Slahal tournaments: Ancient game, modern times

TULALIP, Wash. (AP) 7-07

Names are drawn from a woven cedar hat.

Ten people, five on each team, face one another in lines of folding chairs.

Eleven beaded sticks clatter to the floor.

Two people each hold two short, stubby bones - three-inch sections of
a deer's leg.

They knead the pieces in their palms, clicking them together. Ten
sets of eyes study one another, shifting, searching for any sign of
weakness. Mouths twist into eager grins.

Suddenly, a man throws his voice out at the other team in a long
shout. He pulls back his arm, raises the drumstick he clenches in one
hand and strikes the hand-painted drum he balances in the other.


A short note hangs in the air.


Thud. Thud. Thud.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

He shouts a song to the staccato beat. His team joins in, drumming,
shouting, distracting their opponents.

The opponents concentrate, taking in the ancient power of the game to
guess the hands that hold the unmarked bones.

This is ancient Slahal - the bone gambling game.

Slahal tournaments that draw dozens of teams and offer thousands of
dollars in cash prizes are common in the Pacific Northwest's Indian

Each June, just as the crowds begin to leave the Tulalip Tribes'
annual First Salmon Ceremony, another crowd flocks to the Kenny Moses
building for a tournament.

Vanloads of men, women and children traveled from throughout
Washington, and from as far away as Montana, British Columbia and
Idaho, to play for a $4,000 first place prize in the Tulalip

"I travel around the Northwest playing this game, and I've met a lot
of people along this path," said Ralph Moore, 43, a Yakama nation
member who traveled to Tulalip for the tournament.

The game began many lifetimes ago.

Animals and humans roamed the earth together, according to tribal
lore. They fought one another for land and squabbled over food.
Finally, they decided to settle the rivalry once and for all.

The Slahal game began: bears on one side, humans on the other. Both
sides were strong, and played smart. Minutes turned into hours, and
hours into days.

When it was over, the humans prevailed.

Since then, they've celebrated the win by vying for bones among themselves.

In centuries past, the stakes were high.

Tribes played Slahal to settle land disputes or secure food and
supplies, Tulalip tribal member Bill McLean said. A game could last
through the night and into the next day, sometimes even the next.
When the end came, it may have meant a change in tribal fishing
territories or even an exchange of women.

Today, tournaments offer prizes that can include native art or money
- sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

The Tulalips say the game shows they're a gambling people.
Lushootseed words for the Slahal game line the walls inside the
Tulalip Casino.

Young children learn the game each Thursday night at the Tulalip Boys
& Girls Club. They learn to strike the drum, throw their voices and
hide the bones.

The people who are experts at the game are elders now, said Carrie
Fryberg, a Tulalip tribal member who teaches the children.

The game is a way of Indian life, she said. It must be passed on.

Slahal is a guessing game.

Two of the four bones - the female bones - are marked. The male bones
are blank. Two people on a team hide one bone in each of their hands
and shout their songs at the opposing team.

In Slahal, there are family songs, reservation songs, regional songs
and others, and they're all used to distract the person guessing from
figuring out where the unmarked bones are hidden.

"Sometimes I'll just sing the same song over and over during the
game, and that distracts," said Roger Clark, 52, a Swinomish tribal
member. "Or, I'll sing an East Coast song and that distracts them
because they're wondering, 'Why is this West Coast guy singing an
East Coast song?"'

The din from the shouts and drumming shakes the floor and causes the
chairs to tremble.

The person guessing squeezes his eyes closed and bows his head,
trying to ignore the tooth-rattling, skull-pounding beat.

He looks up, breathes in the air he believes holds the strength of
the deer that died to offer the game its bones, and guesses.

His hands fly, pointing this way and that, sometimes subtly,
sometimes with force. The holders reveal the bones, often with their
arms moving lyrically - joyfully for an incorrect guess or abruptly
when they lose.

They play for beaded sticks. When one team has all 11 sticks, the game is over.

"Just one game can last 10 to 15 minutes or four hours, and that one
game will hold the whole tournament. Everyone's waiting for that
result," Fryberg said.

"We start games in the afternoon or evening, and they go all night
long," she said. "You just keep going. You just drum hard."

A recent tournament began at 7 p.m. Saturday.

By early morning, children sat on the floor next to their parents,
shaking tiny rattles and shouting with tiny voices. Men and women
pound drums and sing, echoing one another.

The tournament ended at 4:30 a.m. Sunday. A team from the Yakama
Nation took first prize.

By the end, voices are hoarse; arms spent.

Men, women and children leave the game, eyes still sparkling through
their drowsy haze.

The pounding that has pierced the air all night is gone.

It is quiet.

Until next time.