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Learning to Play Snow Snake Is a 'Sacred Rite of Passage'

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In its holiday 2011 issue, Plank Road Magazine details the ancient tradition of the game snow snake and its significance to the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

"Our ancient people were always active," said Ron Patterson, Oneida Nation and Wolf Clan member, to Plank Road Magazine. "During the winter we went out and played snow snake."

The game is named after the seven-foot sticks thrown down icy troughs and their wiggly, snake-like motion as they speed down the channels.

Snow snakes and mudcats are carved from hickory, maple or birch trees with nuanced technique. The logs are hand-split, following the grain of the wood. Carved by hand, the sticks are smoothed down to an inch or less in diameter and fitted with a lead tip. Snow snakes and special wax recipes used to decrease traction are passed down from elders to youngsters within families.

Snow snake requires skill and coordination, Plank Road explains. The object of the game is to underhand toss your stick the farthest.

Players—who are typically divided into four teams or “corners”—throw the snake down a hollowed-out trough five inches deep in a snow-packed or ice-whittled platform roughly 32 inches in height. To create the through, someone balances on a log while others pull it, which digs a hollow pathway through the platform.

Teaching young boys to handle the snakes is a "sacred rite of passage," Patterson told Plank Road Magazine. Beginning with three-foot-long mudcats, Patterson teaches young players to maneuver themselves and the sticks, "a journey of maturity," states Plank Road.

The games are loud and rambunctious as players cheer on teammates and tease other throwers in attempt to break their concentration, said Patterson. "This is all part of the game—the rivalry, skills, competition, and lifelong relationships," states Plank Road.