Rez Vignettes: The Friendly Warfare of the Handgame
The Hand Game nearly died out, but now tribal students engage in a contest of guessing and deception. Play the slideshow below to catch all the action.
The Indian hand game is a centuries old guessing game that is still hugely popular among Native Americans. Sometimes called stick or moccasin games, the mental guessing game of intense concentration consumes teams of college and high school students and elders alike across Indian country.
The diverse tribes in North America once played many versions of the game. The contest died out for a time, but in the last 20 years or so, as tribes have worked to revitalize their languages and cultures, the hand game has become popular again.
Teams use a kind of psychological warfare to break their opponents’ concentration as they try to guess the location of a marked stick held by one member of a team. Teams create a hypnotic, unsettling wall of drumming, singing and hand gestures to break the concentration of the opposition. The atmosphere of the hand game is a wild yet controlled aggression, played out with gestures, facial expressions and posturing. Team members work together as if they were one entity.
Centuries ago, the game included wagering for horses or other big-ticket items. Today the game is played primarily for prestige and pride, especially among tribal college students. Tournaments like the ones in the photos above are popular throughout Indian country, frequently held during big get-togethers, such as the annual AIHEC conference, American Indians in Higher Education Consortium conference. AIHEC represents 34 tribal colleges in the U. S. and one in Canada that serve native and rural populations on and near reservations.