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When Everybody Called Me Gah-bay-bi-nayss,
"Forever-Flying-Bird":
An Ethnographic Biography of
Paul Peter Buffalo

Timothy G. Roufs
University of Minnesota Duluth

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15

Moccasin Game Gambling

Whenever we got together with other Indians in years back the men played moccasin game, and the women and the children enjoyed listening to them and watching them play. Years ago some people even went without meals to play moccasin games. We call it b^ss-kway-gI'n-áa^-taa$-gay, that's "he bets, on the moccasin." These moccasin games were quite a game, and were very interesting. In my time the old people were great gamblers and they generally would bet on anything, but especially on the moccasin game.

Playing moccasin game, 1880

Playing moccasin game.
Creator: J. H. Hamilton
Photograph Collection, Stereograph, 1880
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E99.38 r6 Negative No. 52399


We used to play the moccasin game over and over. It's a game where one group hides a ball, or something like a ball, and the other guys try to find it. One group would challenge one another. Most generally we'd have a bet on one group too. Moccasin games were neighborly. Another group would come into our camp as a neighbor, and they'd bet whatever they had: guns, horses, canoes, blankets, anything maybe. Why they gave away shotguns and everything. Hooh boy!! They were great gamblers.

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Chippewa Indians at Mille Lacs playing moccasin game, 1885

Chippewa Indians at Mille Lacs playing moccasin game.
Photograph Collection, 1885
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 p1 Negative No. 20402

They gambled at Mille Lacs Lake and Onigum. You would find Indians gambling wherever you wanted to go. If they were going to play moccasin game, they brought their work,(1) blankets, guns, ponies, and everything to gamble. They would come and challenge us.

We'd play the moccasin game for anything. We'd play for money, guns, rifles, horses, wagons, ponies, anything they had. We'd play for big deals, sometimes two to four days to a time.

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Chippewa Indians at Hallock.

Chippewa Indians at Hallock.
Photograph Collection ca. 1893
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location no. E97.31 r136 Negative no. 7209

The one you're betting with will tell you what it is that he wants to bet on. Those four men you're playing against will tell you what they want. And when he makes the bet he tells what it is again, right there, and that way we take his bets.

We played for heavy bets. Ah-chii-gay means you're betting. Ah-chii-gay-wIn is what you bet on. We betted horses, guns, clothes, overcoats. Fur coats were a great thing in these northern parts. They were worth twenty, fifteen, or twenty-five dollars in those days. They were a good coat; they had heavy fur.

In the moccasin game we betted sleds and wagons and ponies and team horses. Whatever they had, we'd bet on. We all liked it when we were driving those ponies, Indian ponies, years ago. On Leech Lake we called a horse a bay-bay-shii-go-gah-shi. Red Lakers call it a mash-tah-dIm. We didn't care what they called it, we'd bet them anyway.

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Leech Lake Ojibway chief, 1875

Leech Lake Ojibway chief.
Creator: Hoard & Tenney
Photograph Collection, Stereograph, 1875
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.1 r134 Negative No. 34690

We variated the value in the game. Sometimes we'd play for this, sometimes we'd play for that. But the valuation in the game is what we played for. In a game that's valued, we bet high. Gee, there used to be a lot of valuable things in there.

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Ida Aiken, Onigum.

Ida Aiken, Onigum.
Photographer: Monroe P. Killy (1910-)
Photograph Collection, 1931
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location no. E97.1A p3 Negative no. 35486

A gun and a horse are high bets. A low bet would be a small article, like anything. It would be like an old boat or something that isn't worth anything. But we'd bet on it, and if we won it, we'd fix it up anyhow. We'll bet anything. If you lose your bet, you misjudged, gîi-w^-nI'-chi-gay. That means you lost where you planted the brass ball, or the marked ball.

You value the things you win according to the make. A hand-made outfit is a high value because it's well done, it's sewed well and everything. That's a higher cost, a higher bet, a higher prize. Beaded moccasins have high value, but you can take a valuation of them down by taking the beads off.

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Mrs. Morgan Sewing Moccasin, Bena, 1948

Mrs. Morgan Sewing Moccasin, Bena.
Creator: Monroe P. Killy
Photograph Collection, 1948
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. Collection I.69.178 Negative No

You need so many points on this moccasin game to get the canoes. You need a certain amount of points in the innings of the game to get the horses. You'll need so many points to get the guns. The points you need are whatever you agree on, but generally higher bets have more points. The number of points you need depends on the valuation of what you're playing for.

That's quite a game!.

The bet is stacked up there, right next to where we're playing. The group behind will be watching it. They pile it up in the one place. Everybody just throws everything in together, and whatever you win, you split up among the players on your side. You value everything you win, then you split it up. You split the valuation with those playing. They take whatever they want, and you tell them what you want. If you both want the same thing, you'll probably pull straws for it. They usually pull straws on certain things they want. Whoever wins with the straws will get the horses. And if they lose, why, they don't get them.

When we split the other things up we just throw them into the bunch. Then the players on the winning team will pick out what they want.

"Well, who wants the boat?

"Who wants the canoe?

"Well," somebody says, "could it be fixed?"

"It could be fixed, repatched."

"OK. I'll take it."

And we usually leave enough valuation for another game. Like we might leave blankets and quilts.

We play moccasin game any time of the season. We play it inside or outside. We play day and night. Some of the games went two and three days. They went that long if the sides were tying up.(2) When each side is pretty well powerful the games go a long time. But if one side is weak, well the stronger team will take everything just as fast as the weak team puts it out. When they're tying up, it takes long. It takes a long time. In a long game the players relief each other. Another guy from their same bunch will come in to relieve the players. They usually relieve each other to eat or rest or sleep, but when the game gets real rough the women would just bring in the men's meals to the moccasin game place. Oh, boy, when they're tying up, that moccasin game drum just keeps a-going.

This moccasin game is quite a sport. It's quite a game. If you're interested there isn't much to it to learn. If you learn the points and just watch the game, it'll come natural to you. You'll understand the game when you look at it. It doesn't take you long to learn. You just set there and look and look, and set there and listen. You don't realize the time that's going by because you're listening to the guy that's singing. You'd see how rough a moccasin game is, if you could see one. They don't get rough and fight about it, but it's a hard game. They work hard trying to find that ball in order to get the winnings.

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Moccasin game, White Earth Reservation, 1920

Moccasin game, White Earth Reservation.
Creator: Robert G. Beaulieu
Photograph Collection, 1920
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r3 Negative No. 7571

It was just like one ball team meeting another. We played people from all over. We played with groups from Ball Club, Cass Lake, and Walker. We played with those old timers like John Quincy from Bena-Cass Lake. And we played with John Kingbird too. That Kingbird, boy, he was great. He was a sharp son-of-a-gun. Those Cass Lakers are sharp in moccasin game. Oh boy, they're hard to beat. They have one man there that'll hit the ball pretty near every time he wants to, and he knows how to hide the ball too. He's sharp. The Indians feared to play them. They feared Cass Lake Mission. They were son-of-a-guns to play. We played other groups too. Inger is a group, Leech Lake is a group, Bowstring is a group, White Earth is a group, Mille Lacs is a group.

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Moccasin game, Lake of the Woods, 1922

Moccasin game, Lake of the Woods.
Creator: Carl Gustaf Linde
Photograph Collection, 1922
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r15 Negative No. 10280-A

Supposing we want a game. We'll call Mille Lacs. In the olden days we'd notify Mille Lacs that we were going to have a game by sending a runner down with a message. They'd go give them the message. In a few days the players from Mille Lacs would come and bring whatever they had to bet with. They'll come and camp around. They'll camp around, maybe during blueberrying time.(3) They'll usually come when they have other things for the women folks to work on. While the men are playing moccasin game the women are cooking. They continue their work! Washing dishes, cleaning the wigwam, berry picking, patching up their canoes. Some men will just be playing as a team, and all the other men will stand watching over the game.

Just the men play moccasin game. The women did play, some of them played, once in awhile, but it isn't a woman's game. They could understand it, but they'd start using that pointing switch on one another. In the moccasin game we use a switch, a stick about as long as your arm, to hit the moccasins with. That switch has the peel bark taken out of it, and it's well-dried and springy. When we hit a moccasin with that switch the ball underneath it just flies!

You're not alone when you're playing moccasin game. There's a group back of you. That's your team. There usually are four in there playing on each team. Usually there are four men on a team, but there can be five or six. It all depends on the team, and on how many there are in the team challenging you.

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Moccasin game, Mille Lacs, 1925

Moccasin game, Mille Lacs.
Photograph Collection, Postcard, 1925
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r10 Negative No. 24791

During the game the four guys are sitting abreast on a blanket. They pin that blanket down so it doesn't fold up, and then they sit on that blanket. They put a weight on it, so it won't fold up. And that keeps the table clean. We call it a table now, but it's really a bedding of the moccasin game. This moccasin game bed keeps tight and you know what you're doing. Otherwise, if you leave it loose, it folds up and then maybe you won't know what's going on. This way everything is down tight and you can keep track of things.

During a moccasin game four guys are on each end of the blanket doing the playing. These four guys on a team can bring as many as they want, five or ten, to stand in back of them. The ones standing in back are the guidance. They watch, and the players watch, while the other team hide balls under moccasins. My partners and I are setting on the edge of the blanket, and the drummer, we always had a moccasin game drummer, is off the blanket over here on my right drumming. The drummer's going to favor one side. And my partner, he might even get a job pounding the drum, to give relief to the man with the voice, the one that's singing and pounding the drum. If my partner feels the drummer is getting tired, he grabs the drum and they sing.

You play that game with four moccasins on the blanket, m^-kI-zI'n-^-táa-gay. You also have four balls the size as a marble, three lead balls and one brass ball. Sometimes we'd use all brass balls, with one ball marked. Sometimes we just use stones, but we liked to use anything metal better. But if we didn't have anything metal we used anything we got a hold of. You know, those days when we got metal in this country we thought the world of it, even if it was some kind of nickel plate. But when we didn't have metal, we used stones, pebbles, agates or whatever we had. Some of those stones were polished, and that made them nice. In the old days they'd work on stones to make them just like a ball. The little brass ball or whatever they're hiding is called gaa-káa-dó-^n-wí$. Whatever we used, there was always one marked ball. That's the one the other team has to find. It's a great game boy, that's worse than a ball game.

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Mocassin game, Mille Lacs.

Mocassin game, Mille Lacs.
Photographer: Monroe P. Killy (1910-)
Photograph Collection, 1947
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location no. E97.38 p6 Negative no. 35281

One side will hide the marked ball and the other side will try to find it. One of the men on a team hides the balls with his hands. Ka-ká-dú, that's hiding the ball. He puts one ball under each one of the four moccasins, so one of these four moccasins has the marked ball under it. When the other team hits that marked ball, they get points.

We used to use just moccasins in the olden days, but you can put those balls under anything. One team takes those balls and hides them under the moccasins. The one that's hiding them will be sitting there shaking those balls with his hands together. When he stops shaking them his hands open a little, close to his body, close to his stomach, and he takes a peek down to see where the marked ball is. Then he hides it wherever he's going to hide them.

Ga-dú-wI-nI-nii means the guy that hides the ball, on their side. He has to know where the marked ball is. If you hit for it and miss, you can say, "OK. Show me where it is." Then the guy that hid it has to know where it is. If he doesn't, you win the points.

The partner that's going to hit on the other team will be trying to figure out where your team's going to hide the marked ball. He may nod his head when you're hiding the balls. He's watching you throw these balls, so you try to hide them so fast he doesn't know where you're hiding them. Shake the balls high, shake the balls up well, then hide them under the moccasins, as fast as you can. If you do it right, before he notices it, you won't have anything in your hands because the balls are already under the moccasins. You can put the marked ball under any moccasin, and you can do it any way you want to, but while you're hiding the balls the others will be watching you.

The other team will watch what a person's doing when he's hiding the ball. They watch for a flinge. Maybe he's moving his head or eyes, or something like that. When you know a hider's signs, you got him pegged. When you know a guy's signs, you know where he's hiding that marked ball. Maybe you know when the guy who is hiding the balls is casting his eyes away from the marked ball or to the marked ball. When you know a guy's signs, you've got him pegged. We use that information too, when we're playing the moccasin game.

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Ojibway mocassin game, Bena, 1933

Ojibway mocassin game, Bena.
Creator: Monroe P. Killy
Photograph Collection, 1933
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 p12 Negative No. 35279

One of the guys who is standing behind the team that's looking for the marked ball may see a flinge on the guy who's hiding the ball. Maybe when he hides the balls he'll move his arm in a certain way, or he may lean a little bit over here on one side, or hang his head some way, or move his body in some way. Maybe he's doing something with his eyes when he's hiding the balls and one of the guys standing in back may notice that. If he does, he's got the hider marked and he'll tell the ones playing on his side, "I got that guy marked." Then he just taps one of the guys who's playing, and when the player looks up, the one who noticed the flinge will tell him, "Well, let me take over. I got him pegged." So the new guy sits down, and when the guy on the other team starts to hide the ball he knows the flinge on him.

Once in a while the one hiding the balls may pretend to flinge just to throw the others off. The ones that flinge with their feet or their hands like that are really good. And when they can pretend to flinge like that, pretty soon, instead of the others hitting the marked ball when they come down with that whip, they hit the other one.

At times the guy that hides the ball holds it in his hand for a spell. When he keeps the ball in his hand there's a laugh in that when they can't find it under the moccasin. There's a meaning to that too.

While the other team is hiding the ball you'll be setting on your knees on one side of the blanket looking at those guys, and they'll be setting the same way on the other side looking at you. You can be sitting any way you want, but generally the players will be setting on their knees while they're playing. They'll be setting there on their knees with their arms folded. They set like that watching the one hiding the ball while he's getting ready. They're watching him. They're watching every move he makes. They can watch whatever he does, and he can watch what they do.

When he's ready the hider throws the marked ball underneath a moccasin. When there's one ball under each of the four moccasins, they're ready for the other team to try to find the marked ball. The moccasins will be sitting upside down on the blanket. If he hides them right, the other team won't know where the marked ball is.

The one that's hitting for the team will be sitting there with the stick. He'll have a switch, a little switch called b^ss-sh^-zjá-i-g^'n. It doesn't make any difference what kind of wood it's made out of. You can make a switch from anything springy -- hazelnut brush, or brush of any kind. We peel it, so it'll dry out and be light. Willow makes a good switch too. You use that stick to hit the moccasin you think is hiding the brass ball.

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Moccasin game, 1935

Moccasin game.
Photograph Collection, 1935
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r6 Negative No. 68558

If you don't know where the marked ball is you can talk to the other team players, but most of the time you don't even have to talk to them. There are certain numbers on the moccasins. Each moccasin has a certain number assigned to it. As you go from left to right when they're facing you number one moccasin is on the left, number four moccasin is on the right. When they're playing this game they kind of cup their hands, and put up the number of fingers of the moccasin number to tell their partner which moccasin to hit.

You can also talk to the guys watching on the side of you and ask them what they think. If you're puzzled, you ask him, "Do you know where it is?" If one of the on-lookers knows where the marked ball is, he'll tell you, and then you give him that stick. And if he knows where the marked ball is, he takes the stick and he hits the moccasin. If he knows, he takes the stick. But if he doesn't know, he'll shove the stick to somebody else to give the other ones a chance.

When you think you know where the marked ball is you take that stick and whip the moccasin. If you can't find the marked ball the first time, you have to try it again. You can hit one or two moccasins, because sometimes you miss on the first try.

And when they hit the moccasin, they whipped the moccasin. If four guys are playing together and one fellow is weak on whipping the ball, one of the other guys will take the stick away and hit the moccasin so hard that he makes the other team flinge. You have to flinge when they hit the ball hard. And if he hits the marked ball, some of the on-lookers holler mii-zay-d^'m. That means the player hit the mark. They're favoring, favorizing their bunch.

The way we put that it's understandable. Twenty-five, thirty, would gather for a moccasin game. They go there to listen and watch. It's one village going to another. They would come and stand there and watch them all day long. If someone's going to watch a moccasin game, they're going to favor one side to the other, maybe. They're usually going to favor their own group.

One Indian word for that group is ín-daa-wáad. That's a house, a house curved up. It's the place where we rest, a wigwam. Some of them are always related in there, but they're not all related. Some of them are married into the group. Well, you take one family and you have two or three adults and four or five kids, that's one wigwam. They're neighborly so there maybe a sister or cousin or anything in that group. That's ín-daa-wáad. And strangers are welcome, if they show a proof of a good way of life. A stranger would come into ín-daa-wáad if he was going to marry one of the girls, or if she was going to marry one of the boys. They come in if they have that on their mind. That's self-told by their truth of mind.

Sometimes the girls came to the moccasin game as rooters. The women folks would root for their village. Sometimes they'd side-in and sing with their men. They would come and dance, but the team that's losing didn't like it. The women would go sing for their side, and dance just in back of them. Oh, that gets the losing gang, the losing side!! The women are teasing more or less. The losing side doesn't like that when they see the women dance by their men. And when the women saw that the men on the other side didn't like their singing and dancing, they'd really start up. That's just like rooting and booing in the ball game. The moccasin game was a very interesting game for everybody. It's quite a deal. Boy it was tough.

The members of each team have a certain number of times -- four or five times -- that they hide the ball, and then the hiding changes. They change off hiding the ball when a fellow gets tired of swinging his arms. There are always two extras to each side. While the team is hiding the ball one of the others will be singing and pounding the drum, and if he gets tired singing and pounding they'll change too.

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Game, Nett Lake Indian Reservation, 1928

Game, Nett Lake Indian Reservation.
Photograph Collection, 1928
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r14 Negative No.

The side that's hiding the ball continues hiding it until the other side finds it. If the other side can't find the marked ball, then the team hiding it is winning continually. When the other team finds the marked ball, the hiding goes to them. When one of the guys on the other team is too sharpful, he knows where the marked ball is. When he knows where the marked ball is, he hits that ball, and so he gets the ball back. Then he hides it. If the team is good in finding that marked ball, sometime which they aren't, then they'll get the chance to hide the marked ball right back. Sometime they don't find that ball for a long time, but, if they're good in finding the ball, they'll get the ball right back.

Sometimes a team doesn't get a chance to make a point, and sometimes they play a tie. We call that a tie when hiding the ball changes back and forth even. But if one team makes a point nearly every time, if they hit that marked ball and find that ball pretty-near every time the other team hides it, well, these guys could set back there and just rake in all the points. If they're good at finding the marked ball, they can sit back and stick and peg points all day long. But one team can be busy hiding the ball, and the next thing you know, by gosh, they're losing. That's the way the other team will reverse that sometimes. When the other team misses that marked ball, then it's your turn. Then when these guys have missed it's your turn again. When the other team hits that ball, then they take over from the one that's hiding the ball, and they start a-hiding the ball.

We'd play each game for certain points, and there'd be so many games played to win a bet. The games are usually sixteen, sometimes thirty-two, points, and we keep track of these points with little sticks.

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Detail: Moccasin game, Lake of the Woods, 1922

Detail: Moccasin game, Lake of the Woods.
Creator: Carl Gustaf Linde
Photograph Collection, 1922
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r15 Negative No. 10280-A

The number of games played are any amount. It all depends on the valuation you have to play for. We keep track of the games with little pegs. The number of rounds in a bet would depend on what you're playing for. If you want to play for valuation, and you want to win that valuation, you might say, "Well, we'll play to ten games." Ten games, geeze that's a long match, but the value is there. When you're playing for guns and everything you'll have to play hard. If he has something for ten games, you have to play hard to win. More often we played four, five, six games for a bet. If you take too many games for a bet your points are going to go fast and your time will run out. They were afraid to be runned out, throwed out of the game, before their betting was over, so they usually didn't have too many games to a bet.

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Mocassin game, Mille Lacs.

Mocassin game, Mille Lacs.
Photographer: Monroe P. Killy (1910-)
Photograph Collection, 1947
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location no. E97.38 p4 Negative no. 35568

Each of these moccasins you hit has different points on it. The first moccasin to the left facing you, the number one moccasin, that's two points. The second moccasin counts four points. Two, four, six, eight, that's the points of the four moccasins as you go from left to right when they're facing you. Number one is two points, and they go down to eight points. Number four is eight points, four is eight, and if you guess that the ball is under there you get eight points. There's two, four, six, eight points to these four moccasins.

Every time you turn over a moccasin, that's one point, or two, or whatever the value is that you're playing for. And if you can tip three moccasins over and if that marked ball is under the last moccasin, you get double count. When you "hit square" you double count, and that means you turn over three moccasins without finding the ball, and the ball is under the fourth one. You don't have to say double count, just say "I'm counting what you do."

If you start tipping the moccasin over where the marked ball is, you lost because you're looking for the balls without the mark. The way you lose is if you come up with the marked ball on one of the first three turns. If you turn over two moccasins and then you hit it, on the third moccasin, that reduces the strength of your double count. The more you turn over the nearer you're getting to the marked ball.

You don't have to turn over the three moccasins. Sometimes, if you're sharp at it, if you're experienced, you can score full double points on one moccasin. By finding the moccasin with the marked ball and by hitting it direct, you get double points. That would be sixteen points, but very seldom there's a man that'll do that. Boy, oh boy, that is a big count. In Indian we call that double counting nii-zjI-ga-báy-náwo. The shortest way is, níi-zjo-g^báyn-wáa. They're saying, "I can beat you. I can beat you. I'm double." That's why they go to one another like that.

If you know, or if you think you know, where that ball is, you say that direct to the man who hid the ball. If you know you're going to hit the marked ball, you point two fingers at the man who hid the balls under the moccasins. That means you know where it is, and that you're going to hit for a double header. For instance, if you know that ball is under the first moccasin, you give the ball hider the double sign, then take and hit that first moccasin hard. Then you tip that moccasin over, and if the marked ball is under it you get full double points. You go right over there; that's where it is.

If you hit straight you count double on "hit straight." If you hit the right moccasin, your full count is there, usually sixteen points. But if you hit it in the wrong place, if you look for the ball in the wrong place, your count reduces because its a wrong moccasin. You're legal yet, you can continue hitting, but your count reduces.

We usually keep track of the count with little sticks. We use the small sticks when we get points. We also have game pegs to keep track of the games. Usually we use both counting sticks and game pegs. On a big game we'd always use both, depending on who's playing against us. It's up to us what we want to do, count or peg. The way we count depends on who's playing against us and for what.

Besides the bigger game pegs we have small sticks we throw at one another to keep the points. These are the point sticks. If I lose, I give you my point sticks. You take my sticks if you win. And when you get all my sticks, you take the pile of stuff. You get so many of the point sticks each time you guess right, and if you feel like getting tired playing the moccasin game, or want to exchange with somebody else, you just hand your point sticks to somebody else and they will take your place.

During the moccasin game we throw these sticks. They're called gaa-dó-mi-tI'g. The little sticks are just like match sticks, only they're longer. They're about eight inches or six inches long. They're peeled, well-peeled. These sticks are hard to make. They're peeled, and there are thirty two of them altogether; I guess sixteen twice. We usually use thirty two small sticks to keep track of our points, although the number of sticks we use sometimes depends on what we're betting on. Sometimes there are only about twelve, sometimes there are twenty-four, whichever your game is. When we're not using them, they're tied in a bundle.

Every time you run out of these point sticks the other team drives a bigger peg in the ground on their side of the playing area. Counting sticks, the short sticks, go back and forth for maybe three, four or five games before one side has them all. Pretty soon those sticks are gone from one side, and the big pegs are there. Then, when they get to the five games, when one side gets all of the little point sticks, they peg the big stick up.

There's a blanket out there where you're playing moccasin game. Your pegs are on just one side of the blanket. One team will have four or five or six or ten pegs, and the other team will have four, five, six, ten. They'll be laying there like dead sticks. You can put your pegs, your big pegs, on either side you want, just so everybody knows whose pegs are whose. When you're pegging, you can do it wherever you want, as long as everybody understands whose pegs are whose. Usually we peg on the left side. We have the pegs right here beside us, right by the moccasins. You're pegging over there, and we're pegging over here. This side is our left side, and that's where we peg. That's your left side, so you peg it. Whosoever's pegging usually pegs on the left side.

One guy pegs for his team, and each side has its own pegger. Each team uses its own sticks. When the other guys take an inning, they're doing their own pegging. It's just like a scorer. They don't have any markings or lines or anything, they just peg them on the ground.

Sixteen counting sticks usually puts one big peg in the ground, but it can vary depending on what you're playing for. That peg's another point marker. When you get all sixteen sticks you take a peg and stick it in the ground on your side of wherever you're playing. Sixteen sticks are a game. That's a game. When they win the game, when this one team made a game, they peg. When one team comes to sixteen points, or thirty two points, or forty points -- whatever they're playing for -- they peg that with a game peg. When you get to the points which are allowed, you peg it. With the pegs you can forget about numbers, and go ahead and play again because you have it pegged already. That proves the games.

The big pegs are five inches, six inches. A game peg is sometimes whittled out of wood, but most generally we just used small sticks. The big pegs are called mi-zhú-d^m-^n-wí$. That's the winner. You can tell how many games you played by looking at the pegs. There'll be one peg for each game.

When a team's winning they're pegging them sticks over and over. When they get ten pegs, that's usually the game. After you peg for so many games, these guys that were losing, they lost. And you're the winner. They lost the whole bet. They lost their guns, rifles, canoes or anything. They put it in one pile for these Leech Lakers. The other team will start dividing up their winnings. So anyone of all these guys that were playing against the guys that lost take the bet, they take what they want -- clothes, blankets or anything. You could stand there and watch them.

If you want someone in the next game you point at them with your finger. That means you want to take them on in the next game. You don't have to say anything. If you do that he may come back holding two fingers up. He may kind-a throw those two fingers towards you. That means he can double you.

When the guy who owns the sticks is done, he ties his little sticks up, he puts them in a bundle, and goes home.

And at the same time we are playing one of the guys will pound a little drum and sing moccasin game songs. It's just a song to make you feel good. The guy that's hiding the ball is not singing, another guy is. One guy is singing, and the rest are all listening and watching for that ball to be hidden. Everybody's watching the one guy hide the ball, but they're all listening to that guy singing too. And this guy who's singing pounds the drum pretty fast. He sings a very nice song. He sings good songs.

We have a special drum for moccasin games. We use little thin ones, about three, four, inches thick and about a foot and a half across. They're made of raw hide, and some of them have rattlers inside. M^-kI-zI'n n^-táa-gay dáy-way-i-g^'n, that's the moccasin kind of drum. It's a drum introduced as a drum they're going to use for a certain movement of their life.

The drummer sits anywhere in the middle, between the two teams, off to the side. And when he gets tired singing he throws the drum to some other singer. They go along fine, passing the drum back and forth. They'd pound the drum a week to a time like that!

We sang different songs while we played a moccasin game, short and fast drumming songs. Moccasin game songs are fast drumming songs. And when the one guy is doing the hiding, he'll have the movements in the same time as the one singing the songs. We don't have different songs for winning or losing, there are just different songs in general. When they get tired of one song they sing another song, and they keep going like that. There are three, four different songs that they'll sing to a game. They change songs themselves. And when a team has lost the chance of hiding that marked ball, then they're done both hiding and singing. That reverses either way.

Every time they stop drumming, somebody's losing. When you hear the drum stop often you know that's a rough game. When the drum stops you know the players are in a tight game. Short songs mean that its a tight game. When it would stop, a lot of the womenfolk would say, "Are they pegging? Let's go see the men. Let's see who is winning." If they hear that drum pound a little while, then pound a little while, they'd say, "By Gosh that's a hard game. Let's go see who's got the most presents." When they hear that, the way they go.

But if they heard the drum steady they'd say, "Who's singing? Maybe Leech Lake." And they'll all go and dance the men from their bunch. The dance is rooting. They still-dance. They just keep time with a song. And they'll wave their handkerchiefs or something. Ohhh gee! That would get the other side mad.

And when your drum is continuing, you could hear it a long ways off. You could hear that drum continuing a long ways off and when there's no stopping that drum, then you know that's the drum of the team that's taking the game. When that drum keeps a-going these guys are winning. Whenever you hear that moccasin game drum continuing you know they're winning.

Some individuals, just like some teams, are good at winning moccasin game. Boy, some of them are sharp at the moccasin game. And whoever is sharp at it, he's wealthy.

My brother-in-law from Mille Lacs was sharp at the moccasin game. He had all kinds of blankets, and all the guns that he wanted to have. He'd bring home a lot of stuff. Oh that was pretty stuff. He knew how to hide those balls, and he knew how to hit the moccasin with the marked ball. Boy he was good at it! He was well-off down there at Mille Lacs. He had wagons, beautiful blankets, and his house was well-fixed. In Mille Lacs they say he was bad(4) for playing the moccasin game. He has brothers in Mille Lacs yet. His brothers came down about seven years ago. The brother pointed at me, the cousin pointed at me, and said, "He's the worse son-of-a-gun in Mille Lacs. He's the one that made the poor Indians up there. He won all the horses they had to put up, including the wagons. And he had a good home."

He used to be bad on this moccasin game. He was bad on cards games or anything. . . .

You know why?

We found medicine on him.

He believed in that.

He was a great medicine man.

I suppose he bought that from a good medicine man.

When he finally got married to my sister, my sister found medicine(5) in his pocket. She told him, "If you're going to carry that and believe in that, you're going to be in trouble with me. I'm afraid of that. You'll have to get rid of that. If you don't, well, just don't bother me." She told me that. She felt that way because she was a Catholic. "I want to trust your belief, and please trust mine." So he did throw it away. They burned it, and he had to put tobacco out when he burned it. He told it, "You're done."(6) So he became a strong Catholic.

When my brother-in-law used luck medicine when he played the moccasin game, and if he was too strong with that medicine, you couldn't beat him. He would get the opponents so dizzy they couldn't beat him. They didn't have to take medicine,(7) they'd just think about him and they got dizzy. He was so powerful that sometimes they'd even get a nose bleed. There was too much power in that stuff. Sometimes they get a nosebleed it was so strong. "Hei$, I gotta go!" That's what they'd say when they realized he was using luck medicine.

I don't like that luck medicine. . . .

You never know who's carrying that. . . .

You can use medicine for gambling. You can use it for whatever the medicine man made it for. You can go and ask the medicine doctor for some luck medicine. Sure, you bet you can go. You might ask him for that with a pint of whiskey. Tobacco is a big thing too. Carry that tobacco and whiskey when you go. Set that whiskey down in front of the medicine doctor. Then pour it in a glass, or pour it in a cup. Put it there in front of him, along with the tobacco. Fill your pipe, let him fill his pipe, and then light his tobacco.

Tell him what that's for: "I come here with tobacco and a peaceful drink for you, and I ask for a favor on you. I play games, moccasin games. I don't feel very lucky and I want something to help me, something for better luck. You have it, and if you haven't got it, you know where it is."

If he has it, he says, "Yes I have it. All right."

He'll go and get the medicine, and give you a very little of it. He'll put it in a little buckskin bag. It's just ground up bark and powder, and a little wild roots. It's a mixture. But the doctor that does gives you the medicine goes through something when he makes that. They fast when they make that medicine. They don't eat for two, three, days. They don't eat, and that way they get out into the spirit. Then they meditate that spirit to work with the medicine.

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Buckskin Bag, prepared by Jimmy Jackson.
Photographer: Tim Roufs

All you have to do is carry that. Just have it on you. Everything goes your way with that luck bag, everything. You don't fail on anything. It's supposed to last as long as you carry it. It's supposed to last as long as you carry it, but if you ever lose it, your luck is gone. Yah, that's quite a deal. They used to have that in a pouch, a big roll of it. They'd roll it in a silk handkerchief and then roll that in buckskin. They dress it up the best.

Gee, that's quite a game. It's quite a sport. That's quite a game, but its fading away. We're losing it. Very few know that any more. We still have people my age, the older class, who know how to play the moccasin game. We still have a few my age left who know that game. There's a guy down here, Ray Robinson, who knows that game. Otherwise it's only most of the Indian singers(8) that know the moccasin game. Most of them drummers know that moccasin game. Ray Robinson is a drummer, Joe Fairbanks is a drummer, they know that game. George Wakefield knows it too. They all know the moccasin game, moccasin game songs, and Indian things. Oh, we used to have fun with the moccasin game! Sometime we played three, four, days to a time. That was a good game. I think it should be brought back amongst our people.

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Moccasin game, Mille Lacs Reservation, 1936

Moccasin game, Mille Lacs Reservation.
Creator: Monroe P. Killy
Photograph Collection, 1936
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 p13 Negative No. 35269

Bud Tibbets, a neighbor of mine down the road, says "I could set all day and watch the game." Tom Bowstring and I talked a lot about the moccasin game, in Indian, and he laughed all the time he was talking. And what a joke they played -- what a joke they tried to play -- to beat the other side. They played wrong. They played crooked, but somebody's watching them all the time. "Try to hide them all if you want. Try to sneak them all, but shove the sticks right out." Then everybody laughed.

The moccasin game isn't any place to be mad. That's supposed to cheer you up. That moccasin game and those songs just perp you up. It's life giving. It puts rhythm in your life. It cheers you up. When you're watching, you feel like getting into the game, and when you're in the game, you always feel like you could do better. After a moccasin game you feel like a man. It goes right in to your system, into your bones and all. You can feel it. You feel good. You're satisfied. You're relaxed. You've seen something, and you have something to think about.

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Moccasin Game, Labor Day, Mille Lacs, 1947

Moccasin Game, Labor Day, Mille Lacs.
Creator: Monroe P. Killy
Photograph Collection, 1947
Collections Online
Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. Collection I.69.245 Negative No.

Isn't that a great thing, eh? It's natural. Your body has to relax. Your body has requirements. You give your body satisfaction, and when you take off, you're ready for a big drink of tea or coffee. Whenever you're ready for big relaxation, by God the moccasin game's something to speak about . . . and laugh about . . . and think about. . . . 


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Footnotes

1. Beadwork, basketwork, home-made blankets, etc.

2. If the teams scores were tied a lot.

3. See Ch. 10, "Blueberry Time."

4. He was very difficult to play against -- in part because he used Indian luck medicine in his gambling. See discussion that follows, which suggests, for example, that on occasion his medicine power was so strong that it would cause nosebleeds in opponents.

"Bad" here means rough or difficult. It is not a moral judgement of doing some evil thing, as one could use luck medicine in gambling, under certain conditions. In a similar manner one could use love potion when courting, or luck medicine when netting fish. "Bad" means that the person has strong power. It means they also usually get what they want, and that it is difficult to override their medicine power.

5. Good luck medicine. Power medicine.

6. It's common to talk to medicine. In fact, when medicine is properly meditated it must be talked to. And the Great Spirit must be talked to. It's also common to talk to animals, trees, and other plants. In this case it is proper to talk to the medicine and tell it why you are abandoning it.

7. That is, you didn't actually have to take the medicine, you just carried the medicine bag on your person. Carrying a medicine bag on your person, for hunting luck, for example, was a common way of using luck or love medicine.

8. People who are traditional Indian singers. They also usually belong to an Indian drum.

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