TULALIP — Several years ago, when Deborah Parker was burned out from a heavy load of classes in college, she found an unusual way to revive herself.
She visited the Lummi reservation near Bellingham and played the traditional tribal stick game — also known as the bone game — with her relatives.
The games were usually accompanied by lots of singing, dancing and laughing, she said.
“I laughed consistently,” said Parker, who is part Tulalip, part Lummi and works as a legislative policy analyst for the Tulalip Tribes.
More importantly, though, it brought her back to her cultural roots, she said.
“The stick games really reminded me of who I am as a tribal person,” she said.
The game involves one player holding a bone in each hand while a player on the other team attempts to guess which hand contains the non-striped, or female, bone. The sticks are used to keep score.
Beginning Saturday, many other tribal members from around the nation will visit Tulalip for a large stick-game tournament with up to 100 teams and 3,500 players expected.
Entry fees and a contribution from the Tulalip Tribes will form a pot of $100,000 in prize money in the double-elimination tournament, with the winning team collecting $30,000. A “Red Rover” tournament is scheduled for Sunday, with $6,000 prizes at stake.
The game has been rapidly growing in popularity among people nationwide, tribal and non-tribal alike, according to Andre Picard Jr., a Nez Perce tribal member from Lapwai, Idaho. Picard is a member of Battle of Nations, a group that organizes stick game tournaments, and is in town for this week’s event.
The Tulalip Tribes have hosted tournaments for several years now, tribal spokesman George White said. Last year, players and spectators filled the 5,000-seat Tulalip Amphitheater, he said.
This year’s tournament takes place under a large tent in a field behind the Tulalip Casino, the amphitheater having been booked with a musical act.
Most tribes nationwide have some version of the game, Picard said. In the Puget Sound area, the game is known as slahal, its name in the Salish Lushootseed language.
The game is played with 11 sticks about 10 to 12 inches long and two small “bones,” about 2 inches long. The sticks can be made from wood or, increasingly, from acrylic material, and are usually painted or beaded.
Teams usually consist of three or five players in tournaments but can range into the hundreds for informal events, Picard said.
A player on one team holds one “bone” in each hand — the bones can be made from real bone or from plastic or other material. One bone is striped and called the male bone; the other, without a stripe, is called the female.
A player on the other team, called a pointer, guesses in which hand the other player is holding the female bone. If he guesses correctly, his team gets both bones and the other team has to guess.
Each team starts with five sticks, which are used to keep score. The 11th stick, called the “kick” stick, is decorated differently from the others. The two team leaders face off to start the game, with the winner earning the kick stick.
If a pointer guesses incorrectly, his or her team has to turn over a stick to the other team. The game is played until all the sticks are in the possession of one team or another.
While the game appears at first to be only a guessing game, there’s much more to it than that, players say.
For example, players drum and sing while the other team is guessing in an attempt to throw them off.
The game has many other nuances.
“You have to be able to read a person,” Parker said. “It doesn’t seem like high-level strategy, but it is.”
While gambling is usually involved, there’s also a strong spiritual component to the game. Tribal medicine men have sometimes played it as a form of spiritual battle, Picard said.
Those games tended to be secret and restricted, Picard said. Now, though, it’s becoming more of a community game and can often have an uplifting effect on those who play.
Serious players don’t like to lose, and players are very superstitious about their sets of sticks and what they wear while playing, Picard said.
Historically, trading was often done at gatherings where the games took place, according to Parker. It was also often where people met their husbands or wives-to-be, she said.
“It was the stick game,” Parker said, “that reminded me that it was OK to be me, that it was OK to laugh.”
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The Battle of Nations stick game tournament is scheduled to begin with dances Friday night and a ceremony at noon Saturday, with the games expected to begin around 3:30 p.m. at a tent behind the Tulalip Casino. The tournament runs through Sunday.
The event will include arts vendors and food booths with Navajo foods, frybread, Indian tacos and salmon.
For more information, visit http://battleofnations.us/.