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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

MADELINE ISLAND, Wisconsin — They came together as they hadn’t in years, gathering in the darkest of winter in the heart of Ojibwe country to revive a tradition that had been slipping away.

The winners, shown here, of the Inter-Tribal Nations Snow Snake Festival braved cold temperatures and a wind chill below zero on Feb. 5, 2022, on Madeline Island, Wisconsin. The traditional winter game is being revived among northern tribal communities. (Photo illustration courtesy of Brittany Greendeer)

They played snow snake at Madeline Island, the latest effort to return to a winter game once widely celebrated by the Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Oneida and other northern tribal nations, a competition in which wooden poles up to 10 feet long resembling snakes are hurled down a channel cut through a mound of snow. The distance traveled by the snake determines the winner.

Frank Vandehei, Oneida and Menominee and a lifelong resident of Oneida, Wisconsin, came to the gathering to learn, clutching the handmade snake he designed in the shape of a javelin.

“I made my own snakes for these games,” Vandehei told Indian Country Today. “The type of snow snake I used was a javelin-style snake, which is a design that I came up with based off of pictures I’ve seen and what I feel would work well on both Haudenosaunee and Ojibwe-style tracks.”

But winning wasn’t really what brought him to the festival.

“I’m interested in learning about the history of snow snake games and how they differ from tribe to tribe,” Vandehei said. “I hope to bring some good competition to the games and leave with some knowledge that I didn’t have when I got there.”

Paul DeMain, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and of Ojibwe descent, organized the Inter-Tribal Nations Snow Snake Festival for Feb. 5 on Madeline Island to bring life back to a tradition that was at risk of being lost.

“I have participated in several snow snake demonstrations over the years as an educational experience by area schools,” said DeMain, who lives on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin.

“But the game seemed to have been lost along with many other traditional games over the years, and bringing a game to the island is one way to find our way back to our traditional winter activities of sports, winter storytelling and string games,” he said. “I was told by others that snow snake games, like lacrosse, were once used at times by the Ojibwe judiciary to resolve conflicts that could not be resolved by other social means.”

A cross-section of tribal citizens attended the events, though the Ho-Chunks — who have held their own snow snake festivals in recent years — walked away with most of the prizes. Winners received bundles of donated items from wild rice to money to a snow snake.

“Our family was honored to be a part of this event, which was very well-organized and so welcoming to all of the visitors,” said Jon Greendeer, Ho-Chunk, who won the Men’s Under 55 category with a throw of 241 feet.

“It was clear the more relatives that came together, the more uplifting the forces all around lifted each of us up,” he said. “It was clear by the constant smiles and laughter this was just the medicine we needed.”

‘Where food grows on the water’

The plans to hold an Inter-Tribal Snow Snake Festival had begun 11 months earlier, when DeMain was talking to a friend at the water protectors welcome center in Palisades, Minnesota, south of Grand Rapids. The Seneca friend, Joe Hill, had brought snow snakes from his people in western New York.

They built a snow ridge and dragged a log through it to create a rut for about 100 yards. DeMain said he began to form the idea to bring together a core group of perhaps four people in 2022 to compete against each other. The plans grew from there.

It would be on Madeline Island, known as Mooningwanekaaning-minis, which has a historical significance among the Ojibwe.

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Stories tell of the great migration of the Ojibwe from the eastern coast along the Great Lakes to “the area where the food grows on the water” — the areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota where wild rice grows in the lakes.

The island has been known historically as a capital and economic center of the Ojibwe Nation for several hundred years. A 200-acre tract of land was provided for in the Treaty of 1854 to the "La Pointe Band" for continued use as a fishing camp. The site served Indigenous communities for several thousand years.

Paul DeMain, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and of Ojibwe descent, organized the Inter-Tribal Nations Snow Snake Festival for Feb. 5, 2022, on Madeline Island to bring life back to a tradition that was at risk of being lost. He is shown  here discussing logistics with Paul Ninham, left, Oneida, and Tony Brown, Menominee. (Photo by Dan Ninham for Indian Country Today)

“I have a deep tie to Ojibwe relatives that once lived on the island,” DeMain said. “The name is often translated to mean the ‘Home of the Golden-Breasted Flicker,’ or ‘Hammerhead,’ but the historic Ojibwe word itself seems to relate to something being dug up at a location there on the island.”

The late Eddie Benton, who wrote “The Mishomis Book,“ told how the Ojibwe came to Wisconsin and the Apostle Islands, the largest of which is Madeline Island, in Lake Superior. The narrator of the story, Mishomis, which means grandfather, “believes it’s important to know and respect the past, although one shouldn’t live in memories,” Benton wrote.

Snow snake games have been played for hundreds of years in the region.

Historian J.G. Kohl wrote in his 1860 book, “Kitchi-Gami: Wanderings round Lake Superior,” about the snow snake game on the Apostle Islands.

“I had the opportunity … to inspect the instruments employed … which they called shoshiman (slipping sticks),” he wrote. “These are elegantly carved and prepared: at the end they are slightly bent, like the iron of a skate, and form a heavy knob, while gradually tapering down in the handle. They cast these sticks with considerable skill over the smooth ice. In order to give them greater impulsion, a small, gently rising incline of frozen snow is formed on the ice, over which the gliding sticks bound.”

Today, snow snake games are returning to the snow and ice regions of the U.S. and Canada. The long, polished wooden pole is thrown for distance along the track in the snow. The longest throw determines the winner. Traditionally, bets would be placed on throwers’ efforts.

“Outdoor Indigenous sports, especially in the times of a pandemic, in casual play are a great way of socializing with family and friends,” DeMain said. “Many of these events bring together people whose interest in traditional sports provides an opportunity for the revival of traditional languages, working with equipment, tools and objects that need their own language basis revived as part of the reemerging instruction and survival of Native languages.”

DeMain said history was ever-present.

“It is a great deal of fun, energy and teasing, and to be able to be on the former capital grounds of the Ojibwe, with numerous Indigenous burial mounds and history surrounding us, a true aura of place is often felt on the island for those that visit,” he said.

“We are with our ancestors, and we play with them in mind.”

Sharing traditions

Paul Ninham, Wolf Clan from the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin and the brother of Indian Country Today writer Dan Ninham, was among those who attended the festival. Paul Ninham and DeMain were college friends at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.

His interest was in playing as well as gaining knowledge as one of the nation’s leading instructors of Indigenous games throughout the continent.

“My interest in Native traditional games can be pinpointed to 1988 when I was the recreation director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico,” Ninham told Indian Country Today. “The institute was an epicenter for Indigenous culture, art, language, lifeways, traditional foods, and overall Indigenous knowledge. I was taught numerous games by students from across Turtle Island.”

While sitting in an office one day, he noticed two Mohawk students tossing a lacrosse ball with wooden Iroquois sticks. He asked them to teach other students. A Yupik student shared details of Alaska Native traditional games.

He became interested in snow snakes in the early 1990s traveling through the Iroquois Confederacy while visiting relatives in the East.

“We stopped in Brantford, Ontario, at a cultural center and watched a snow snake tournament that was occurring,” he said. “We watched these Iroquois men and boys throwing the different-sized snakes on an elaborately made track that wrapped around the cultural center. It was one of the coolest sights I’ve ever seen.”

Shirley Barber, Oneida, and her daughter, Teresa Barber, sit by a campfire to watch competitors at the Inter-Tribal Nations Snow Snake Festival on Feb. 5, 2022, on Madeline Island, Wisconsin. Shirley Barber, 85, threw a snow snake for the first time and won a Hudson Bay Point blanket as the oldest participant. “I always wanted to do this,” Barber said, a retired teacher.  (Photo by Dan Ninham for Indian Country Today)

He continued, “When I saw a competitor waxing up his snow snake, to match the snow conditions, I knew the game was deep. Although several men here in the community will build a track and throw snakes periodically, at 64 years of age, I am still a beginner and am missing the intricate, cultural knowledge of the game. What I hope to bring to the island is my passion, knowledge and skills of teaching other traditional games.”

Preserving traditional games is important, he said.

“I am looking to collect knowledge and understanding of snow snake, while simultaneously expanding my Indigenous world view,” he said. “I view snow snake and our other ‘original games’ similar to our Indigenous languages. If we don’t learn and understand them, they will go away.”

The Oneida connection to the event continued when 85-year-old Shirley Barber threw a snow snake for the first time on the open ice area.

“I always wanted to do this,” said Barber, a retired teacher at Oneida Tribal School. “We never had snow snake in Oneida when I started teaching.”

Barber was given a Hudson Bay Point blanket as the eldest competitor.

Digging in

The temperature was a balmy 10 degrees with minimal wind chill when a team of volunteers began working the day before to make the event a success.

The preparation started by readying the snow track and open ice areas. The town of La Pointe used a snow plow to pile the ridge with packed snow. Community members came together to provide food donations and a warming house at a local church.

When night arrived, the extended group gathered at the Lighthouse Inn dining area to discuss the next day’s logistics. The decisions were made by consensus and discussion went quickly when the group decided to keep the event simple.

They also discussed the bigger issues involved in what is planned as an annual event.

“We had a deep cultural discussion on inclusivity and the distinction between the traditional game and the game to which we considered open invitational,” said Jon Greendeer. “We understand the evolution of our cultures has changed in many ways. We all agreed this is not a game conducted under traditional tenets and will be held as an open event.”

There were three competitive events: the raised track, the open ice area, and the hoop-and-snow-snake area.

There were male and female categories in an open category up to 54 years of age, and a master’s 55 years and older group. The youth would participate in an open category for the open-ice throw and hoop-and-snow-snake target game. There was only one winner per category.

The day of the festival, the temperature dropped with a below-zero wind chill, and light snow fell throughout the competition.

Randall Blackdeer, left,  and his son Randall Blackdeer Jr., citizens of the Ho-Chunk Nation, pull a log along the channel to keep the track clear for competitors during the Inter-Tribal Snow Snake Festival on Feb. 5, 2022, on Madeline Island, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dan Ninham for Indian Country Today)

Bob Shimek, Red Lake Ojibwe band member, brought the hoop-and-snow-snake game to the gathering. Participants would attempt to throw their snow snake on the open ice area through a rolling hoop.

The youth compete in the open ice area, with the furthest throw claiming the prize. Randall Blackdeer Jr., Ho-Chunk, was the champion, the start of a Ho-Chunk connection that would eventually win most of the categories.

Jon Greendeer won the Men’s Under 55 category with a throw of 241 feet. His daughter, Brittany Greendeer, won the Women’s Under 55 group with a throw of 145-feet-6-inches.

Bill Quackenbush, Ho-Chunk, won the Men’s 55 and Over group with a throw of 192 feet. Vickey Fineday, Red Lake Ojibwe, won the Women’s 55 and Over group with a throw of 131 feet.

A cultural experience

The result was a cultural experience that went far beyond the competitions.

“The food shared by our hosts and visitors was off the hook…at least literally for the delicious fish but so many of the preserved indigenous foods that came to life for our feasts couldn’t be matched,” said Jon Greendeer. “We shared in our meals, telling stories and teasing like only Natives can do when they come together.”

He continued, “If this is a competitive sport, it’s hard to see it. Spectators and throwers all cheering for one another waiting with excitement for each launch. Some of the sticks were on fire coming down the track.”

Christine Munson, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the wife of Jon Greendeer, agreed.

“What an amazing event,” she said. “We were welcomed to the island by Anishinaabeg people along with the year-long residents, and everything that followed was done with good feelings, reverence for the past, and an understanding that this is a historical resurgence of inter-tribal connections which will carry into the future.”

She said she is grateful to have participated.

“People connected with each other,” she said. “We shared foods, gifts, laughter, and songs. We connected with the island — the ice, the water, the critters, and the plants. It felt really good to be part of something that started as an idea shared among a few people that grew in synergy and culminated into a gathering of lots of folks who were all meant to be there at that moment in time.”

Her daughter, Rio Greendeer, said she’ll never forget the experience.

“This event was full of laughter and good memories,” Rio Greendeer said. “I learned so much about snow snake, the tracks, styles of sticks, and the way it is played. I enjoyed amazing food and was able to meet incredible people. Not only was the event incredible, Madeline island was beautiful. The scenery, the landscape, buildings, and the reflection of the sunlight on the ice was breathtaking.”

The words of Mishomis echoed across Madeline Island for the Snow Snake Festival, and plans are being made for the next one.

“People need to live in harmony, remember their past,” Mishomis said, “and pass on their traditions and stories.”

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