GAMES OF THE FIRST NATIONS: SLAHAL
Slahal or Lahal (with slight spelling and pronunciation variations including Sla-hal, Slhahal, Lahall, and Lahalle), is a gambling game of the indigenous peoples of Cascadia, especially along the Salish Sea, which combines song, sacred ritual, intense competition and guesswork.
Known by titles such as ‘the bone game’ (from the playing pieces), ‘the stick game’ (from the scoring pieces), ‘hand game’, ‘gambling game’, or ‘bloodless war game’, it also has regionally specific names in different languages and dialects; in the area around the Burrard Inlet of British Columbia it is often called Slahal or Slhahal, as well as Sk’ak’eltx among the Squamish, while in the north of Vancouver Island, it is called A’la’xwa (sometimes rendered as Lahal) by the Kwakwaka’wakw, and in the eastern Chilcotin Plateau and the Cariboo Plateau it is known as Sllekméw’es among the Secwepemc people.
Oral histories of the First Nations hold that Slahal is an ancient game, played since time immemorial. Among the Coast Salish oral tradition, The Creator gave ‘the stick game’ to humanity at the beginning of time as a way to settle disputes and serve as an alternative to war.
Another story holds that at the beginning of time humans and animals were in direct competition for dwindling food. The Creator gave humans and animals a game to play — Slahal — and decreed that whoever won the game could eat the other from then on. The two sides played against each other, but humans were gradually losing, down to their last stick, they beseeched the Creator to take pity on them. So the Great Spirit let humans win the game, but under the condition that they follow four laws — to turn away from greed, lust, hate, and jealousy. In doing so, the Great Spirit gave the people a gift, to show them who they were, and from then on people have used the game to settle disputes through “bloodless war.”
Physical evidence indicates that the game dates to before the end of the last Ice Age, with a set of 14,000-year-old bone playing pieces, the oldest found yet, discovered along with other cultural artifacts in Douglas County in the late 1980’s. Today these pieces reside with the Washington State Historical Society Museum in Tacoma.
The game serves multiple roles in culture of the First Nations, being a form of entertainment, a means of economic gain through gambling, and serving as a common way to engage with others in the community and with peoples across territorial boundaries in the exchange of goods, information and even lands and people. In addition to conflict resolution between groups, Slahal also played at many occasions, celebrations, and gatherings, serving as a way of healing and bringing people together.
In historic times, prizes played for could be valuables such as clothing, blankets, shawls, horses, buckskin, and trade items, though today prizes can be anything that is of special value, ranging from traditional craft items to money, televisions, game consoles, and many modern accouterments.
The rules and methods of how to play have changed throughout the years, and have some regional variation. Due to the historic suppression of cultural ways, the game was almost lost, though today it has been restored to cultural prominence thanks to the work of anthropologists working with elders of the First Nations. The rules listed below are an approximation based on multiple sources.
The game is played with two opposing teams of five or six players each, though there can be more if desired, so long as the teams are of equal size. Some sources say that the game always starts with an open traditional game where the men play against the women.
There are two pairs of ‘bones’ used in the game. Traditionally these were cut and polished shin bones from the foreleg of a deer or other animal, though wood or antler are not uncommon material substitutes. Regardless of what the pieces are made of, they must be small enough to hide in one’s hand, and are not noticeably different except in colour, with one pair (sometimes referred to as ‘white’ or ‘female’) being plain and unmarked, and the other pair (sometimes referred as ‘black’ or ‘male’) being carved or marked in some way with a black stripe or similar pattern, usually along the middle of the piece. Some teams travel with their own ‘bones’, which they believe are lucky, not unlike modern tabletop gamers who might own a set of ‘lucky’ dice.
The game also uses an equal number of ‘Tally Sticks’ (sometimes called Guessing Sticks), typically between six and fourteen, depending on traditions and rules, with ten or twelve being the most common, which are used for keeping score, and are evenly divided between the teams at the beginning of the game. These are commonly painted or otherwise marked (often half in one set of colors and the other half in another) and/or made of different types of wood.
Additionally there is a ‘King Stick’ or ‘Kick Stick’ (sometimes referred to as the ‘King Pin’), which is an extra stick, usually longer and specially marked (sometimes painted both colors, one color at each end) which is initially played for by each team’s elected leader, who are typically referred to as ‘doctors’. This initial contest, analogous to a coin toss in many sports, can either be through one ‘doctor’ holding a set of the ‘bones’ (one marked and one unmarked) and the opposing team’s ‘doctor’ guessing which hand the marked ‘bone’ is in, or decided via a simple rock-paper-scissors style decision. The winner (in this example referred to as ‘Team A’) is awarded the ‘King Stick’ and starts the game with control of the ‘bones’.
The game begins with each team dividing the ‘Tally Sticks’ evenly between them. Team A and Team B arrange themselves in two straight line formations where players sit on the ground or on benches, each team facing the other with their set of ‘Tally Sticks’ laid out in front of them. Each round a team’s ‘doctor’ will decide which two players (seated next to each other) will hold the ‘bones’ when they are in possession, and which team member will be the ‘shooter’ when it is their turn to guess the location of the unmarked ‘bones’.
On Team A, the two players selected by the ‘doctor’ take two bones each, one marked and one unmarked, and conceal them in their hands. The ‘doctor’ of Team A then begins a song, accompanied by drums (in the past drums were rarely used, with rattles, horns, and a longboard and sticks) as well as the pounding of sticks by the other members of the team to keep a beat, while the two players have a minute or so to secretly swap the bones back and forth between their hands and each other (either behind their back or under a scarf) in rhythm with the music, while the ‘shooter’ of Team B tries to observe and track the position of the two unmarked bones. The musical accompaniment is sometimes used to taunt and distract the opposing team, and is also often combined with occasional yells or random body gestures meant to disrupt the concentration of Team B’s ‘shooter’.
After the elapsed time, or when signaled by the ‘doctor’ of Team B that they are ready to guess, the players of Team A then hold their closed hands out in front of them, presenting them to the designated ‘shooter’ of Team B.
At this point, Team B’s ‘shooter’ must guess (or suss out) the location of the two unmarked ‘bones’ based on one of four possible permutations:
The ‘shooter’ on Team B then makes their guess as to where the location of the unmarked ‘bones’ are hiding by pointing with one hand.
Pointing to the shooter’s right indicates they think both UNMARKED ‘bones’ are in the left hands.
Pointing to the shooter’s left indicates they think both UNMARKED ‘bones’ are in the right hands.
Pointing downward indicates they think both UNMARKED ‘bones’ are in the “inside” hands.
Pointing upward indicates they think both UNMARKED ‘bones’ are in the “outside” hands.
Often the ‘shooter’ will make a ‘fake shot’ by moving their hands quickly, either turning back the finger or not making the complete gesture. This is done in an effort to get into the opposing player’s head by tricking those over-eager to show the wrong selection into revealing the position of the unmarked ‘bone’.
If the ‘shooter’ of Team B does not manage to guess the location of either of the two unmarked bones, their team must surrender two tally sticks to Team A, who will then continue the game by hiding the ‘bones’ once again.
If the shooter of Team B manages to guess the location of only ONE UNMARKED ‘bone’, their team must surrender one of the Tally Sticks to Team A, who will then continue the game by hide the ‘bones’ once again and Team B will have another chance to guess which hand the remaining UNMARKED ‘bone’ is.
If the shooter of Team B guesses the location of BOTH UNMARKED ‘bones’, then their team wins control of the ‘bones’ and it is now Team A’s turn to guess.
The game continues back and forth in this manner until one team has won all of the ‘Tally Sticks’ from the other team, with the ‘King Stick’ being the last surrendered.
The additional rules are fairly simple:
Players can only play for one team, and may not switch teams until the end of the game, though in important competitions a player must stay with their own team.
When a player is ready to show the ‘bones’, they must show them as they are, and cannot change their position, otherwise the ‘bone’ are forfeited to control of the opposing team.
A game can also be forfeited in the event of an opposing team member holding two bones in one hand when the ‘shooter’ points.
It is customary that during play, spectators will often place bets on teams, or individual matches within the game between one ‘shooter’ and the other team’s ‘bone’ hiders.
While there is no official time limit for games, average matches typically last roughly an hour and a half, though some games played for high stakes could last for several hours, or even days, with the “Tally Sticks’ passing from one side to the other many times as one team nearly wins, then loses their sticks again to the other side, and back again, before the ‘King Stick’ is finally won. In these serious high stakes games, in which the teams often play for pots of thousands of dollars, a judge will be appointed to keep the contest fair.
PLAYING AT HOME OR ON THE ROAD
For those wishing to play an impromptu game, or if they lack proper equipment, the ‘Tally Sticks’ can be substituted with pens or pencils, and the ‘bones’ can be substituted with large rubber erasers.
If there are only two players available, then the rules can be simplified, with fewer ‘Tally Sticks’, only one pair of ‘bones’ used, and the guess limited to right or left.