Blankets of pristine white powder glittering in the sun are an invitation to play—to walk in snowshoes, sled downhill and toss carved wooden sticks in a friendly game of snow snakes. While they have evolved over the course of centuries from survival mechanisms and medicine games to recreational activities and competitive sports, these winter pastimes are steeped in Native history.
American Indians and Alaska Natives invented the popular winter activities of snowshoeing, sledding and snow snakes—and they keep the traditions alive today.
Indigenous people in current-day central Asia began snowshoeing about 6,000 years ago, according to the United States Snowshoe Association. Migrating across the Bering Strait from Asia to North America, they brought snowshoes made of wood slabs with them. The Inuits and American Indians adapted the snowshoe to feature raw hide lacing encompassed by white-ash wood.
While snowshoeing long served as a survival tool for navigating through snow and ice, it later became a recreational activity, ideal for traversing and admiring the white-washed landscape.
- When walking with snowshoes, keep your feet wide, so you’re snowshoes don’t hit.
- Lead with your poles for balance.
- When climbing or descending downhill, keep the knees soft and make good contact between snow and ice.
It is believed the Anishinabe, Cree and Innu of Canada, and the Chippewa in the United States invented the sled or toboggan, which comes from the Algonquian word odabaggan, according to the website Utapanashu—the Innu Toboggan. The sleds once served as vehicles, allowing tribes to carry heavy loads over great distances and Indian hunters to lug game across the snow.
The Inuit typically fashioned toboggans out of whalebone, while most other Indian tribes constructed toboggans from strips of hickory, ash or maple, curving back the front ends with heat or steam. The toboggan was then left to dry for two days.
When ready, a rope was attached to the toboggan’s front for pulling by people or dog teams. Sled dogs and humans are considered equal partners in mushing. Some experts say that early Arctic survival may not have been possible without this alliance.
Sledding has since evolved into a recreational wintertime activity—helping kids fulfill the irresistible urge to soar down a snow-covered hillside.
That said, traditional sledding has also become a competitive sport. The 1,200-mile Iditarod race, which is the longest dog sled race in the world, starts on the first Saturday in March every year in Anchorage, Alaska, ending a couple weeks later in Nome. In 2011, musher John Baker won the Iditarod with a record shattering performance, completing the race in 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes and 36 seconds. Read more about the annual Iditarod race in Indian Country Today Media Network’s article “39 Iditarod Facts.”
One of the longest and most highly respected dogsled races in the lower 48 states kicks off January 29, 2012. The 390-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon honors the Ojibwe mail-carrier John Beargreasewho braved appalling weather and questionable trails to deliver mail at the turn of the 20th century, traveling by dog team or by boat the 90 miles between Two Harbors and Grand Marais, Michigan along the sometimes treacherous shoreline of Lake Superior. Continue reading about Beargrease in Indian Country Today Media Network’s article “John Beargrease, Minnesota Legend.”
The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) sport of snow snakes unites American Indian people in friendly competition.
Also referred to as “snow darts,” traditional snow snakes run approximately nine to 10 feet in length, although they have since been adapted to smaller, more manageable sizes for younger players—between two to three feet, reported Minnesota Public Radio.
The name of the game? Distance. Using an underhand toss, each player aims to slide a smooth stick along the snow farther than the others. Snow snakes are most commonly carved from wood, though some Sioux use bone, adorning it with feathers that trail behind it in colorful decoration. The most prized snow snakes have been tossed in many tournaments and are often passed down from one generation to the next in a family, according to Ganondagan.
All tribes customize their own snow snake tracks, but a general rule of thumb is players—who are typically divided into four teams or “corners”—throw the snake down a hollowed-out trough five inches deep in a snow-packed or ice-whittled platform about 32 inches in height.
Watch a video of an Iroquois explaining the traditional medicine game of snow snakes: