EAGLE’S NEST – The Seneca call it ‘Gawa:sa’, but the origins and histories of the “snowsnake” game are as varied as the original people of northern Turtle Island (North America) who have played it since long before European contact.
It is commonly believed that the Haudenosaunee winter diversion first started with the Seneca Nation when men from nearby villages would come together to show off their skills as “throwers” and “shiners” in friendly competition. Others say it was a game developed to perfect and strengthen spear-throwing techniques for hunting, fishing and war.
Early European observers record that the straight stick with a weighted end was thrown on the ice of long frozen rivers and lakes, some skidding along more than a mile before stopping. Snow troughs were added to keep the snake on course, and over the past 100 years or so, the higher built track was added.
That, too, has become an art as faster, straighter and smoother runs made of snow and ice ensure a good throw where a well made and prepared snake will travel its maximum distance. The good track is built using the same science as found in a Roman aqueduct, with the track sloped ever-so-slightly in a downward grade over a long distance to keep the snake moving with minimal resistance. The rut the snake travels in is formed with a log, usually about 4-5 inches in diameter, which is dragged along the track several times to create a smooth and straight course.
Experienced throwers will have several snakes geared to particular weather, snow and track conditions.
Family secrets abound in this sport, as decades of trial and error in finding the right kinds of wood, grains, shape, balance and weight are passed down from generation to generation. Today, most snakes are made of hardwoods like hickory, black walnut, cherry or ironwood.
But as seasoned throwers will tell you, a snowsnake is only as good as its hawnz’o’gds, or “shiner.” The shiner prepares the snake with special, and carefully guarded, waxes and oil compounds. These specific recipes are rarely shared with others to keep their team’s competitive edge. The hawnz’o’gds is the keeper of the snakes and rubs them dry after each throw and protects them in skin sheaths between competitions.
A championship snake could take as long as eight or nine years to “mature” as the waxes and various oils settle into the wood itself. Some serious makers soak the wood for a year in oils before ever being thrown.
Although in ages past, several different shapes and sizes of snowsnake were used in competition by different Nations as the tradition spread, there are two basic types of snow snake being used these days. The Longsnake is between seven and nine feet long, while the smaller and thicker Mudcat is three feet in length. Both have lead tips for weight and to protect the snake from splitting. At the throwing end, there is notch where the thrower places his finger for maximum control and power.
Early missionaries tried to discourage the game because of the common practice of gambling associated with it, but to no avail. Even then it was too much enshrined in the culture to eradicate completely.
The Woodland Cultural Museum hosts its annual snowsnake competition this coming weekend, Jan. 31st and Feb. 1st, snow permitting.