SKIATOOK, Okla. – When members of the Intertribal Indian Club of Tulsa met those of the Tulsa Indian Club Saturday at the First Baptist Church of Skiatook for a round of hand games, it was anyone’s guess who would win.
The hand game is a Native American guessing game that goes back to ancient history. Called a “stick game” in some parts of the country, the game has continued through oral history as instructions were passed down through the generations along with the objects used to play the game. Such is the case with Bruce Cass.
For the second year, Cass was asked by IICOT to run the game between the two Tulsa clubs.
“The way my grandfather taught me to run these hand games is for fellowship and fun and to be involved in our Osage ways,” Cass said. “We’re not going to put anybody on the spot or make fun of you.
Everything we’re doing is in good fun.”
When he was little, his grandfather, the late Dan Cass, taught him the rules of Osage-style hand games.
Tribes all over the continent have their own variations on this game of guess-which-hand-it’s-in, but they all use specific objects in play. Saturday, Cass’ set of vividly painted and beaded sticks and gourd rattlers include six sticks painted bright yellow, one longer than the others. There are six corresponding sticks painted in red for the opposing team. In addition to the four gourd rattles, there are four capsule-shaped pills made of beads and called “beads.” Two are yellow and two red.
Cass received his set from his grandmother, Marion Cass, who received them from her mother, Lillie Bighorse Cunningham. An original Osage allottee, Cunningham’s family was given the set from an Otoe family that had visited them in the Pawhuska Indian village many years ago.
As if was done back then, the hand game between Tulsa’s two Indian clubs began with a prayer. At prayer’s end, teams selected which side would send the first guesser. Then, the drum group struck up a beat and began singing.
Song is important to hand games as entertainment but also as a means of stoking gamesmanship. In an Osage-style game, the drum group plays on while one team sends over a guesser, who is given the team’s long stick. Among the opposing team, two members each are given their team’s small beads. These “hiders” secretly hide a bead in one of their hands and the guesser must choose which palms contain the beads by pointing it out with the long stick. It becomes more complicated, if not entertaining, as the hiders move their hands in different motions. The rest of the team joins in with clapping, cheering, movement and chanting to distract the guesser.
Hand games have a psychological element. Teams practice their poker face, and if it’s no good, players have been known to avert their eyes so as not to subconsciously give away the answer.
“People are good at that,” Cass said. “It’s not just a good guess. You’re trying to read these people that you’re playing.”
Who are consistently among the best hand game players?
“Children,” Cass said.
The aforementioned painted sticks are used to score the game. The first team to get all ten sticks on their side wins.
Following each match, the rattling gourds are handed out, two to each side, which signals that it’s time to dance. Round dances, warrior dances, honorary giveaways and other types of games are smashed into these intervals before another hand game match begins. This is the way Cass’ family, which has been asked to officiate over area hand games for many years, has done it, whether the games are held for someone’s birthday, as a fundraiser for a member of the community or just for the sake of playing. Games can go on for days complete with dinners and tournament-style play.
Saturday’s IICOT versus TIC game was the second go between the clubs. Last year’s game (IICOT challenged TIC as a fundraiser for the organization and won) was the first in what is hoped will become an annual event, said IICOT President Lynnetta Blalock Seward, Shawnee/Osage/Ojibwe/Peoria.
“This is about the community coming together and having a good time together,” she said.
And community includes all who want to play. Cass said anyone who walks in to the game is invited to participate.
“It’s just like any other thing, any other game. It can really get intense. It’s really a lot of fun,” said Robert Anquoe, treasurer of the Tulsa Indian Club.
As both of Tulsa’s Native American organization come together to play, it sets an example to the rest of the Indian community, Anquoe said.
Blalock Seward agreed.
“They (TIC) are our sister organization, and Tulsa is fortunate to have two organizations to host events in our city,” she said.
And fellowship is what hand games today are about in Oklahoma, even though that means one side eventually defeats the other. IICOT won Saturday’s match, but there’s always next year.
Canaan Barnett of Intertribal Indian Club of Tulsa and Sinihele Rhoades of the Tulsa Indian Club speak with Bruce Cass before the hand game competition begins.
J. LANIER | COURTESY PHOTO