Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 22, 2000 - Issue 08

Games We Love to Play
by Vicki Lockard from various sources

Games are far more than a time of play in Native American cultures. They symbolize the chase, the harvest and other fertility events in nature, important ceremonies, events in the agricultural cycle, war remembrances and preparations and the discovery of probable outcomes of human efforts.

A variety of games are found throughout Native America. Although these games vary in methods, rules and materials used, most Native cultures play many of the games that we'll discuss. These games can be divided into two categories: games of chance and games of dexterity. Games of chance include those in which bones or other objects are thrown much like dice, as well as guessing games during which someone tries to guess where an object has been hidden, such as under a moccasin.

A lot of modern games and sports share a kinship with traditional Native American games, including:

Archery, Lacrosse. Ice Hockey, Field Hockey, Foot Races. Wrestling, Soccer, Kayaking, Canoeing

Children's traditional games include many that are still played:

          • Tops
          • Cat's Cradle
          • Ball Toss
          • Sledding
          • Juggling
          • Bull Roarer
          • Ring and Pin
          • Shuttlecock (like Badminton)

Games and other activities are some of the many ways that traditional Native Americans enjoy and celebrate the magical time of campfires. Flames leap and dance along with the excitement of the circle of people throughout the evening. Games are played, dances danced, stories told. Finally the fire dies down and so does the energy level. Eyelids grow heavy with sleep. It is said that if the stories have been strong and the time shared in other ways around the fire enjoyable, children will have good thoughts as they slide into the land of dreams.

Games For You to Play

Here are some traditional games for you to play. Some require you to make the equipment. Have fun!!!!!!

Tossed Ball:

Toss a large inflated ball into the air in the midst of a group. Players must try to keep the ball in motion up in the air without letting it fall or touch the ground. Traditionally, this game was played with an inflated animal bladder. A lightweight ball, such as a beach ball will do.

Ball Juggling:

Each player keeps from two to four balls (often three) in the air by tossing from hand to hand. Clay or stone balls are used traditionally, roughly 1-2 inches in diameter. Small, round stones from a riverbed work well. Other lightweight rubber balls may be substituted.

Foot Races:

Foot Races are traditionally done at the end of the day after all chores have been finished. Divide the children into groups by age or size and mark off courses of appropriate length for each level. Lay out long- and short-distance races for each group. Players race from the starting point over to and around a tree, rock or other natural turning point and back again.

Cat's Cradle:

This game is found among cultures throughout Native America. The Zuni and Dine peoples of the Southwest say that cat's cradle was taught to human beings by the Spider people, powerful and wise figures in many of their stories.

Cat's cradle is played by using the hands (lips and teeth are allowed, too) to manipulate string into a variety of intricate patterns. It is nearly impossible to write directions on how to play cat's cradle without filling pages with detailed steps. The best way is to learn how to play from someone who knows and share that knowledge with the children. There is an endless variety of forms that can be created, some of which are shown in our printout below.


Tops are traditionally made from wood, bone, stone or clay. They may be plain or painted with designs. Some tops have holes drilled in the sides so that they whistle as they spin. Whip tops are spun off a cord made of sinew or bark that's attached to a long pole. The top is whipped as it spins to keep it going. Peg tops are about 4 inches tall. There are many different designs, all of which involve spinning the top spindle between the thumb and index finger. (see printout).

For simplicity and safety, we recommend that the children use peg tops to play these games:

  • Sit in a circle and have someone spin their top, then quickly run around the outside of the circle and try to get back to their place before the top stops spinning.
  • Spin the tops and see whose top spins the longest.
  • Try to keep the top spinning within a marked circle so that it does not cross the edge.

Ring and Pin:

Make a ring out of a piece of bark, a thick piece of leather, a thin flexible twig bent and tied into the shape of a circle, or some other suitable material (see printout figure C). Depending on how difficult the game is to be, the ring diameter should be between 1.25 inches to 5 inches: the wider, the easier. Use any strong, flexible cord to attach the ring to the stick toward one end. Hold onto the short end of the stick with the ring dangling from the cord. Swing the ring up and forward and try to thrust the far end of the stick through the hole in the ring. One point is usually awarded for each successful catch of the ring, on the stick. Different designs can be made to make the game more interesting for older children. For instance, when playing with the design using two connected rings, two points are earned for catching the ring by the outer hole and four points for catching it through the inner hole.


This game is better for older children. Make the buzz from a round section of a branch about 2 inches thick with two holes drilled about 1/2 inch apart from each other. For balance, each hole must be exactly the same distance from the center. In order to be certain that no pieces will fly off the buzz as it spins, make sure that the bark is removed from the wood and the wood is not cracked. Thread the cord or string as shown in the printout (figure D). Slip your fingers through each end of the loop and spin the buzz around hard until the cord has wound up tight. Quickly pull outward on both ends at once and the buzz will spin around. Keep the buzz going by alternately pulling (each time the cord winds up tight) and relaxing (each time the cord has unwound and begins to unwind). As you relax your hold, bring your hands together a little to allow room for the string to contract as it winds up tight again. With practice, you can keep the buzz turning indefinitely by pulling and relaxing your pull in synchrony with the rhythm of the buzz. The buzz makes a distinct whizzing or "buzzing" sound as it spins.

Print out directions for these games

Find out about more Native American games and toys here:

NativeTech: Games & Toys

back to the What's New page

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