Snow Snake, the winter medicine

SIX NATIONS — Last Thursday, the Six Nations Schools District Snow Snake Tournament took place at I.L. Thomas Elementary School after constructing the lane as a community effort.

Youth of all elementary ages and genders were able to partake in competing in the ancestral winter game played traditionally by men of the Haudenosaunee.

On the following Saturday and Sunday, the Six Nations Classic was held at Chiefswood Park which welcomed players for The Schoolboy Challenge for grades 1-8, Men’s Mudcat followed by Third Class, Highschool Boys Long Snake and First Class Mens Long Snake followed by Second Class.

Historically, the game was played by the men after returning home from annual winter hunting trips and the matches allowed them to showcase and improve their athletic ability. Spiritually, the game was played by the men to uplift their spirits and bring a sense of comradery during the long winter months, halting seasonal blues.

To play the game, a lane is built by piling and shaping snow into a trough-like trail with a split down the middle wide enough for a snow snake wiggle through when thrown. The trough usually stands at hip-height and the force used to throw the snake comes from the hand supporting the bottom and following through with a lunge.

Snow snakes themselves are hand-made through a carving process and one end of the snake is curved upward slightly, while the other end is notched to make it easier to toss — they resemble rounded spears. There are also different kinds of snow snakes for different types of snow as to allow the players to overcome packing snow, powdery snow and ice snow. Players can use several kinds of wax coating to help the snakes slide, similar to the wax used on skis and surf boards. While younger players will often use shorter and smaller versions of snakes nicknamed “mudcats” as well.

The objective is for a team to accumulate distance, as each throw is tallied to see which group throws the furthest total distance after a predetermined number of rounds.

For big games, the men would often raise the stakes by placing bets with belongings of value to them which could come in the form of wampum, hides or furs, and many players would come from across the territory to compete.

Much like lacrosse, women were not included in the game as traditionally the game was used by the men as medicine after hunting for long periods. In some areas, women were not even permitted to watch the game. However, for youth games today, both genders are typically allowed to participate to help establish a sense of understanding and respect for the game.

Today, this medicine game is great for reconnecting with old friends and honouring a tradition of the generations before.

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