Snow Snake, a Haudenosaunee Sport Steeped in Tradition
By Carol White Llewellyn
The Haudenosaunee Tradition of Snow Snake
The challenging and competitive game of Snow Snake has been part of Native North American culture for hundreds of years. Although some estimate the game to be about 500 years old, according to Ganondagan Site Interpreter Michael Galban (Washoe/Paiute), the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) oral tradition marks its origins in the Pre-Columbian times before Europeans arrived on the North American continent. Although the Snow Snake was once used as means of communicating among villages during the winter, it also became a local community sport during the long winters when the track was not occupied in the relay of messages.
"In some Native communities, the game of Snow Snake disappeared almost completely and is now being brought back," shares Galban. "Among the Haudenosaunee, the game has a continuous tradition of being played, so they've never had to reinvent the game."
Within the Iroquois culture, Snow Snake is a man's sport and women do not attend or participate in the tournaments. With the advent of reliable automobiles, local sporting activities turned into cross-regional competitions. Now, tournaments take place most weekends as soon as weather conditions allow a tournament winners come away with trophies or often, monetary prizes.
About the Game
The game is typically played by four teams, or "Corners," of men (or boys) and each
team is allowed four throws per round. Team member throw the snake down a trough about
5" deep, made of snow. On the thrower's end, the trough is built up to 32" in height. It gradually inclines until it is running along the ground. Whoever makes the longest throw gets two points. The person with the second longest throw receives one point. Throws have been recorded as traveling more than 1 miles in less than three minutes and at speeds clocked by Sports Illustrated as reaching 108 miles per hour in the first mile.
The team that gets to the set number of points first - normally 7 or 10 - wins. Michael explained that there is also another version of the game that uses a pin on a short track. The team that achieves the set number of points by getting their snakes closest to, without passing the pin, wins.
Snow Snake can also be played in a ceremonial context.
Throwers, Shiners and Creating the Snakes
In the game of Snow Snake, there are "Throwers" and "Shiners."
Although those who throw the Snow Snake - the "Throwers"- score the points and must therefore be strong and adept, the function of the "Shiner" is critical. The Shiner is the man who crafts, maintains and ultimately selects which Snow Snake will be used, taking weather conditions, track length, terrain, snow consistency and the Thrower into account
Fred Kennedy, a Seneca Elder and Medicine Man, is both a Thrower and a Shiner.
"I went to my first game of Snow Snake when I was about 12 and I started going a lot. Eventually I started carving. It's a family tradition - my Grandmother was a carver."
Fred carves his Mud cats (the 3' version of a Snow Snake) and Snow Snakes (which are about 7' in length) out of North American hardwoods such as hickory, oak, maple, june berry and apple, but an increasing number of those who buy snow snakes are requesting exotic hardwoods from other countries.
"I've been getting requests for snow snakes out of ebony, which can be tricky to carve," explained Fred. "I've probably carved somewhere between 2000 and 3000 snakes and they've gone all over the world."
When possible, Fred harvests the wood himself after the trees go dormant, starting with a pole that is a 1" square block in diameter. Once he carves, sands and polishes the wood, always working with the grain to bring out the fastest speed, he shellacs the snake, then adds a pointed pewter tip. Historically, the tip would have been fire hardened and burnished, but metal offers additional protection against damage. Although some makers put a mark on the stick itself, Fred's concern about weakening the wood leads him to put his "maker's mark" on the pewter tip. Each year's tip bears a different character to differentiate one year's model from that of another year. It takes him anywhere from one hour to two days to carve a snow snake.
"When I get a large order, I just lock myself away until they're done," he explained.
Fred carves each snake with track conditions in mind. An ice stick is one of the heaviest sticks. For old or frozen snow, he carves one somewhat lighter than for ice. For fresh snow conditions, the snake would be much lighter.
As the Shiner, Fred takes a large selection of snow snakes to tournaments in order to have the broadest selection from which to choose.
Following each tournament, he takes the snakes home, removes the finish with denatured alcohol to eliminate any effect from moisture buildup, and then refinishes them. It takes him a full week to prepare the snakes for the following weekend's tournament. The final step is the "medicine" or wax that he applies to the snakes, making careful selection based on weather, and track conditions
"I can't give away my medicine secrets," confides Fred, "but many people are buying poly-carbon ski wax from Japan and New Zealand that costs thousands. My snakes can still beat them," he adds with pride.
"When I was both a Thrower and a Shiner, I had one long three year stretch of winning," mentions Fred, explaining how his reputation for creating snow snakes grew.
Taking up the Game
Although it is possible for men to take up snow snake at any age, the most successful throwers typically start as youths.
Peter Jemison (Heron Clan, Seneca), Site Manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site, spoke about his experience with Snow Snake.
"I was introduced to the Snow Snake when I was about 15, but I didn't really learn about it until I returned to Cattaraugus as an adult to run the education program sponsored by the Seneca Nation of Indians."
"It's a very difficult game to play and different than other games. The ground is often slippery, making it hard to keep your footing as you take the steps. Some throwers wear spikes and others use leather soles to leverage the slide. You need maximum power, but you also have to keep the snake in the trough, which can be hard even for experienced players. Most successful throwers took up the game when they were children."
"I inherited my Snow Snake collection from my father and have added to it over the years," Peter shares.
All three men agree that the most valuable and desirable snow snakes are those that have seen many tournaments, often passed down from one generation to the next in a family.
The Snow Snake has been one of the featured, favorite activities at Ganondagan's Winter Games & Sports over the past number of years.
"It's very unusual for someone who is not part of the Native community to have the opportunity to witness the Snow Snake being thrown by practitioners," explained Michael Galban. "For this event, we open it up and everyone is invited to try it."
For a rare opportunity to try your hand at the game of Snow Snake, join us for the Ganondagan Native American Winter Games & Sports. For more details and a full schedule of Event activities, visit our Winter Games webpage.
Nya:weh to Michael Galban, Fred Kennedy and Peter Jemison for their invaluable consultation and insights.