One of the more intriguing artifacts of northern Native Americans sports and game culture is a long wooden rod called a snow snake. It is the only implement needed for the game of snow snakes, which has been played by Native men and boys for hundreds of years, and is still played in winter tournaments on some reservations. Snow snakes are also beautiful sculptural objects – an 8’ long snow snake over a double door in our house always catches the eye of first-time visitors who also love to hold it and imagine how its smooth surface glides across the snow.
The techniques and rules of the game of snow snakes varied among tribes stretching across the vast regions of the country where there are snowy, frozen winters. The shape of snow snakes also varied by region, with some being short and broad, while others, like the Iroquoian snakes we present here, being long and narrow. (See Games of the North American Indians by Stewart Culin, a 1993 University of Nebraska Press reprint of an ethnographic tome originally published in 1907.)
The object of the game is for players to see how far they can slide a snake across the snow, usually within a trough that has been built up and then grooved by dragging a log along its length. Players stand back then take several steps towards the beginning of the track – similar to a javelin thrower – while trying to maintain balance on slippery ground. They then throw or toss the snow snake into the track with an underhand motion (although Penobscots used an overhand toss when the snow was soft). The challenge is to power the snake to slide a long distance without using so much force that it jumps the track and gets buried in the sidelines.
Experienced elders have attested to the difficulty of playing the game well, saying that the most successful players are those who began throwing as children. Recently, snakes thrown by the most skillful players have been recorded as traveling more than one mile in less than three minutes, at speeds clocked at 108 miles per hour in the first mile.
Teams of men play the game using the same track, and in some versions will stand their snake upright into the snow after a throw to mark the farthest point it reached. After a winner of each throw is declared, boys are sent to retrieve the snakes. There are many variations of the methods and rules of the game (e.g., the number of men per team, how points are accumulated, and how many points constitute a win for a team), as well as variations in track design (e.g., tapering wall height, moguls, and drifts of powdered snow that the snake has to break through).
Some ceremonial aspects of the game have been documented as well. In the 1940 book Penobscot Man, the anthropologist Frank Speck recounts chants and songs that Penobscots used to accompany a throw, with lyrics such as “Go quickly, my little snow snake, and catch the old woman (or the name of the opponent’s leading stick),” and incantations to the totem inscribed on one’s own snow snake such as: “Frog, rush ahead and kill them.”
Just as with any piece of sports equipment, a snow snake is designed to maximize the chance of accomplishing the game’s objective. An Iroquois snow snake is a long piece of wood – 6’ to 8’ – which typically started as a 1” block riven along the grain of a hardwood log such as maple, hickory or birch, and then carved and shaped into the form of an elongated snake with a slightly bulbous tip. The back end of the stick has a notch where the guiding index finger is placed during a throw, and the tip usually has an inlay of pewter.
The snakes are sanded and polished, sometimes decorated, and then coated with wax (or “medicine” as one Seneca snow snake maker calls it), the composition of which varies depending on snow conditions, and which is often made from secret recipes that are passed down through families.
The two snow snakes we are offering were acquired on the Cattaraugus Seneca Indian reservation and are signed by their owners. The writing on the snakes is comprised of stippled dots incised with a sharp implement. One snake is signed “Kelly Lay,” a Seneca Indian who lived at Cattaraugus from 1877-1940.
The 1940 U.S. Census shows that he was the head of a household that included eight other people – his wife, five children, and two extended family members. His snake is dated 1900 when he would have been 23 years old. It also says “Newtown” which is a community within the reservation.
This snow snake also has two old repairs, a groove on the underside of the head that is colored with red pigment, and a pronounced notch on the back tip.
The second snow snake bears the name “Boston Jim,” which is also written in stippled lettering.
This was presumably the nickname of a Seneca man who had moved to or came from Boston, NY, a community that is less than 30 miles northeast of the Cattaraugus reserve. This snake has some additional decoration – three red pigment dots and some line drawings, which might represent the owner’s totem or some other good luck spirit.
It also looks as though it was notched on the back tip, but the notch is smoothed somewhat with wear.
Both snow snakes have protective pewter tips and bulbous heads. A Chippewa man describing playing snow snakes as a child in 1928 explained that the thin tail end of the snake cut into the snow, ensuring that the broad leading head stayed on top. “Even if you goofed and threw it under the snow, it would crawl back up to the top,” he said.