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Tradition, games feature competition and education

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EAST GLACIER PARK, Mont. - Rick Garvelle figures it's about time he played a role in perpetuating his Kootenai culture. That's why he traveled hundreds of miles to spend a few days here conducting workshops at the recent second annual International Traditional Games.

Garvelle, who lives in British Columbia, taught dozens of youngsters, oldsters, and various Indian and non-Indian onlookers how to make bows and arrows from wood and tough strips of sinew.

He showed how to strip apart feathers and attach the pieces to the butt ends of arrows with glue made from boiled-down hooves and other animal parts. Using a carefully selected rock, he patiently chiseled bits of obsidian until they were sharp and symmetric. He even gave archery lessons to those who wanted to send the newly completed shafts into a distant target.

Explaining that only a dwindling number of Native people still know how to make the traditional hunting tools, Garvelle told the group they should seize their own pasts and help carry them into the future. If they don't, he warns, everything cultural will eventually be lost.

"It brings youth and families together and hopefully lets them be able to share some time and learn together," co-organizer Richard Horn, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, says of the games. For the second year, the tribe was host to the four-day games as a way to celebrate and enhance dozens of Native American traditions.

The events at a tribally run campground on the shores of Lower Two Medicine Lake were open to anyone, no matter their race, color or creed.

Along with the bow and arrow making, more than 100 participants played shinny, double ball and lacrosse. They raced canoes, used an atlatl, cast long arrows and ran a variety of foot races.

They listened to stories, played stick game, and learned a host of traditional children's games, including the Blackfeet's "Run and Scream," a high-decibel girls' event that involves uninterrupted yelling while attempting to travel the farthest distance.

A Zuni kickball race was even tried, even though no neighbors from the Southwest could make it to the games. Various horse events, especially popular in 1999, were largely curtailed because of intense summer heat.

"It was hard to get people away from the lake" for some of the activities, says Deanna Leader, who helped coordinate the games, which drew participants from all around the region. One Japanese visitor shared games from the home country, she says.

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Especially popular was shinny, a hockey-like team game that's typically played with bare wooden clubs 3 to 4 feet long. To start, a ball is cast into the middle of the field and each team tries to score by hitting the ball through a small goal.

While a player can catch and hold the ball, doing so increases the risk of being pummeled by other competitors because the ball remains "live" unless it flies out of bounds. There are few other rules, but if a player is otherwise knocked with a shinny stick, a scrimmage takes place on the spot and both teams clamor, en masse, to move the ball down the field.

Even more wild is double ball. The game uses two oblong balls covered with hide and connected with a thin leather strip. Team members use short sticks to snag the leather and whip the balls in the air over a wooden crossbar suspended on poles. Opposing competitors try to stop the advance any way they can. The balls may be passed, but a typical carrier forges through his or her opponents in a mad dash to the goal posts. More points are given if the double ball wraps around the crossbar.

The practice of using an atlatl and casting long arrows is a bit more refined. The atlatl, which archaeologists contend has been around at least 9,000 years, consists of a piece of wood that holds a long, arrow-like projectile. Used in combination, users say the leverage of a throw is heightened to the point the projectile can be heaved hard enough to puncture a steel drum. The highly accurate weapon is commonly used by Australian Aborigines and some Arctic peoples, and there is renewed interest in the United States. A World Atlatl Association, organized in 1987, holds annual competitions around the globe.

The long arrow, meanwhile, is simply a lance that is heaved, and competitions usually center on distance, rather than accuracy.

A round of similar traditional games took place earlier this summer on the Flathead Reservation community of Elmo, which will be host to the international event in 2001.

"There's just so much incredible interest," Leader says. "I think next year's gathering will be really big."

Leader says she thinks it's important to keep the games going because they "were integral to the culture" and are directly tied to traditional hunting and overall survival. Organizers have formed a nonprofit organization to coordinate their efforts and use a Web site www.nativeamerica-online.com as an outreach tool.

"The gaming was part of the civilization's entertainment and a way of distributing wealth," Leader says, adding that many team games popular across the world today have their origins in Indigenous events. "Play was essentially lost when the kids were sent to mission schools."

"I thought the games were a huge success because the participants enjoyed themselves so much," adds Horn, who says he's already looking forward to next year's activities.