence. The giving of presents was often a feature of the dance, as was betting of all athletic contests and ordinary games. The amusements of the [Inuit] and extreme northern tribes were chiefly athletic, such as racing, wrestling, throwing of heavy stones, and tossing in a blanket. From Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the border of the plains, the great athletic game was the ball play, now adopted among civilized games under the name of la crosse . In the N. it was played with one racket, and in the S. with two. Athletes were regularly trained for this game, and competitions were frequently inter-tribal. The wheel-and-stick game in one form or another was well-nigh universal. AS played in the E. one gamester rolled forward a stone disc, or wheel, while his opponent slid after it a stick curved at one end in such a way that the wheel, when it fell to the ground, rested within the crook of the stick. On the plains and in the S. W. a wooden wheel, frequently netted, took the place of the stone disk. Like most Indian institutions, the game often had a symbolic significance in connection with a sun myth. A sacred variant of the game was played by the priests for divinatory purposes, or even as a sort of votive ceremony to procure the recovery of a patient. Target practice with arrows, knives, or hatchets, thrown from the hand, as well as with the bow or rifle, was also universal among the warriors and boys of the various tribes. The gaming arrows were of special design and ornamentation, and the game itself had often a symbolic purpose. Horse races, frequently inter-tribal, were prominent amusements, especially on the plains, during the warm season, and foot races, often elaborately ceremonial in character, were common among the sedentary agricultural tribes, particularly the Pueblos and the Wichita.


Games resembling dice and bunt-the-button were found everywhere and were played by both sexes alike, particularly in the tipi or the wigwam during the long winter nights. The dice, or their equivalents, were of stone, bone, fruit seeds, shell, wood, or reed, variously shaped and marked. They were thrown from the hand or from a small basket or wooden bowl. One form, the awl game, confined to the women, was played around a blanket, which had various tally marks along the border for marking the progress of the game. The bunt-the-button games were usually accompanied with songs and rhythmic movements of the hands and body, intended to confuse the parties whose task was to guess the location of the button. Investigations by Culin show a close correspondence between these Indian games and those of China, Japan Korea, and northern Asia.


Special women's games were shinny, football, and the deer-foot game, besides the awl game already noted. In football the main object was to keep the ball in the air as long as possible by kicking it upward. The deer-foot game was played, sometimes also by men with a number of perforated bones from a deer's foot strung upon a beaded cord, having a needle at one end. The purpose was to toss the bones in such a way as to catch a particular one upon the end of the needle.


Among the children there were target shooting, stilts, slings, and tops for the boys, and buckskin dolls and playing-house for the girls, with "wolf" or "catcher," and various forfeit plays, including a breath-holding test. Cats'­cradles, or string figures, as well as shuttlecocks and buzzes, were common. As among [other] nations, the children found the greatest delight in imitating the occupations of the elders. Numerous references to amusements among the various tribes maybe found through­out the annual reports of the Bureau of Amer­ican Ethnology. Consult especially games of the American Indians, by Stewart Culin, 24th Rep. B. A. E., 1905.

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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 21-22.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College