Preserving Culture and Getting Outdoors
4:00 am
Tue March 18, 2014

Snow Snakes: A Lesson in Survival

A group of middle school students gathered last month in Lac du Flambeau to learn outdoor winter skills.  Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission organized the weekend camp.  As WXPR’s Natalie Jablonski reports, it’s as much about cultural preservation as it is getting outdoors. 

Snow snakes is a game using thin painted sticks, often made of ash or maple.
Snow snakes is a game using thin painted sticks, often made of ash or maple.
Credit Matthew Rethaber

At Deep Snow Camp, most of the activities are focused on survival skills like building a snow shelter or ice fishing with simple materials.  But a lot of the sessions focus on another type of survival: the cultural kind. 

“Bob Shimek, I’m from Mud Lake on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northwestern Minnesota.  Ultimately, this is how we begin the process of better understanding our culture – our Anishinaabe culture, kind of from the inside."

Snow snakes is a traditional game played in different forms by many Indian tribes.   The snake is a sapling, thin and straight like a walking staff, often painted and with a snake’s head carved in one end.  Players toss and slide the stick in the snow.  In one version, players slide the snake down an icy track like a luge, aiming for the greatest distance.  In another, they try to slide the snake across the snow and through a rolling hula hoop. 

“It looks amazingly simple but it is hard, it is complex I mean – to hit that rolling hoop –well our first marker is about 20 feet.  And that’s not too bad.  But once you start backing up to 30 and 40 feet –it gets just exponentially harder with every ten feet you back up.  It is a lot of focus, it is a lot of concentration!”

Bob Shimek has been researching and teaching snow snake for over twenty years.  When he started, it wasn’t being played on his reservation at all.

“With the process of acculturation and assimilation by the white man, a lot of our games went away," Shimek says. "So for us at White Earth it was a process of recovering that and revitalizing that and reinstituting it in our communities.  So over there we’ve been doing it since about 1992.”

Now it’s popular enough to hold competitions at White Earth, for kids and adults.  This weekend Shimek has driven from Northern Minnesota to teach the game for the first time in Lac du Flambeau.  And today 24 kids from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan are braving single-digit temperatures to glide their new snow snakes in the snow. Colton is from Rapid River Michigan. 

“I actually liked the game, how they’re trying to bring it back from so long ago," he says, "and the way they played it – they had these little tracks for the snake to go down – it was really interesting.”

That’s Colton from Rapid River Michigan.  The camp is hosted at a different location each year, says camp organizer Heather Naigus from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.  She says a lot of the activities have to do with tribal members’ treaty rights to hunt or harvest food on ceded territory. 

“Well what we’re basically trying to do is get kids connected with the outdoors – or reinforce if they already are.  Trying to foster that leadership and stewardship through traditional knowledge.  And trying to keep that going."

With snow snake, teaching the game can also incorporate other skills.  Shimek's co-instructor Nikki Crowe explains art and science are part of it too.    

“When you take the kids out to harvest their snow snakes, you’re also teaching them about sustainably harvesting from the forest,” she says.  "By taking those saplings that would more than likely be shaded out.  There's the engineering of the track."

Crowe and Shimek work to prepare a track for the snow snakes, in this case a long narrow chute built out of snow.  They use a torch to melt the edges just enough to make the track icy and smooth.  

When he teaches the game, Shimek tells a legend to go with it.  It takes a full hour to tell, and he says it contains a lot of knowledge and even wisdom.  That’s what makes the game more than just a game, and more like cultural medicine. 

“But also knowing that whether these kids play this game only one time today, here at Lac du Flambeau.  Or whether they go on and play it many times over the course of their life – they’re always gonna remember the first time.  And hopefully, some of them will remember pieces of that legend, and can keep telling it over and over, so at some point when they get to be parents, they can tell their kids as well.” 

Telling the story and playing the game will be at the very least a way to liven up the depths of winter.