2 Origin and History of Ojibwe style Moccasin Game

Let me start by saying moccasin game is a men’s game and is traditionally played by men only.

The Ojibwe people speak the most complex language in the world and like their language, Moccasin game is a complex game and it is said that the only way to truly learn the game is to play it.  The Ojibwe word for the game is Makazinataagewin, pronounced (moccasin ah taa gay win).  There are two styles of moccasin game, Ojibwe style that is presented in this book and Dakota style that is similar but less complex and is played by the Dakota that border the Ojibwe.

In former times moccasin game was played for anything and at any time.  With the assault on language and culture of the indigenous peoples by the United States government the church labeled moccasin game a gambling game and outlawed it.  The game went underground and survived but still carries the negative stigma of being a gambling game.  Sometimes wagers are made on moccasin games but I see more wagers being made on professional sports, college sports and high school sports than I do on moccasin game.  As you will see as I explain the origin of the moccasin game, it is a beautiful game and is the exact opposite of what it was labeled in the past by the dominant society, missionaries, Government agents, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  I am thankful that the moccasin game lived on and thanks to the many Ojibwe men that took the risk and kept it alive.

The origin of the moccasin game is a very old legend and is considered a sacred story. 

I travelled one cold winter evening to formally request an elder relative to share this sacred story with me.  This elder relative is the only known person that I know of that possesses this sacred knowledge at this time.   It is our way to give a gift of tobacco, a gift (usually a blanket), and nowadays some money to request sacred information and can only be done in this manner.  After travelling a long distance I was greeted with some really good Ojibwe hospitality. In a respectful and sacred way I gave my gifts starting with the tobacco and made my request.  This elder told me in the English language that he could only tell me this sacred story in the Ojibwe language.  This elder then switched to Ojibwe without a flinch, smoked his sacred pipe and shared this lengthy sacred story that I am now going to share with you in English and translate the best I can to English.  Keep in mind that nothing can really be translated 100% to English from Ojibwe because the world views, cultures, language, societal norms, and way of thinking are very different.  Also, my version might differ from other accounts of this already documented legend.

A very long time ago, long before the time of the coming of the white race to Turtle Island (North America), there was an Ojibwe man who lived his life as Ojibwe did in those times.  He lived in a village with other Ojibwe and he had a wife and two kids.  They lived the normal Ojibwe life and enjoyed it. There came a time when the man’s wife and two children died and passed to the next world.  The man became stricken with grief and gave up his daily routines and quit taking care of himself.  The man became very depressed that his wife and children were gone.  People would come and try and talk to the man and help him with his grief but he did not listen and his condition worsened.  One day he left the village and went far out into the woods.  The man walked and walked and became weak from not eating; his clothes were becoming raged and hung on him as his condition worsened.  The man kept walking and got as far away from his village as he could, going ever deeper into the forest.  The man was very deep in the forest and when animals would see his condition they would take pity on the man; they would attempt to give themselves to him for food and clothing but the man would refuse their sacrifice and would just keep walking.  Once a deer took pity and stood still until the man was almost touching him and the man walked around the deer not accepting the deer’s generosity.  His body and cloths were deteriorating as he journeyed ever further and deeper into the wilderness.  As he walked into a clearing he fell to his knees from exhaustion and was hunched over.  Just then he heard someone approaching.  As the person walked up to his side, the man thought to himself, I hope it is an enemy warrior that will take my pitiful life and I will not be miserable anymore.  This person that walked up asked him what was wrong.  The man answered, I have lost my wife and children and I do not want to live anymore, kill me or leave me alone.   The man while hunched over and on his knees turned his head to see the man and he did not recognize him.  The man was carrying a sack draped over his shoulder.  The man carrying the sack helped the ill man to sit up and said to him, I will show you something; it is a gift from me to you.  It is a game that you will take back to the people and it will make you feel good and lift your grief and it will draw people together when you play it.  It is a healing game and it will take care of you and those that play the game.  It is a men’s game and although it will not replace your wife and kids, it will bring back those good feelings and laughter that you once had when your family were with you.  The ill man accepted and this man fed the ill man some berries, fish, and tea that he had.  The ill man consumed the nourishing gift and began to feel better.

The man took the sack from his shoulder and opened it.  There were several items in the sack and the man began to take them out one by one and place them on the ground in front of the ill man.  The man took out the moccasins and laid them down four in a row, then he took out the counting sticks and placed them on the ground, then took out the short sticks also called soldiers, then he took out the marbles: one different and three the same, then he took out the shooting stick and it measured from the tip of his middle finger to his shoulder: the length of his arm.  The last item that he took from the sack was the hand drum and drum stick.  The man showed him the drum beat to be used for moccasin game and said there would be songs, many songs that would be sung and used for this game.  He then showed him how the game would be played, the scoring of the sticks and the games procedures.  After he explained the game to the man, he put the game back in the sack and gave it to the ill man.  When the man left he walked towards the woods and took four steps and looked back at the man and the ill man saw that from the knees down he had black fur.  The man took another four steps and from the waist down turned into black fur, then another four steps and from the shoulders down turned to black fur, then another four steps and stopped at the edge of the clearing and his head turned to black fur and the ill man saw that he turned into a Black Bear.  This man that gave him the moccasin game had turned into a Black Bear and ran off into the woods and ill man realized that something spiritual had just happened and he then knew this is a very sacred game to be shared with the people.  This is why the game was called the Bear game before it was called the moccasin game of our time.

During the spring ceremony called the Bear Smoke, the Bear is given thanks for the moccasin game and the healing and medicines the Bear Brings to the people.

 A similar legend that originated in the Bois Forte (Nett Lake) community.

This is a story that was shared with me from a relative of mine that resides in the Nett Lake village on the Bois Forte reservation in Minnesota.  This is a story that was documented by a visitor long ago to the Nett Lake village who inquired the origin of the moccasin game and a community member obliged.  This story deserves mention and as a part of this book and history of the moccasin game.

It was not Nanaboozhoo who created the moccasin game, it was after Nanaboozhoo had created everything; it was an Ojibwe boy who had fasted for ten days and was gifted by a Bear.  The Bear gave the boy instructions on how the moccasin game would be played and he was told that the game would last as long as the world would last.  The Bear said that in the daytime people should not play and only play when dark.  The Bear showed the boy the moccasin’s that would be used, four in a row and this represented the Bear’s four paws.  The Bear gave instructions on how the game would be played and gave caution to what players wagered in the games.  The Bear instructed the boy to make a bow and arrows and once completed to announce to the people the coming of a new game.  Then gift four boys of his choosing the bow and arrows and tell them the instructions of the game, then those four boys will live out the full span of their lives.  They will gain the spiritual power of the game.  The Bear told the boy, “You will put this gift of the game and your long life to good use.  Now break your fast and remember what I said and take this gift to the people.”

The boy broke his fast and when he arrived home he told his father (his father was an ordinary Ojibwe man), “I want to tell you about a game.  I have been gifted something by a Bear, I was given a bow and arrows so I could give them to four boys, they will live to an old age and because of that the people will cherish the game and a good life.”  The father said, “Do not leave this blessing undone, go and complete what you were instructed to do.”  The boy began at once making the game pieces and the father began to make a special wiigiwaam and was later helped by four boys that would receive the game.  The wiigiwaam was completed that afternoon.  The boys were anxious for the coming of night and went throughout the village giving invitations to everyone to come and join them and smoke.   Evening came and the guests came and started to smoke and behind the fire they saw the game and pondered on what it was.  Finally the boy stood and spoke to everyone saying the time has come for you all to see this new game; he placed the two teams facing each other.  The boy taught them how the game should be played as the Bear instructed.  The moccasins were placed side by side and a ball of fur he hid under the moccasins.  The boy then pounded the drum and sang a song that the Bear had sang to him on his fast.  The song had words and was translated to saying, “Touch the moccasin where you think the ball of fur is” and this verse was repeated four times.  All night they played the game together.  Then at dawn they stopped.  When it became night again, they played the game all night again.  For seven nights they played and then on the eighth night, they finished the first game.  The next time they played the game it was seven nights, the boy told the people that this is how the game would be played and this game would never stop being played as long as the world would last.  The boy said for unknown reasons the game will be played differently in different areas, but the use of the bow and arrows will continue as long as the world will last.  The people will appreciate and deeply respect this game.  The players will live to an old age and the Spirits will look favorable upon them and use your tobacco to pay respect to the spirits and don’t play the game carelessly.

The Boy and the first four players lived to a very old age and all those who play the game live to an old age and stay out of trouble.  The spirits of the game take care of them.  This is why the people deem the game very sacred because of the power from the spirits.  This was the first men’s game of the Ojibwe.

The Ojibwe gifted the Bwaanag (Dakota) with the moccasin game:

My grandmother told a story about how the Dakota were gifted the moccasin game from the Ojibwe.  She said there was an Ojibwe hunting party tracking a herd of elk up near present day Roseau, Minnesota, west of the Red Lake reservation.  There are still elk herds up in this area to this day.  The Ojibwe were getting ready to kill some of these elk and saw that there were other people in the area so they stopped and went to see who was following them.  When they went to investigate, they located a party of Dakota hunters that were following the same herd of elk.  If they attacked the Dakota hunting party, they would cause the elk to disperse and did not want that, they did not know when they would get another chance at these elk.  The Ojibwe made contact with the Dakota and challenged them to a game that they would show them.   In this game between the Ojibwe and Dakota hunting parties, their arrows were used as counters and for time’s sake they went to one soldier (short stick) and who ever won would make the other hunting party arrowless and the defeated hunting party would have to leave to get more arrows and find a different location to hunt.  The Ojibwe showed the Dakota a less complex version of moccasin game and used a pebble to hide under the four moccasins and used a similar count without the Swaasgaan and trapper position (home moccasin).  The counting was basic, four and two sticks (arrows).  There is debate about who won this first game between the Ojibwe and Dakota hunting parties but it is known that they had parted ways as friends and both parties shared the Elk meat from the hunt and appreciate a better understanding of each other.  The Dakota style uses one bead or bullet to hide under their four moccasin pads and their counter sticks are very large, the size of an actual arrow, compared to the Ojibwe counters that are half to one-third the size. The playing pieces of the Dakota style are the same and game set up is the same.  The counting /scoring is different; their teams are usually four men per team, counters and moccasin pads are a lot larger.


Moccasin game, White Earth Reservation.
Creator: Robert G. Beaulieu
Photograph Collection, 1920
Collections Online |  Minnesota Historical Society
Location No. E97.38 r3 Negative No. 7571


OJIBWE STYLE MOCCASIN GAME : Makazinataagewin Copyright © 2017 by Ogimaagiizhig Odoodeman Adikwan (Charles Grolla). All Rights Reserved.


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