Native American tribes have been playing versions of the Hand Game (or Stick Game) since before recorded history. Oral tradition and historic documentation indicate that the gambling games were once played for such high stakes as land use. Contemporary tribes usually play for money or prizes. The game is played with two pairs of “bones,” (traditionally made from deer shin bones), each consisting of one plain and one striped bone, and ten to twelve counting sticks, which are divided equally between the two opposing teams.
The rules of which bone will be guessed – plain or striped – are different depending on tribal tradition.
The teams sit opposite each other and take turns being the “hiding” and “guessing” team. Two members of the hiding team take a pair of bones and conceal them in their hands, often using elaborate gestures behind a scarf or cloth to indicate hiding movements. Meanwhile, the other members of the hiding team sing and use traditional instruments such as drums, sticks, or rattles to distract the guessing team. The leader of the guessing team must work out which hand holds the bone to be guessed (plain or striped). A gesture with a stick or hand generally accompanies each call. For each incorrect guess, the calling team must turn over one stick to the hiding team.
For each correct guess, the hider must surrender the guessed bones. A team continues hiding and singing until both pairs of bones have been surrendered, then the teams switch roles. The game continues until one team holds all the sticks. Gambling on specific teams –both by team members and spectators — is often part of the action and excitement. For more stick game songs, listen to Stick Game Songs of the Paiute by Judy Trejo, a noted Owens Valley Paiute singer, Canyon Records (CR-6284).
This film is part of Nevada Stories, an online video project of the Nevada Arts Council’s Folklife Program, funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.