Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/May 1891/Some Games of the Zuni



PLAY finds its best exemplification in the Indian of the South-west. Living in a mild and genial climate, naturally shiftless and improvident, this true child of Nature consumes his exuberant vitality by play instead of work. Step to the bank of the Zuñi River on one of those supreme mornings in August, which only the matchless climate of New Mexico knows, and you will behold a sight which for genuine mirth and romp will surpass that of any Eastern outdoor gymnasium or children's park. The river, a stream of less than ten feet, winds like a serpent through a sandy bed about one hundred feet wide. This river-bed is the chief playground of the Zuñi child. Here boys and girls, some clad, some with only ear-rings or a chance necklace, are bathing, racing, wrestling, throwing sand, perchance riding some razor-backed hog; everywhere are life and merriment. I think it worthy of note that not once during the whole summer did I see a quarrel of any kind.

This spirit of playfulness remains with the boys and characterizes their later life. Not so with the girls. These, to the age of thirteen or fourteen, are very jolly and playful, but after that they begin to age, very rapidly. This is probably the result of early marriage, a custom of the tribe. Zuñi seems to have no class of buxom young women; the transition is from joyous, frolicsome girlhood, to sedate and sober womanhood.

But, beside these sports of childhood, there are a few games which deserve our attention. They are not limited to any age, but, so far as I know, are confined to the male sex.

Before describing these games I wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of Mr. D. D. Graham, the trader—a gentleman of culture, who has lived among the Zuñis many years, and is perfectly familiar with their language. Although some of these games are seldom played in summer, yet through his co-operation I have witnessed nearly all of them.

Põ-ké-an.—This game is somewhat similar to our popular game called battledoor and shuttlecock. Green corn-husks are wrapped into a flat mass about two inches square, and on one side are placed two feathers, upright; then, using this as a shuttle-cock and the hand for a battledoor, they try how many times they can knock it into the air. Some become very skillful in this, and as they return the shuttlecock to the air they count aloud in their own language—Tō-pa, quil-ē, hī, ă-wē-ta, ap-ti, etc. The striking resemblance to our European game suggests a common origin, and it may easily have been introduced through contact with the Spaniards. This, however, is doubtful, and I am inclined to think that we must give the Indian the credit of inventing this game rather than borrowing it, as similarity of product by no means proves identity of origin.

Shō-wē-es-tō-pa.—The number of players is unlimited. Each one has several arrows. One throws an arrow on the ground eight or ten feet in front of him, the others follow in turn, and, should the arrow thrown by any one cross that of another at the beginning of the feathers, he takes it. The limits of success are very small, and skillful throwing is required to win the arrows of another. This game is but little played at present, and I am doubtful whether the younger men of the tribe know how to play it. José California (so named because he made a trip to California on a burro) played it for me. The decline of the game is probably due to the decline of the use of the bow and arrow, but I think it has left a descendant in

Lō-pō-chē-wā.—This is played only by the boys. Instead of arrows they use pieces of bone two or three inches long with feathers tied to them. You may see five or six boys playing this game in all parts of the pueblo at any time during the summer. They generally touch the bone to the tongue before throwing it, to make it stick. The principle of the game is the same as that of the one just described.

Than-kā-lā-wā.—This game is usually played in the spring, and resembles somewhat our game of quoits. In place of the ordinary quoit they use flat stones. Any number may take part. A small stone or even a corn-cob is set up, and on this each places his stake. To determine who shall pitch first, they all throw for some distant point. He who comes nearest to the mark chosen pitches first, and each one follows according to his throw; then the game begins. The distance pitched is nearly one hundred feet. The object is to knock over the stake or pool. If the pool is knocked over, and the stone pitched goes beyond it, it counts nothing; if just even with it, the one who pitched has another chance; if it remains behind, he takes everything, and all put up again. They count it great sport, and some become very skillful in pitching.

A-we-wō-po-pa-ne[1]—This is played by only two persons, but each usually has several backers, and considerable betting is done. One place is designated as the stone-home. One hundred stones are placed in a row a certain distance apart. Each stone must be picked up and carried separately and placed, not thrown, in the stone-home. Another point, several miles distant, is taken, and the game is for one to run to the distant spot and return, while the other gathers up the stones. As it is a contest of speed and judgment, not chance, it becomes very exciting.

This almost inordinate desire for play, which I have claimed for the Zuñis, seems not to be of recent origin. The three games, shō-wē-es-tō-pa, shō-le-wā, and ti-kwa-we, were "played by the Zuñis as soon as they came out of the ground," as one expressed it. That this expression may be better understood, I will quote from Mrs. Stevenson's article on The Religious Life of a Zuñi Child:[2] "Let us follow the Zuñi tradition of the ancient time, when these people first came to this world. In journeying hither they passed through four worlds, all in the interior of this, the passage-way from darkness into light being through a large reed. From the under world they were led by the two little war-gods, Ah-ai-ū-ta and Mā-ā-sē-we, twin brothers, sons of the sun, who were sent by the sun to bring these people to his presence. They reached this world in early morning, and seeing the morning star they rejoiced, and said to the war-gods, 'We see your father, of whom you have told us.' 'No,' said the gods, 'this is the warrior who comes before our father'; and when the sun rose the people fell upon the earth and bowed their heads in fear."

Shō-lē-wā.—This game was played for me by Boots and José California. They have four pieces of reed about four inches long. These are differently marked; on the concave side, painted in places, and on the convex side marked with carvings, as shown in Fig. 1. Each piece is named. The one whose concave side is entirely

PSM V39 D051 Reeds for playing sho le wa.jpg

Fig. 1.—Reeds foe Plating Shō-lē-wā.

painted black is called quin, the Zuñi for black; the one with one black end, path-tō; with two black ends, kō-ha-kwa; and the one with a black center, ath-lu-a. Fig. 2 shows the manner of holding these pieces when about to play. They are held in the right hand, and thrown up against a suspended blanket and allowed to fall on another blanket. Two of the pieces belong to each man and are companions. The manner in which the sticks fall determines the result. There is a pool with twelve markers in it, and he who wins the markers wins the game. The winner PSM V39 D052 Manner of holding the reeds in sho le wa.jpgFig. 2.—Manner of holding the Reeds in Shō-lē-wā. takes the twelve markers up into his hands and breathes on them. This is because they have been good to him and allowed him to win. It is wholly a game of chance, and horses, guns, saddles, and everything are staked upon the throw.

Tash-a-lē-wā.—Tis is a game of chance, is played by two, and is very popular. The players sit on the ground, with a ring of forty small stones, in four sections of ten stones each, between them. The ring is usually several feet in diameter. In the center is a large flat stone called a-rey-ley, upon which the players make their throws. The dice, ta-mey, are small flat sticks about three inches long, and painted red on one side. These are taken in the right hand and thrown endwise on the central stone. If the three red sides turn up, the player scores ten and gets another throw; if the three white sides, he gets five; two red and one white, three; two white and one red, two. For counting, each player has a stick called a horse, or touche. Starting from the same interval in the circle of stones, each player moves his marker over as many stones as he has won points. Should the two meet at the same interval, the second one coming there will send the first one back home, and he must begin over. The idea, as given by the Indians, is, that the newcomer has dismounted or killed the first one. The horse is supposed to stop and drink at the intervals between the groups of stones. One game which I witnessed had loaded rifle-cartridges for stakes. Each player places his bet within the circle of stones.

Ti-kwa-we, or Game of the Kicked Stick[3]—This is the great national game of Zuñi. Among Zuñi sports it ranks as baseball does among our own. It is indulged in by almost the whole male population, from boys of five or six to men of forty. Any evening of the summer one can see crowds of twenty or thirty boys skirting the southern hills and kicking the stick. Practiced thus during eight months of the year, they have an especial occasion when they contest for the championship, and this is one of the great jubilees of the tribe. Although the women do not take part, yet they show equal interest with the men and become as much excited.

The time of holding this contest is usually in the spring between the planting of the wheat and the corn. The Priest of the Bow makes six prayer-plumes and six race-sticks. The prayer plumes consist of small sticks with the white feathers from the tail of a certain species of hawk tied to one side; the race-sticks are about the size of the middle finger. The priest then takes these sticks and places them on the trail toward the south, and for four days they remain there untouched. At the end of this time he, and any others who wish to join in the race, will run out to where the sticks have been placed, and as they arrive they breathe on their hands and then kick the sticks home, making a circle of two or three miles.

Four days later a representative of each clan, each with a picture of his clan painted on his back, will run out in much the same manner. By this time most of the people have returned from their wheat-planting and the ti-kwa-we is in order. At present there are six estufas in Zuñi—Ha-e-que, Ha-cher-per-que, Choo-per-que, Moo-ha-que, O-ha-que, and Uts-ann-que. The contest lies between the members of these different estufas, and not between the members of the different clans or parts of the pueblo, as has been stated by some writers.

Whatever estufas wish to contest select their men. When the men have been selected it is announced in the evening from the house-tops. This generally takes place three or four days prior to the race. This race is generally held at Zuñi, but may be held at one of the farming pueblos, as Pescado, Ojo Caliente, or Nutria; in any case it is estufa against estufa. On the evening of the day before the race each side sends for a Priest of the Bow. Upon arrival he puts into the mouth of each one a piece of glass about one inch long; and with some sacred meal, taken from his pouch, he paints a mask on each one's face, then blesses them, and they repair to the hills three or four miles distant. They depart in absolute silence. Not a word may they speak unless they hear or frighten some wild animal in front of them. If the sound comes from behind, it is considered an ill omen. Having reached the hills, they dig a hole about the length of the arm and deposit in it some sacred meal, native tobacco, hewe, shells, and other things held valuable by the Zuñis, and then retire a short distance and do not speak above a whisper. In a little while one will start for the pueblo, saying nothing, and the rest follow in single file. As they return, any manifestation of power, as thunder or lightning, is considered a good omen, as it will make them strong.

The priest who blessed them before they started awaits their return and accompanies them to the house of one of the racers or that of any member of the same estufa. As they reach the door of the house, those within say, "Have you come?" "We have" they reply. "Come in and sit down." The priest then blesses them, and a single cigarette is made of native tobacco and passed among the number. Then they retire for the night. Next morning everything is alive in Zuñi. Indeed, for several days past the whole population has been somewhat excited over the coming event. Every one takes sides, from the gray-haired old warrior, who believes the ti-kwa-we to be the greatest game ever held, to the blushing maiden whose lover is one of the contestants. Excitement runs high, and the gambling disposition of the Indian has its fullest encouragement. The small boy meets his playmate and stakes all his possessions. The veteran gambler once more tries the turn of fortune, and to counteract his heavier betting he makes a longer prayer to Ah-ai-u-ta or plants an additional plume. The contestants themselves engage in betting, and every conceivable thing of value to an Indian is either carried to the plaza, south of the old Spanish church, where it is put up against something of equal value held by an opponent, or is hurried off to the trader's store and turned into money. Ponies, sheep, goats, money, beads, bracelets, all are wagered. Sometimes also they sell the race. This is not generally admitted by the Zuñis, but I have it on good authority that it has been done.

The day for the race has arrived; the runners have been up since early morning, and have taken a spin over part of the course. During the morning nearly all the members of the estufa drop in to tell them how much they have wagered on their success and to encourage them. About an hour before the time to start they eat a little hewe, or paper bread, soaked in water. Hewe is one of the chief breadstuffs of the Zuñis, and a good hewe-maker is in reputation throughout the tribe as a good pastry-cook is among us. Hewe is made from corn batter spread with the hand on a large flat stone over a slow fire. It takes but a moment to bake it, is almost as thin as paper, very crisp, and will vary in color according to the color of the corn used. This repast of hewe is accompanied by a piece of humming-bird, as the flight of that bird is so very swift.

The runners then bathe in a solution made from a root called que-me-way. The time for the contest is at hand. The every-day attire is exchanged for the simple breech-clout. The hair is done up in a neat knot on the top of the head, and the priest pronounces a blessing as he fastens in it an arrow-point, the emblem of fleetness. He then places a pinch of ashes in front of each racer, and, standing before him, holding an eagle-wing in each hand, he first touches the ashes with the tips of the wings and then brushes the racer from head to foot. Then turning to the north he touches the wings together and says a prayer, the same to the west, south, east, the earth, and sky. I suppose the idea of the Zuñi in this to be, that as he has sent a prayer to the four points of the compass, the earth, and sky, he has cut off every possible source of misfortune and danger.

Everything being now ready, the priest leads his favorites to the course across the river. Excitement in the pueblo has reached its height; the most venturesome are offering big odds in the plaza, and now all assemble to see the start.

Should a side be at all doubtful of its success in the race, an old woman is procured to sit and pray during the entire race. She sits in the middle of the room. The racers sweep the floor around her and then pile up everything that is used about the fire, such as pokers, ladles, stirring-sticks, and even the stones used to support the pots during cooking: these are to make their opponents warm; also the mullers with which they grind the corn, and the brooms: these will make them tired. A woman is chosen rather than a man, because she is not so fleet of foot. Similar ideas are found among many other peoples.

"It is a world-wide superstition that by injuring the footprints you injure the feet that made them. Thus, in Mecklenburg it is thought that if you thrust a nail into a man's footprints the man will go lame. The Australian blacks held exactly the same view. 'Seeing a Tatūngolūng very lame' says Mr. Howitt, 'I asked him what was the matter? He said, "Some fellow has put bottle in my foot."...' The Damaras of South Africa take earth from the footprints of a lion and then throw it on the tracks of an enemy, with the wish, 'May the lion kill you!'"[4]

As each side is brought to the course the priest gives a parting blessing, and the runners take their positions opposite their opponents in single file along the course. The tik-wa, or stick to be kicked, is about the size of the middle finger. That belonging to one side has its ends painted red and that of the other side its center painted red, so they may be easily distinguished. The rear man of each file places the tik-wa across the base of his toes and sprinkles a little sacred meal upon it. Surrounding the racers will be three or four hundred mounted Indians dressed in the gayest colors. All is now ready; each rider has his eye on his favorite side, an old priest rides in advance and sprinkles sacred meal over the course, the starters kick the sticks, and the wildest excitement prevails. As each racer left his home he put into his mouth two shell beads—the one he drops as a sacrifice as he starts, the other when he has covered about one half the course. The stick is tossed rather than kicked, and a good racer will toss it from eighty to one hundred feet. Over the heads of the runners it goes and falls beyond the first man. He simply points to where it lights, and runs on. The next man tries to kick it, but should he fail to get under it he goes on, and the next man takes it. The race is not to the swift alone, although this has much to do with it. The stick can in no case be touched with anything but the foot, and should it fall into a cactus bush, a prairie-dog hole, or an arroyo, much valuable time is lost in getting it out. Not infrequently it happens that one side will be several miles in advance of the other when the stick falls into some unnoticed hole. The wild and frenzied yelling which takes place as those who were behind come up and pass can only be imagined and not described. So skill in tossing it plays a prominent part. On, on they go to the southern hills, east to Ta-ai-yal-lo-ne, north to the mesas, follow these west for miles, then to the southern hills, and back again to the starting-point. The distance traversed is nearly twenty-five miles, and they pass over it in about two hours. Racing is indulged in by the excited horsemen as they approach the goal, and it is not unusual to see a pony drop over dead from exhaustion as they near the village. The successful runner crosses the river and runs around the heap of wagered goods near the church, then, taking up the tik-wa in his hands for the first time, he inhales, as he thinks, the spirit of the tik-wa, and thanks it for being so good to him. He then runs to his home, and, if he finds a woman awaiting him, hands the stick to her, who breathes on it twice, and he then does the same. Returning it to the woman, she places it in a basket which she has ready for it; and the next day one of the racers wraps it up with some sacred meal in a corn-husk and deposits it about six inches below the surface of the ground in an arroyo, where it will be washed away by the rains.[5] Meanwhile the winners have claimed their stakes, and, should another estufa have a set of men to put up, the winners of the first race must compete with them until all have had a chance, and the great Zuñi races are over for that year.

Kle-tak-wa (Rabbit-hunt).—Communal hunts seem at one time to have been held by many of the Indian tribes, and are described by the early Spaniards. Many of them were nothing less than a wholesale slaughter. Whether the Zuñis ever indulged in them to that extent I am unable to say, but I saw a fence about fifteen miles to the southeast of Zuñi which, I was told, extended for seventy-five miles, and was formerly used to direct the herds of antelope to a certain place. The presence of the fence suggests the possibility that formerly such hunting expeditions may have taken place there, as Livingstone describes in southern Africa. The rabbit-hunts are described by the early Spanish chroniclers, and are still held by at least the Zuñis and Moquis. Undoubtedly at one time they had a considerable religious significance, but to-day they have more the nature of a frolic.

The Zuñis have eight rabbit-hunts a year—four by the Coyote people and four by the Eagle people. The time of holding them is fixed by the chief of the rabbit-hunts. Although held under the especial direction of particular clans, yet nearly all the male inhabitants take part. I will describe the one in which I took part last August.

PSM V39 D057 The start for the rabbit hunt.jpg

Fig. 3.—The Start fur the Rabbit-hunt.

One evening about sundown I heard the herald (as is the custom of this people) announcing something from the top of the pueblo. Upon inquiry, I learned that there would be a rabbit-hunt in four days. Three evenings later, seated upon the top of the pueblo, as was our wont to do, while watching the gorgeous sunsets, we noticed that, in addition to the accustomed scene of home-returning flocks and herds, there were many herds of Indian ponies brought in and put into the corrals. This foretold a good turnout for the morrow. Just at nightfall the herald again proclaimed the hunt. At noon the next day the scene in the pueblo was an active one. Everywhere ponies and horses were being saddled for the chase. Some few who had no ponies started ahead on foot. Half an hour later we all gathered on the farther side of the river, on the road to Ojo Caliente, and a picturesque crowd it was indeed—between three hundred and four hundred horsemen dressed in calico of all colors and patterns, with all kinds of head-gear, from the sombrero decorated with eagle-feathers to the scarlet head-band. A few had bows and arrows, others had hoes and digging-irons; but all had two or more boomerangs, called kle-a-ne simply curved sticks about eighteen inches long.[6] These they use to kill the rabbits, being thrown from the horse while in motion. A few Navajoes, who also took part, added to the scene. The hunting ground was about ten miles to the southwest, on the road to Ojo Caliente. It is generally customary to have a ti-hwa-we on the way down. So far as I could see, no betting was done, but the excitement at times was intense. There were four racers on a side, and the course was covered in very good time.

PSM V39 D058 Moqui boomerang.jpg

Fig. 4.—Moqui Boomerang.

As the word was given to start, the company spread out over about an acre of ground, with the racers in the center. Each horseman cheered his side, and when the race was over I procured the ti-kwa. When we reached the ground, already the Cacique of the Sun had lighted a fire, and I was told he had put under it medicine to make the rabbits slow. This belief in the power to thus control wild animals is held by other peoples.

"This superstition is turned to account by hunters in many parts of the world for the purpose of running down game. Thus a German huntsman will stick a nail taken from a coffin into the fresh spoor of the animal he is hunting, believing that this will prevent the quarry from leaving the hunting ground. Australian blacks put hot embers in the tracks of the animals they are pursuing. Hottentot hunters throw into the air a handful of sand taken from the footprints of the game, believing that will bring them down."[7]

The second priest of the Order of the Bow made a long speech, in which he told the hunters that the rabbits had been made slow, and they should get ready for the chase. After the ponies had rested a little, all mounted and set out. The more devout, however, before starting, went up near the fire, dismounted, untied their boomerangs, and got out a piece of bread. Advancing to the fire, they first said a prayer, then held their boomerangs in the flame or smoke a moment, and then threw a piece of bread into the fire as a sacrifice. Others dismounted and, without saying a prayer or offering any bread, just passed their boomerangs through the flame and remounted; while others only rode near the fire and, without dismounting, simply waved their sticks toward the flame and went on. The great majority, however, did not come near the fire at all. As I witnessed this feature of the hunt, I could not help silently observing that among the Indians there are degrees of devoutness as among white men.

The Priest of the Bow made a second and a third speech, and by this time the horsemen were well scattered over the plain. This was covered with sage-brush and scrub cedars. There are two species of rabbit, the cotton-tail (ok-she-ko) and the jackrabbit (pok-ya). There was no attempt to surround a large territory and drive the rabbits; but, as one was started up, his pursuer would give a yell, and in a few moments the harmless cottontail or jack would be surrounded by fifty or sixty horsemen. As they close in on the rabbit, those nearest it throw their boomerangs, and whoever hits it is off in a moment to claim and pick up his game. If the rabbit is not already dead, it is at once dispatched by a blow with the hand, and then it is raised to the mouth, and the hunter inhales, believing he is taking in the spirit of the rabbit. He then ties it to his saddle, and is ready for another chase. The cotton-tail often takes refuge in a hole, and then there is a grand rush to the place to reach in and pull it out. Grubbing-hoes, digging-irons, and fingers are all used to enlarge the hole, and at last the poor rabbit is pulled out, with perhaps only half his hide on. Thus it was, for three or four hours, just a succession of rallies and deploys. At the end of that time nearly every one had one or two rabbits. Those on foot seemed to fare as well as those on horseback. I am told that sometimes they bring in wild cats and coyotes, caught in the same way, but they found none that afternoon.

About six o'clock a heavy shower came up, and the foresight of the Indian at once showed itself, for every one of them had his blanket with him, while I was thoroughly drenched. As we returned to the pueblo, many feats of horsemanship were displayed and a number of races run.

The rabbits are given by the hunters to the squaws, who place them on the floor of the house, with an ear of corn between their paws. Bandelier tells us that formerly these hunts were conducted in behalf of the caciques of the tribe, but this custom seems to have fallen into entire disuse.[8]

  1. There is a slight resemblance in this contest to our sport, the potato race.
  2. Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology.
  3. This game was described by Mr. F. Webb Hodge, in the Anthropologist for July, 1890. I have thought well to repeat it here in connection with the other games, and also to make some corrections and add several points which Mr. Hodge seems to have overlooked.
  4. J. G. Frazer, in Folk Lore, June, 1890.
  5. This reminds one of our custom of burying certain things under the drop of the house, or throwing them in streams, for the purpose of curing certain diseases. To-day the Zuñian plants his prayer-plumes in the water-courses. Can it be that our custom had a religious origin?
  6. Fig. 4 represents a Moqui boomerang. Those used by the Zuñis on the rabbit-hunt were much the same, only not quite so well made, a stick with a less marked curve serving in most cases. They were thrown as clubs, with elbow forward.
  7. J. G. Frazer, in Folk Lore, June, 1890.
  8. Ad. Bandelier, Papers of the Archæological Institute of America. American Series, iii, p. 160.