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Traditional games showcased including slowest horse race

ELMO, Mont. - Ever play staff-and-hoop? Or participate in a slowest horse race? How about run-and-scream? These and other traditional Indigenous games will be showcased next month in this small town on the Flathead Reservation during the 2001 International Traditional Games.

The International Traditional Games Society is expecting 500 people from around the United States and Canada to participate in this third-year event July 26-29 at the Standing Arrow Pow-Wow Grounds. The Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille tribes will be hosts for five age categories of individual, team and horse events.

Wenda Livingston, Salish, society treasurer, said the group got its start when its original executive director, Plains School teacher DeeAnna Leader, recognized that local knowledge of traditional games was in danger of vanishing. Leader "could see people didn't know the games they used to play," Livingston said.

The society got a 1997 grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities to start up. Representatives from the seven Montana reservations and two in Alberta, Canada, got together "to discuss the research, resurrection and reenactment of traditional games as a means to retrieve fading culture and language."

A video project led the way to planning actual games. The first set was held in 1999 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, drawing 150 participants from seven different tribes. There were 21 individual and eight team events and 10 American Indian instructors taught participants to make game equipment for traditional games (bows, arrows, atlatls, double ball sticks, shinny sticks, hoops, and children's game pieces). Four languages were used in blessings.

Last year's games were held at both the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations. Eight artisans from six tribes helped teach the 200 participants how to construct the game pieces. Next year, Canada will be the site for a round of games.

Traditional games had a purpose and that was survival, said Livingston, the gift shop manager for the tribal People's Center in Pablo. They promoted the kind of hand and eye coordination essential for hunting skills. Now, they promote cultural pride and tribal cooperation.

The society, based in Plains, Mont., points out "it has been over a hundred years since most of these games have been seen."

The organization, now directed by Kathy Felsman, Pend d'Oreille, wants to bring back not just the playing of the games, but construction of game equipment and authentic action images in art.

Livingston said the society is funded mostly through donations by individuals, companies and casinos. Anyone caring to contribute time or money can call Felsman at (406) 675-0160.

The group says it will pick the poorest areas on host reservations for the games, boosting tourism and the local economy. And, it says "the games and field equipment will be harvested respectfully to honor the life spirits of the materials used."

The host tribes participate in various ways for this year's games. Helping out besides the People's Center are the Salish & Kootenai Housing Authority with a "feed and read" program that will visit the games, the Kicking Horse Job Corps, based on the reservation, which will send youths both to assist with running games and to participate, and the Elmo Community Center, providing food, showers, restrooms and a display area.

Games will include hoop and dart, long-arrow casting, stick 'n' ring, atlatl, canoe races, stick, relay races, lacrosse, double ball and shinny. "The horse events are going to be big," Livingston said. They will include a relay, staff and hoop, the slowest horse race and arm wrestling on horseback.

Never seen a slowest horse race? The rules are: riders bring their slowest horse, then pair up with another rider and switch mounts. You have to ride slower than your own horse. But if you stop entirely, you are disqualified.

The various host tribes will prepare a bundle from the games and stories at the event. The society hopes each individual reservation will add to the bundle and pass it on to the next game host.