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Snakes in the snow 

We might think we're professional winterers here in western and upstate New York, as we make the most of the cold, short days with outdoor sports that get our hearts pounding and fill our lungs with fresh air. But this region has a longer history of winter recreation than many of us know. Hundreds of years before Europeans pushed their way in, claiming the terrain that people now ski, skate, and sled, Indigenous people had their own outdoor winter games. It makes sense that folks have never wanted to be cooped up indoors for months on end, but the purpose of some of these games goes beyond simple thrills.

Specific traditional Haudenosaunee games, such as "snowsnake" and "snow boats" — which is like a sledding version of a Pinewood Derby — are shared annually at the Native American Winter Games, held at Ganondagan State Historic Site (7000 County Road 41, Victor). This year, the 17th annual games will be held on Saturday, February 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more info, visit ganondagan.org. Until then, read on to learn a bit about the games.

click to enlarge The contemporary competitive game of snowsnake has its roots in a 500 year old mode of communication between Haudenosaunee villages. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY ALEX HAMER
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY ALEX HAMER
  • The contemporary competitive game of snowsnake has its roots in a 500 year old mode of communication between Haudenosaunee villages.

It's estimated that snowsnake has been played by the Haudenosaunee for more than 500 years. And while it's a fairly simple, competitive game of skill now, the sport began as a means of communication between winter encampments on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario's north and south shores. Warriors were charged with keeping a snowy track clear of debris so a that a long, straight, smooth stick with a message written in charcoal could be slid along the track. When there were no messages to be sent, the warriors kept their skills honed by competing for the farthest slide in the snow track.

Today, teams from different regional nations compete at events during the winter months. In competitive games, snowsnake sticks travel between hundreds of yards to a few miles in less than three minutes, depending on the player's skill. The tracks are made by packing snow in a long mound (taller at the head than the end) and creating a trough in it by sliding a smooth, long and narrow log along the track.

Snowsnake sticks are hand-carved from various hardwoods, such as maple, hickory, or walnut). Two lengths — six-foot long and narrow "gawasa" sticks and three-foot, thicker "mudcat" sticks — are allowed, and each is tipped with molten metal that's shaped and polished into an arrow-like point. A u-shaped indentation is carved in the opposite end to function as a finger-hold, and the stick is finished with shellac. The sticks have different balances and weights, which are chosen by players according to the day's weather conditions and the type of snow available.

click to enlarge PHOTO PROVIDED BY AMY BLUM PR
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY AMY BLUM PR

Snowsnake teams are called "corners." "Shiners" choose a stick and rub wax onto its surface. Each player will then wind up and hurl the stick — with form almost like a javelin-thrower, except aiming lower — along the track. A "marker" stands at the end of the track to mark the distance the stick has traveled. As a stick slows near the end of the track, competitors can get boisterous as then gather to cheer or jeer the last few inches of its journey. Points are awarded to the corner with the farthest-traveling stick each round, and a second point is awarded if the same corner has the second-farthest stick — but if the same team has the top four distances in one round, a 'game out' is called. A team wins when four points have been acquired.

In addition to snowsnake and snow boats, the Native American Winter Games hosts family-friendly activities including meeting sled dogs, watching a dog sled demonstration, and learning how to use snowshoes. And indoors at the Seneca Art & Culture Center, the Allegany River Dancers will demonstrate Iroquois Social Dancing, Ganondagan staff will share winter storytelling, and visitors can participate in raffles, visit the Wampum Learning Center, watch the Iroquois Creation Story film, purchase Iroquois White Corn inspired food, and more. There's a suggested donation of $10 per family and $5 per individual.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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