One of the oldest outdoor winter games in North America is again coming to the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Ontario County.
Already centuries old when Europeans first arrived in this country, the game of “snow snake” will be featured at our family-friendly annual Native American Winter Games on February 22.
Earlier that week from February 18 to 21, there also will be a variety of wintertime activities for visitors at Ganondagan, the state’s only historic site dedicated to Native American history and the only representation of a Seneca town in the United States.
Our winter activities will include making a miniature wooden bow from ash, as well as Native American storytelling, Iroquois social dancing, and a variety of outdoor activities including snow shoeing, dog sled demonstrations, and the snow snake. All events are weather permitting, of course.
And not to worry, any first-timers. The game does not involve an actual snake…
Rather, this traditional game once widely played by the Iroquois and many other Native American tribes across North America uses a long smooth stick – known as a gawasa – that is thrown down a trough cut into the snow. The hardwood stick has a tapered head to help it clear potential obstructions, giving it a snakelike appearance as it slides and shimmies down the track.
Snow snakes can be six feet long or more. Smaller versions called “mud cats” are about half that long.
Historically, the track was made by dragging a log through the snow, sometimes a half a mile or more. Called a gawan’go, the U-shaped trough could be level or on gently downward sloping terrain, and different types of sticks were used, depending on whether the condition of the snow was wet, dry, icy, powdery or something else.
Players also used mixtures of special waxes, tallows and oils on their snakes to get them to slide easier, and those mixes were closely-guarded secrets, as a well-tossed snake could travel a great distance. If it is fresh snow, wet snow, or icy conditions the snow snake will slide faster when it is properly waxed for the conditions. Today, ski wax might be part of the mix.
This 1909 published account by New York State Museum official Arthur C. Parker who witnessed the contests described the action as a player “grasps his snake by the tail, his thumb and middle-finger grasping the sides two or three inches from the end, and his index-finger bent and tightly pressed against the grooved end. The palm of the hand of course is turned upward. Dashing forward with every trained muscle in play, he hurls the snake into the trough, using all his skill to throw accurately and steadily.”
Competitors tended to be boisterous, and could use what now is called “trash talk,” shouting derision and discouragement as a player drew back for throw, according to this account. If a throw was successful, the snake would move rapidly down the track, with Parker writing, “In its swift passage through the trough, the flexible stick twists and bends in truly snake-like fashion, its upturned head adding greatly to the resemblance.”
Teams could compete for points, and often times, wagers were made on the outcome, so players kept their own special materials and techniques as closely-guarded secrets. Prized snakes were carefully preserved and stored for use year after year.
“Snow snakes are made of various kinds of hardwood, such as maple and walnut, it being believed that some woods are better adapted to certain kinds of snow. This special knowledge is kept secret by the various experts in the art of snow-snakery.”
During the traditional midwinter festival, Ganayusta, two rival brotherhoods or clans seek to outdo each other in the game, he wrote. Assistants for each team would select the snow snakes to be used, and rub them with various substances “to overcome the peculiar kind of friction exerted by various kinds of snow.”
Once the snake came to a stop, it could either be left in place to be possibly pushed aside or even cracked by a rival’s oncoming snake, or removed after its location has been marked. A good player could throw a snake on a level track from 300 to 400 yards, or even further if the track sloped downward enough, Parker wrote.
But woe to the player who made a poor throw, as they came in for some serious ribbing from other players and onlookers, according to Parker.
“If the (snake) is not thrown at the proper angle, its head may run into the snow when it strikes the track, that is, “spear the track.” This accident brings forth many sarcastic jests, such as, “Are you afraid the trough will get away?” “What’s the matter? Trying to nail down the snow?” or “Thinks he is spearing fish!”
At our winter festival, people are going to be a lot more encouraging to those who will throw the snake, whether they are experienced or first-timers who can start out by throwing the smaller mud cat. So, come to Ganondagan and try your hand at a very ancient way of wintertime fun!
Post by Peter Jemison, park manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer
Cover Photo: Snow Snake teacher Snooky Brooks speaks at a demonstration at Ganondagan. Photo Credit- David Mitchell
Parker, Arthur C. “Snow-Snake as Played by the Seneca-Iroquois.” American Anthropologist, vol. 11, no. 2, 1909, pp. 250–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/659466.
Read a 2016 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the snow snake demonstration at Ganondagan.
This account in the Syracuse Post Standard describes a demonstration at the Onondaga Nation School in 2014.
Read an account of the snow snake competition at the 2016 Ojibwe Winter Games (Ojibweg Bibooni-Ataadiiwin) in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin.
Watch this Youtube video of a snow snake contest at the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. The Onedia were once residents of New York State.