Snow Snake is a traditional Haudenosaunee game played during the winter. Historically, the games were played when the men of the villages returned from their annual hunting trip. The fun, sometimes intense, matches saw each village showcase its athletic ability. It was – and still is – an exciting game of skill to the Haudenosaunee people. It was often referred to as a medicine game that lifted the spirits of the men during long winters, but the games today are mostly just for sport and to build comradery.
Snow snakes are hand-made from a flattened or carved piece of wood. One end of the snow snake is curved up slightly and the other end is notched to make it easier to throw.
The object of the game is to throw the snow snake the farthest distance along a smooth trough made in the snow. Teams alternate tosses. The distance the snake travels is added to that team’s score and whichever side has the longest total distance – after a predetermined number of rounds – is the winner.
There were different snow snakes for the different types of snow, allowing the men to play in heavy packing snow, powdery snow and icy snow. Certain types of wax are used to help the snow snake slide along the trough, much like the wax used on skis.
To raise the stakes a bit, the men would bet something of worth to them. Many teams wagered with new hides, furs or wampum.
Much like a lacrosse stick, women were not allowed to touch a man’s snow snake. Women were not supposed to play, and in some places, they didn’t even allow women to watch a game. It was for men only.
For a big game, the men would come from all over to play and the best players always shoot first. The mudcats (shorter versions of the snow snake) are usually thrown between the big games, or what might be considered halftime nowadays.
Today, this medicine game is great for socializing and remembering the traditions of the generations before us.
The last big snow snake gathering in Oneida was in 1988. Corn bread, corn soup and snow snake cookies were served and the players came from all over the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to participate