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Media Watch: Documentary on Native American culture presents ‘tapestry of life’
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the March 1, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
Lawrence Johnson’s new documentary Hand Game: The Native North American Game of Power and Chance was shown at the Spokane International Film Festival on Saturday, Feb. 3.
Hand Game tells the story of the bone game or stick game that has been played by 80 American tribes through the years. The filmmaker uses the technique of bracketing and interspacing the movie with the story of Coyote telling the Owl how the stick game came to be. The story told by Richard Mullen of the Coeur d’Alene tribe overhangs the film as it travels to eight locations in the Western United States, where we see the game played today, or recall the history of where it was played, such as along the Columbia River.
The movie begins on the Flathead Reservation at Arlee, Mont. There we learn that the Hand Game is made up of four bones: two white and two black. The opposing team or player is to guess which hand holds the white bone. If you fail to guess where the bone is, a stick is given to the winning team or player.
At Arlee we learn there are 11 sticks that can go back and forth in a game. Throughout each game it is traditional to have drumming or singing. The idea is to confuse or take away power from the person making a choice of which hand holds the white bone.
We learn that Hand Games usually take place at pow wows. Originally the bettors would receive goods if they won. Today the winner receives money — up to $4,000 for a final tournament game.
At the Walker River Reservation in Nevada we see a pow wow were people begin the game by hiding the bones in their hands under large handkerchiefs. An elder tells us that originally drumming was not used but is now an integral part of the games.
Out on the far western tip of Washington state, on the Makah Reservation, we are told how liquor has been prohibited at the Hand Games because at one time it was destructive of playing the game. One woman participant tells how she learned the game as a child. For her it was a game that said “we are all equal.”
On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation at Browning, Montana Willy Running Crane and Earl Old Person describe a history of the game as old photographs are shown. In the 1940s, when people from the reservation worked agricultural work in the Yakima Valley, they played the game every Sunday. The opposing teams were often Indians from British Columbia.
On the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho we learn that for a time the Jesuits tried to stamp out the stick game because it was gambling. One evening a group was playing down from where the priest lived. He came down to stop the game. The leader sang to the players to remove the money and continue playing. The Indians explained to the priest that they were not betting, but trying to remember their traditions. The priest said that was a very good thing for them to do and they should go on playing. On the Coeur d’Alene Reservation there were times when Federal officials invaded private homes to stop the game. Ronald Gutierrez tells us there is an irony now, as casinos now help and enhance the tribe by replacing what was taken from Indian people.
On the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana coal is mined from open pit mines. The large reservation is divided into six districts from which teams come for elaborate stick game tournaments. Each side has its members in color-coordinated outfits. The Medicine Man is the leader of each team. Large groups of women in brightly colored dresses sing and cheer with pom-poms. For me this section of the film stood out.
The final segment of the movie is at Wellpinit, Wash., on the Spokane Indian Reservation in the Spokane Diocese. One of the persons interviewed called Welipinit the “Stick Game capital of the world.”
Games at pow wow time often go through the night. We hear that an elder once said, “Don’t be afraid when you play. You can only win or lose.”
A policeman, Bill Matt, Sr. tells us that the songs are key to Hand Games. From the songs comes the karma, the feeling and power. The songs are received through the spirits.
I found Hand Game a powerful introduction to a game that is much broader than a recreational event. Through the experience revealed in the movie I was able to get a better understanding of the Native American culture. The use of historic photographs throughout the film helped me to realize how significant this community event is in the Indian world. The personal words and stories of all the Native Americans interviewed from young to old are what give Hand Game its deeply poignant tapestry of life. Hand Game is a heartfelt movie that stays in your memory.
Hand Game is available on video for $29.95 from Lawrence Johnson Productions, 408 S.W. 2nd Ave., Suite 505, Portland, OR 97204. Phone: (503) 294-1019.
(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane.)
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