Traditional Lakota Games and Toys

In traditional Lakota culture, the origin of some games could be traced back to their first ancestors and they played a central role in the development of the people as they carried social, economic, or spiritual significance.[1]  Depending on your age and gender you could find a variety of games and crafts that required leadership, competition, courage, sportsmanship, patience, and cooperation.

For the most part, games available to children fell in line with the roles they were expected to fulfill as adults. As such, young girls were preoccupied mostly with crafts such as dolls (hanpospu hoksicala) and Tipis (tipi cikala), which highlighted their position in Lakota culture as the “creators” and “nurturers.”[2] Following the lead of their mothers and older sisters, young girls would carry the dolls on their backs and make the necessary ornaments or garments needed to maintain them as if they were their children. Also at a young age, girls would become familiar with the building process of a tipi, as in adulthood they were expected to care for them and transport them from site to site.

Popular among young boys was a game known as unkcela pte, meaning “cactus buffalo.”[3] The game was quite simple, all that was required was a set of bow and arrows, and a piece of cactus tied to a branch. One boy would hold the cactus above his head, while the other would attempt to pierce it with the arrows. When the target was hit, the cactus would transform into an angry buffalo and chase after the shooter until he was pricked.  The agility and accuracy developed playing this game would surely prove indispensable during the hunting season or in battle.

The concept for the following game, painyankapi, or “Wands and Hoops,” came to the Lakota in the form of a vision while they were on the verge of starvation.[4] It is said that while a band traveled through Montana in search of buffalo, their chief decided to stop and establish a camp so as to preserve what little supplies remained. However, one young man could not stand idly by and requested permission to embark on a vision quest for four days. While in his feeble state, a buffalo approached him, gave him a pipe, instructions on how to craft the cangleska (the hoop) and the cansakala (the wands), and a message to his people. After circling around the young man, the buffalo disappeared.

Once the instruments had been modeled in the image of his vision, the young man proclaimed that as he rolled the hoop, it would circle the tent in which they were in, leaving buffalo tracks in its wake, before returning to him and resting at his feet. He then prophesied that following four days of song and prayer, a massive herd would come to save the people. To their astonishment everything unfolded as the young man had described. Thereafter, whenever the people were unable to locate buffalo herds, the four wise men with which the young man left his vision, would recreate the ritual and ask their ancestors for pity. Ultimately, it came to be regarded as a game, where the players attempted to stop the rolling hoop by throwing the wands in its path.

Though perhaps the most physically demanding and competitive game amongst Lakota men and women alike, takapsice, (much like modern-day hockey) also provided a jovial environment for entire communities, as it could be played by a few or hundreds and included feasts and dances.[5] The instruments used in the game are cantakapsice and tapatakapsice, the club and ball, respectively. The clubs themselves were made of an ash or chokecherry sapling, with a lower end curved to create a hook. Depending on the quality of the build, some clubs were said to hold special powers that conferred upon the wielder superior performance and medicine men would often use them in their ritual practices to fine-tune their elixirs. The ball was made of either wood, or other malleable materials covered in hide. The objective of the game was to maneuver the ball to the opposing goal post, using only the clubs in whatever fashion needed to make or prevent a play. Furthermore, takapsice could potentially be very lucrative, as various bands would challenge one another and gamble everything they owned in scrimmages lasting days.

In traditional Lakota culture, neither time nor individual actions went to waste. Every moment presented an opportunity to connect with the resources that Mother Earth provides or pay homage to the spiritual ways of their ancestors. Thus, games and toys were not only a source of fun; they also prepared men, women, and children for their roles in learning and defending the Lakota way of life.

~Alfredo Reyes


[1] Walker J.R. Sioux Games, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 18, No. 71 (Oct.-Dec., 1905) pp. 277-290

[2] “Collection of Toys and Games.” sfmissionmuseum.org n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2011

[3] “Traditional Native Games.” Siouxcitylcic.com  n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

[4] Meeker, Louis L Oglala Games Bulletin: Free Museum of Science and Art 3, 1901 pp. 23-46

[5] Walker. Pg. 283

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