Saving the Games 

Arm wrestling on horseback?

That's just one of several dozen competitions slated for Aug. 15-21 at the First International Traditional Games on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

According to co-organizer DeeAnna Leader, the games are part of an ongoing effort by American Indian tribes and other ethnic groups from around the globe to reclaim parts of their cultural heritage.

"Every culture in the world has traditional games," Leader says. "As the world becomes more homogeneous, there's this danger of losing the games, as well as the culture that goes with them."

Leader, an elementary school principal from Plains, is executive director of a Browning-based nonprofit group that hopes to attract people from around the United States and Canada to compete in the upcoming event. The group is primarily funded through the Montana Committee for the Humanities and individual donors, and has received additional support from a variety of tribes, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad Co. and Glacier Park Inc., a private concessionaire operating in nearby Glacier National Park.

Leader says she started doing research into traditional games nearly a dozen years ago and found that many of the once-prominent activities were in danger of extinction. Working with the Blackfeet Tribe and reservation schools, concerned organizers secured a Montana Arts Council grant in 1990 to film Browning students reviving old Blackfeet games. In 1994, that research effort expanded and cultural leaders on the Flathead Indian Reservation began researching ancient games of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille tribes.

Now, Leader says, other tribes have expressed interest in bringing their games back, too. The Flathead Reservation plans to host the international games in 2001, she says.

While many traditional games involved shows of physical strength, skill or stamina, she says the majority were based on intuition and chance. That's likely because survival in the natural world was based on successfully facing many mental challenges, as well as physical ones.

"In a modern society, imminent danger is not prevalent on a daily basis," she explains. "Most of the games of intuition, except for the handgames, have been lost."

The proposed line-up for the August event, believed to be the first in the nation, includes a broad slate of competitions, some of which have not been played publicly for more than 100 years, Leader says.

For instance, bareback riders are scheduled to cast lances at stationary targets, teams of horsemen will arm wrestle each while at a full gait, and endurance riders will pound the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front to see which rugged horse and contestant can best match the miles. Of special interest may be the horse capture race, where three-member teams attempt to corral and take control of a wild-ranging steed, and the horse-and-hide race, in which a person is dragged behind a mount while hanging onto an animal skin.

On foot, Indian runners are scheduled to compete in races ranging from five kilometers to a half-marathon. Stringed-kickball and soccer-like shinny competitions-growing favorites among some Indian youth-are also on tap, as well as a round of Native American lacrosse, Cree double ball, Cheyenne and Crow football, canoe racing and the heaving of atlatls, special hunting weapons designed for enhanced speed and accuracy. A Canadian group also plans a tipi-raising contest.

In the intuition-and-chance category, rock-in-the-moccasin, a guessing game, will be played, along with the plum stone game, a competition that involves special bone disks that are placed in a bowl that is thrown to the ground. Piegan handgame, a complicated group activity done with sticks and bones, will also be featured. Specialized children activities, colorfully called "guessing sticks," "make the stick jump," and "run and scream," a lively Blackfeet girls' game, are also scheduled. Cultural "learning centers" will be set up around the reservation to explain tribal cultural traditions, teach drumming and singing, and explore tribal histories through storytelling.

"There's been a lot of thought put into this," Leader says, adding that organizers have received inquiries from Japan, Israel, Sweden, Australia, and Kenya. "When people understand the concept of this, they really get excited."

Visitors to the games will be asked to pay a $20 entry fee to help defray costs, as well as some smaller fees to watch or participate in some of the events. Contestants pay entry fees, as well, and cash prizes will be awarded in some categories. Three main sites-Chewing Blackbones Campground between St. Mary and Babb, the Glacier Gateway rodeo grounds outside East Glacier, and a tipi camp located 12 miles south of Browning on U.S. Highway 89, will be used. Opening ceremonies start at 2 p.m. on Aug. 15 at the rodeo grounds.

Leader cautions that seating will be limited at some of the activities, especially ones held in the rural areas, and visitors should plan on bringing their own chairs as well as food and water. A main challenge in the planning process, she says, is that no one knows how many participants and bystanders will show up for the week-long event.

For more information on the First Traditional Games, call 1-800-775-1355, 406-338-7706 and 406-338-7702, email or visit the website at

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