Moccasin game is a men’s game, traditionally, played by men only. This game is played by hiding four marbles under four moccasin pads, and in former times, used moccasins that could be worn. One of the marbles is marked or differently colored than the other three.
Shooting sticks made of oak are used to make the guesses. Twenty counting sticks, made of thin wooden dowels about a foot long, are used for the counting. Nine smaller sticks, three inches long and as thick as a thumb are also used for the scoring. These smaller scoring sticks are called soldiers or Zhiimaaganish. Two to three men or young men make a team. Two teams play each other and will sit across from each other on a blanket laid on the floor or ground. One teammate will hide the marbles while one of the others pounds on a drum and sings. The beat used to pound the drum is unique to moccasin game and sounds like a horse trotting. The opposing team guesses the location of the marked or different colored marble. For each attempt at finding this marked marble, the team pays a certain number of counting sticks which leads to scoring a soldier or small scoring stick which then leads to winning the game. Usually the first team to collect five soldiers or scoring sticks wins the game. Once the marked marble is successfully located, the hider is paid what he is owed in counting sticks and then the opposing team’s hider hides his marbles. This goes back and forth until one team attains the five soldiers and wins the game. A game can last several hours or one hour at the least. A tournament usually starts on a Saturday afternoon plays into the night and resumes Sunday morning and lasts all day with the championship game getting over during the evening. Some bigger tournaments start earlier and last three days.
There is one other variation of this type of moccasin game. There is an Ojibwe style that we are playing here and a Dakota style. Ojibwe style moccasin game is still played on the Red Lake, Mille Lacs, Nett Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Roseau River, and Lac La Croix Reservations. Moccasin Game tournaments are conducted during the pow-wows and celebrations of their reservations. There are regional differences in rules but they are minor. Teams travel from reservation to reservation to participate in tournaments.
The Ojibwe style of moccasin game presented here is of my understanding and what I learned about moccasin game as I grew up playing this beautiful game, mainly on the Red Lake Reservation. There are minor differences in rules in different Ojibwe communities and what I am presenting in this book are rules of the Red Lake and Nett Lake reservations in Minnesota.
As I understand it, moccasin game had almost become nonexistent for a period of time and was almost nonexistent for several years before a few elders started to bring the game back and volunteer their time and energy to teach the younger generation the moccasin game. I was lucky to be in the midst of this era of teaching the moccasin game and was able to play with many elders in a few different communities through the years. We played in these areas: Mille Lacs Lake Reservation, Minnesota; Roseau River First Nation, Manitoba; Red Lake Reservation, Minnesota; Fort Frances, Ontario; and Brandon, Manitoba.
My early years of learning the game were in the time before there were all the video games. After school, I, along with several friends, would get together and play moccasin game through the evening and late into the night, sometimes all weekend. We would travel to different moccasin game tournaments around Ojibwe country and participate. Probably our oldest Ojibwe men’s game, moccasin game has been and is still a big part of our Ojibwe culture even to this day. Every Ojibwe community has stories of when moccasin game was played a lot and at all kinds of occasions. A lot of the older elders taught us how to play and these were the guys we played many games against; many are gone into the next world now and are probably playing moccasin game over there. I have a deep appreciation to our elders for passing this awesome game on to my generation and I feel it my duty to pass on the moccasin game also.
There are many teachings in the moccasin game for our native male youth of today. The game teaches good competition between men and how to work as a team and teaches about one’s self and gives a sense of identity as Ojibwe. It is a good social event for men to be around other men and like my longtime friend Todd said, it gives men a sober social environment to get together and teach our young males about being men. The moccasin game is said to have a power that heals its players and keeps them in good health and keeps them out of trouble. I believe this to be true. The old guys I learned from lived to be a good old age and were pretty much healthy and seemed to return to the moccasin game tournaments every year.
The first time my brother and I taught the game as a class, it was to a group of at-risk male youth and while they were meeting with us regularly they stayed out of trouble. The moccasin game for me has been a valuable tool in changing the issue of our youth not knowing their identity and what it is to be Ojibwe or Native American. Teaching them who they are and what are our own traditions of being a man leads to a betterment of all. This game is at least a thousand years old, if not thousands and has been used that long for just this purpose, and being an enjoyable social event. These are just a few of the reasons and teachings surrounding moccasin game and its purpose and spirituality.