Black Elk and Traditional Games

"Young men playing the hoop and spear game. The small building in the back-
ground had been newly installed for Black Elk's guests."
© Hilda Neihardt. Used with Permission.

Hilda Neihard described the hoop and spear game in her book "Black Elk and Flaming Rainbow: Personal Memories of the Lakota Holy Man and John Neihardt " .

That afternoon we played with hoops and spears that Hawk had made while we were away. The hoops were formed from small limbs or young tree shoots bent in to a circle, then secured with leather thongs. Across the hoops, additional thongs were loosely woven so as to leave openings for the long straight sticks thrown by the players. Two teams were chosen. A player on one side threw the hoops sharply downward in front of him so that it rolled swiftly toward the other team, who ran along side it and threw their spears, trying to get one through the hoop. It was a surprisingly fast game, for those young men could really run, even wearing cowboy boots and - yes! - the omnipresent cowboy hats. We really liked the game, and all of us took part, even Black Elk and Chase-in -the-Morning.

We learned that in the old days this game provided another kind of entertainment - a sort of gambling. For example, a mark would be put beside on the of the open spaces in the interwoven rawhide strips that would indicate a prize - perhaps a horse. If one of the players should happen to drive his spear into this particular opening, her would win the horse!

Hilda Neihardt, Black Elk, Chase-in-the-Morning and John Neihardt, with hoops and spears for the hoop and spear game.
© Hilda Neihardt. Used with Permission.

Later in her book Hilda described some other games used by the Lakota:

Not having outgrown my love of playing, if one ever does, I was intensely interested in the games Black Elk described. I have already mentioned the hoop and spear game that we all enjoyed so much. Another game that appealed to me was one played by boys, called "throwing them off their horses." Riding their ponies bareback, boys would ride up to one another, take hold, and attempt to pull or throw each other off. It was a rough-and-tumble game, and it prepared boys to be warriors. Back home in Missouri my sister Alice and I played a similar game, imitating knights by galloping toward each other with lances and shields. Why we never were hurt, I cannot say.

When Black Elk and his family wintered at Camp (Fort) Robinson, the children made sleds using buffalo ribs covered with stiff hide for runners. This sounded like fun, but I was not in the least impressed by the games the Indian girls played. Girls' games too were geared toward the part they would take in tribal life. For example, there was one game in which the players pushed a small round piece of bone or a small stone along the ground with their noses--a game that would teach them the womanly virtue of patience! Perhaps my attitude has dimmed my memory of just how it was played.

Another game, perhaps also preparation for being a warrior, was throwing mudballs with a strong and resilient stick, probably a branch from a young tree. With much practice a young man could become both powerful and accurate in projecting the ball at the intended victim. The serious nature of this game was revealed when Black Elk told us, "At that time I was training in throwing mudballs." Ben demonstrated an old-time contest by which the Lakotas showed their endurance. A seed was placed on the hand and lit, to see how much pain a man could tolerate before he would shake it off. Ben did not light the seed on his hand, but I still remember the imaginary pain I felt when I thought about its burning into the skin.

Bobby Bridger's Official Website provides images of Enid Neihardt's original photo album. One of the pages shows both of the gaming photographs shown above. Bridger explains how he acquired this set of photographs: "Enid also recorded visual images of the telling of Black Elk’s story with her Brownie HawkEye Camera. Shortly after my visit to Skyrim [the Neihardt’s ranch just outside of Columbia, Missouri], Enid had seven copies made of the historic photographs and, in 1984, honored me with one of the copies “for Bobby Bridger for use with his western sonnets.”