ELMO, Mont. - Charlene Yellow Kidney looked intently down the long row of clothesline posts as she jabbed her steed into a full gallop. As her horse sped past, she plucked small hoops off the posts one-by-one with a long arrow until she reached the end. Then she raced down the other side.
Yellow Kidney, a Salish and Kootenai tribal judge by day, was one of about 200 participants in the third annual International Traditional Games July 26-29 at this Flathead Indian Reservation community. Organizers say the event marks an important rebirth of Indigenous culture, some of which hasn't been practiced for more than a century.
"They're from 2 years old to the elders," Dee Anna Leader, an elementary school principal and a key coordinator of the games, said of this year's participants, who came from as far away as California, British Columbia and Alberta.
The hoop-and-long-arrow game, like others, was used as a training exercise for lancing an opponent off their horse. Now, instead of the reward being mortal wounding of another warrior, each hoop bears a different color and is worth varying points. For any hoops knocked to the ground, eight seconds are knocked off a competitor's time. The fastest rider with the most points wins the event.
Adaptation is the key to many events. In the horse-and-hide competition, lumber is used to secure a stiff cow hide to the nylon rope being pulled by a horse and rider. Young competitors, who must run a short foot race before plunging belly first onto the crumpled hides, wear helmets, gloves and long pants for safety. But they still must hold on for their lives as they reach breakneck speeds behind the animals' gravel-heaving hooves.
Other horse events included a relay race, a slowest-animal competition, endurance rides and arm wrestling, which involves riders trying to push and pull each other off their mounts.
"It's something children especially look forward to," said Margie Blixt, who serves as the nonprofit organizing group's president. "A lot of kids are going to save their money after this to buy a horse."
A variety of other activities also took place, including canoe races, stick game, double-ball and lacrosse matches and shinny competitions, which involve a wild flailing of wooden clubs as teams try to move a small "live" ball from one end of a field to the other. Archery and related games such as long-arrow and atlatl casting and hoop and dart were especially popular, as was the Blackfeet children's game of run and scream, where girls take in a huge breath, start screaming as loud as they can, and run until they're out of air. The girl who runs for farthest while maintaining a scream wins.
In contrast, some of the activities were more sedate. A number of "learning lodges" were set up around the Elmo Pow Wow Grounds. Participants could see how traditional bows and arrows were made and were taught the history of various games and other cultural activities. Young children also constructed their own dolls out of strips of cloth and played the ancient game of plumstone.
"The reason I do this is that I've got grandchildren," Blixt said. "I feel that the games give them some idea what it was like a long time ago. I think it will help them with their future. It teaches them skills and how to get along with each other. They get to meet other children from other tribes."
The concept of reviving traditional games on the Northern Plains burst into the public eye in 1999, when a cadre of tribal elders and American Indian and non-Indian activists organized a series of events on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The games, initially prompted through research conducted by a group of young Blackfeet students, expanded last year at a site on the reservation's Lower Two Medicine Lake.
Next year's events will take place in Morley, Alberta, as part of the 6th World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. Organizers say as many as 7,000 people are expected to attend the conference.
Leader said funding to keep the games alive has come from a variety of sources, including various tribal governments, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad Co., the Montana Community Foundation and donations from many individuals.
One couple from Browning gave $20,000 to the initial effort after they won a lottery drawing. A registered quarter-horse stallion was raffled off this year to help defray expenses. The hosting Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes offered all types of in-kind and direct help, Leader added.
"The whole committee has worked real hard to make this happen," Blixt notes. "We all work together because this is so important."