An Oral History of the Ancient Game of Sla-Hal: Man Versus Animals

Sla-hal, to Native people of today, is a game.

Sometimes called stick game or bone game, a gambling game that once determined territory and settled disputes and where friends and family now come together to play, to sing, to laugh, and to compete. On May 5, it was featured yet again as people came together from many walks of life to share the discovery made by Dr. Carl E. Gustafson, validated by carbon dating in October of 2011, and celebrated by Tribal leaders and community members from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Seattle Pacific University was a gracious host for the gathering, which in typical Native fashion, included speakers from many nations, political and spiritual, as well as noted academics from Seattle Pacific University and other area institutions.

On May 27, 1987, Dr. Gustafson, or Gus as he prefers to be called, was part of a team that discovered something amazing. While it has taken decades to prove the validity of the find, a mastodon that was found very far from it’s usual territory, the real mystery was in what was found with the animal remains. Not only was there a spear point that has been proven to be man made and to have come from the bones of another mastodon, also found with the remains of the wandering animal were bones that have been positively identified by area Tribal members as Sla-hal pieces.

Bones with carvings that are not naturally occurring and which have been identified as being commonly used for traditional Sla-hal games. The carbon dating of the mastodon bones positively identifies the time of the animal being harvested as 13,800 years ago. The carbon datingis important due to identifying the site as being prior to the time period that is widely accepted by scientists and academicians as the Clovis period, meaning that tools are identifiable with those first discovered in Clovis, New Mexico.

According to Dr. Gustafson, “This is not good habitat for mastodon, it is for mammoth and bison. Typical mastodon country is also favored with geese and deer, this mastodon was found in an area of coniferous vegetation that would wear out the teeth very fast.” This adds to the mystery for the scientific community, but tribal members had another view.

The harvested animal wasn’t unusual to Aiiyut-to-ton-mii (Carrie Schuster, Palouse Tribal Elder), whose name means, Woman of Great Strength-Overcomer of Everything, “I wouldn’t be surprised it that was a Tribe’s pet,” she said with a smile. Her theory is that people in the area had herded the animal far from its usual habitat to, “take it in their time and place.”

This would have lessened the difficulties in transporting the meat, such as was common in the Great Plains in areas with what are now called buffalo jumps. She added, “We were keepers of the covenant, stewards of the land,” referring to the mastodon, “They would herd creatures, they herded him north, we’re going to take you in our time (they said to him). We take what we need to sustain those temples (our bodies). We are the oral historians. We don’t have to document everything. We need to show what honor and respect for Mother Earth means. When we are in partnership with the Creator, the abundance appears. There is a day coming when Mother Earth is going to get tired of how we abuse her. We have to renew and reestablish that covenant.”

Rose Kempf, Snoqualmie Elder, said, “You have to learn our history, where we come from. People don’t believe what we say unless we write it down. One day you’re going to have to learn and you’re going to have to document it because if we don’t write it down they won’t believe it. You’re all my family,” she said, “because you’re the people. I’m glad you’re here to witness our new history, I should say their new history, we already knew.”

When asked about the his opinion of oral history Dr. Gustafson said, “I’m sure I’m learning a lot more than they are learning from me. I really appreciate (oral) history. I’ve never understood why other scientists are so hard headed about it. This is part of her heritage (Carrie Shuster) and your heritage. It’s interesting and I respect it. You look at the petroglyphs and the pictographs and wonder how someone generations later could depict it on a rock. That, to me, means oral history is important. “

The oral history of Sla-hal is tied to the people of this area, pre-Clovis, since time immemorial. The finding of the sla-hal bones with the mastodon bring the past to the present, justifying the oral tradition of the people of the Pacific Northwest. Sla-hal began as a game between the animals and the humans, to determine who would spend the rest of eternity being the hunters and who would be the food.

A story of Sla-hal was told to the attendees, by Michael Pavel, PhD and Skokomish Tribal member, of this important contest between the humans and the animals. There are parts of the story which cannot be shared with others, and other parts which should be.

Mark Sky-Aneen Johns-Colson, Skokomish, said, “First the Creator made water, then the mountains which could be eroded by the water which shows the power of water, then the plant people, people come from that. From the plants we learn to bend before we break, learn how they provide shade for the next generation, they don’t complain and they don’t fight. Those are the most sacred teachings because they are silently teaching by example. The finding of these Sla-hal bones shows us that the breath of our ancestors is still here. Sla-hal is also a prophecy story. The snowpacks are melting, every year we see new diseases, that prophecy is coming true, we have allowed greed, envy, jealousy and anger into our lives.”

Delbert Miller, Cultural Specialist of the Skokomish Tribe, said, “Sla-hal has a great deal to do with death and grief and sorrow…one of the greatest things we were given was Sla hal.” He added about the significance of oral tradition, “Do not add anything or take anything away. Don’t lie about it. That’s why these tools were left on top of the ground, so they can learn from us.” He also said, “This is not a New World, not to us. We were made in the land we come from…we can tell from the very First People. We can tell who we are, where we come from.”

Rex Buck, Wanupum, had this to say about our covenant with the Creator, “We were given responsibility for this land and all that goes with it. We’re no different from the animals, we’re no different from each other.”

This mastodon, harvested 13,800 years ago by our ancestors, brought us a reminder of who we are as a people, who we come from and how we have been here since time immemorial. We have been here before western science, before western philosophy, before the Clovis period. We have our own stories of creation, we have our own philosophies and Sla hal reminds us of how people were created here and how they came to win that contest with the animals, the oral tradition of Sla hal, when one of the animals realized that we no longer had our songs, that we had forgotten them and were one stick from losing to the animals, one stick from becoming the hunted instead of the hunters. That one animal gave us a song and from that song we became the victors in that long ago contest and forever more we are the hunters, we are the stewards of this land with a covenant to our Creator to protect the gifts we have been given. To protect and defend the earth, the animal people, the plant people, and each other.