The Leader, March 1989.
The native Canadian game of Snowsnake is as old as winter. The "snake' is a spar, up to two metres long
and trimmed down to a few centimeters in diameter, with the front end wider and thicker than the handle
and either curved upward or capped with a small ball. The idea of the game is to throw the snake so that
it skims along the top of the snow. The further it goes, the better.
Perhaps the snowsnake was once part of a religious ceremony. The Plains Cree used to chant certain
songs before they threw the snake, and "each player has his favourite set of four sticks which has been
doctored by the medicine man", as one book puts it. "The medicine man always prescribes the exact
medicine for the occasion depending on whether the snow is soft or frozen crisply." The "medicine"
referred to is the type of varnish to be used on the spar.
More likely, though, Snowsnake began as a game to bring some fun into the bleak winter months.
Today, it continues as a competitive event among native peoples, especially among eastern tribes. I have
read reports of throws of over a mile (1.6 km) on prepared tracks.
Making the snake, according to historian Grant MacEwan, demands "the most meticulous attention". A
shaft of hardwood - apparently hickory is the best - is carefully selected. It is planed and sanded, then
moistened, scraped and sanded again. When the surface is smooth and true, the snake may be shellacked
or varnished to make it waterproof, then sanded with extrafine wet or dry sandpaper. Of course, if you
want to give the sport a try just for fun, you can use any reasonably straight, smooth spar or dowel, or
even an old broomstick.
The head of the snake is carved to a rounded point, like a bullet, so that it will "skate" over the snow.
The point may be fire-hardened to help prevent it from splitting. Some native contestants encase the
point in lead or add an iron or copper point to improve the weight and balance of the snake.
You can throw the snake on s