First Elementary Snow Snake Tournament in three years

First Elementary Snow Snake Tournament in three years
By Chezney Martin

SIX NATIONS – Elementary Schools from Six Nations came together to participate in the day-long feat of playing snow snake on Tuesday, February 13, after the game was put on hold for three seasons.

Dave Sowden, a Gr. 7 teacher from Oliver. M. Smith Elementary School (O.M.), explained that he took on the role of a coach to offer experience.

“This is the first tournament we’ve had in three years,” said Sowden.

“I’ve thrown before, but it’s been a while,” he said. “I played with the Porters for a little while, like a few seasons. But it’s winter-time so nobody ever wants to take the time because you gotta be outside in the cold, so I’ve looked after it at O.M..”

Snow snake was also a part of Culture Day at O.M., and Sowden explained that the number of students that tried out reached over a hundred.

“Our track was built two weeks ago so we practised this week and picked from 150 kids from our school to play,” he said. “We didn’t want to say no to anybody and give everybody a chance.”

“But it’s good to have that many people trying it,” he said.

The traditional game of snow snake or “throw” is played with spear-like “snakes” made from solid wood that can be up to six feet in length. The snakes are then thrown down a trough made from piled and packed snow in the shape of a ramp that serves as a track, with the aim of the game being to make the snake go the furthest on the track. For this tournament in particular, the youth used smaller three foot versions of the snow snakes nicknamed “mud-cats.”

Enduring the cold, maintaining form and dealing with possibly missing the track completely makes the game both one of patience and diligence and was traditionally only played by men.

Serving as the convener for the tournament, Teacher Assistant from Kawenni:io/Gaweniyo Elementary School Alex Henry explained that his experience with the game began when he was about three years-old.

“I’ve played snow snake my whole life,” said Henry. “It takes a lot of practice but it’s just like throwing a baseball.”

Rather than playing this time, Henry served as a coordinator throughout the day and also helped in making the track. For the track, he said that it took two days to make because only three men including himself made the track.

“If you have good help it’ll take maybe a few hours, but if it’s just one person or two it could take about two days,” he said.

The track on the grounds looked as though it could be measured in metres, but Henry explained that the length of tracks can vary greatly.

“It all depends on how far you want to go,” he said. “So when we go play, the track will be longer than three lacrosse fields and that’s not a minimum. They can stretch out longer and longer, it just depends on how the snow is and how warm it is too.”

When the tracks are made, the snow is piled so that the track descends from a three to four foot peak and gradually lowers itself to the contour of the land in a slope, just like any ramp. A lot of effort is also put into dragging a log down and up the track to give a hard surface for the snakes to glide down.

Some of the cultural aspects that Henry could note were that the game was specifically played by men, and was used as a source of fun during the winter months.

“This is a tradition, it’s not a sport,” he said. “It was given to our people as a game to bring enjoyment and lift up peoples spirits.”

“People wanted to have it for enjoyment and later down the road it became a feast and now people belong to it and it helps them to become who they are.”

As the tournament was for elementary school participation and not ceremonial or otherwise, Henry noted that as the convenor he allowed both genders to take part.

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