Before building a snow-snake track, you have to wait patiently for the first big snowfall of the season. “We keep praying for snow, even over the summer,” says William “Snooky” Brooks, who has been playing the game for more than 30 years. “A lot of our guys are construction workers, and it’ll be 90 degrees outside, and we’re talking at work about the snow-snake track. It grows into your blood.”
Snow snake (or gawasa, in the Seneca language) is a traditional winter game played by men across the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which encompasses Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora communities in upstate New York, as well as Ontario, and Quebec. While snow snake is a men’s game, women are often welcome to try their hand at demonstrations or community events.
“We don’t know how old it is, but when the first Europeans arrived, they described the game, way back in the 1600s,” says Michael Galban, a curator at the Seneca Arts and Culture Centre at the Ganondagan Historic Site who has helped organize an annual snow-snake demonstration for more than 15 years. (Due to COVID-19, this year’s demonstration was delivered through the museum’s YouTube channel.)
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Galban says he’s aware of other communities and nations that play a variation of the game, including some in the far northwest, but he notes that the Haudenosaunee have had a consistent legacy: “In Haudenosaunee communities, there was nothing that had to be resurrected. It's been continuous since ancient times, so the way that they play it is presumably specific to their tradition, and it's a very strong and old tradition.”
When there’s enough snow, players such as Brooks, who is from the Seneca Nation, drag a log over packed snow to create a track. The track can be as narrow as 25 centimetres across and as long as 1.5 kilometres if it’s established on a hill — or shorter, if the ground is flat. The head of the track is a pile of snow that’s roughly hip height and gradually slopes down until it hits ground level.
To play, you first need to make a snake — a roughly six-foot-long dowel made of a hardwood such as hickory or maple. (Today, some Brazilian hardwoods and African hardwoods are also incorporated.) Typically, snakes have a pointed tip that’s cast in pewter to protect it from damage.
When the track is ready, the team’s thrower hurls their snake down the track. As it picks up speed, it can resemble a slithering serpent, which many believe inspired the name. The teams that throw their snakes the farthest earn points. “They compete to whatever number of points that they decide on — maybe it’s 10, maybe 11 — and then they play like this all day long,” says Galban.
“When I was growing up, I was the marker,” recalls Ivan Bomberry, a member of the Cayuga nation from Six Nations of the Grand River who started helping at the track when he was nine years old. The marker, also called the runner, waits for his team’s snake to come down the track and then marks the distance.
Each team has a thrower or throwers, but one of the most important roles is the shiner — who is responsible for preparing the snakes for the weather conditions. Shiners are known for the top-secret swagum (also sometimes called “the stuff” or “potions”) that they apply to the snakes, much as a skier applies different waxes to their skis. The swagum could include oils, waxes, and plant medicines, but no one shares their recipe. “It’s proprietary,” says Galban. “If you are trying to be a shiner, you might try to work with somebody, and they may eventually reveal it, or you have to practise and learn on your own.”
The shiner considers weather conditions and snow quality to determine what kind of swagum to use on game day.
Bomberry remembers his father soaking a set of cherry-wood snow snakes in oil for six months. “As days get warmer, a puddle might start forming on the track,” he says. “All the other snakes will stop in that puddle, but my dad learned that, by having oil snakes, it’ll ride right on top of the water and keep going.”
Brooks has been making his own snow snakes and swagum concoctions for years. “A lot
of these teams have inherited snow snakes that are many years old, and, with that, they hand down the knowledge. Pretty much everything is an oral tradition, oral teachings,” he says. He plays with his nephews, son, and brothers and says teams are often made up of families: “There’s a lot of secrets that are kept and held within the families.”
In Six Nations, Bomberry is worried that snow snakes are being lost when players die. His father and most of the friends he played with had about 30 or 40 snakes each. “Now that they’ve passed away, it gets all divided up,” he says. Some of them give snakes to the throwers that were on the team, while others give them to relatives who may or may not be interested in playing. “You can’t just put them on your wall or stand them in the corner or something like that,” he says. “They’re meant to be played.”
The Woodland Cultural Centre in Six Nations had hosted a snow-snake tournament every year since 1975, says Bomberry, who worked there for more than a decade. He remembers there being about 20 teams that would compete: “There were people there from Syracuse, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Tonawanda, Tuscarora, and then we had our teams here in Six Nations.” However, due to staff changes at the centre, shifting weather conditions, and, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament was put on hold in 2016.
While its future is uncertain, Bomberry hopes the tournament will be revived. “We’ve got to keep that going. That’s part of our culture,” he says. “You might as well tell the sun not to come up.”
This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
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