Click to select, then click to play or pause Introduction to the Handgame sounds.
Somehow a conversation with an old timer always gets around to a simple game, the object of which is to guess in which of the opponents' hands hide certain marked animal bones or wooden cylinders, about the size of a finger.
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Hill Collection
Some people call the game the Hand Game, others call it Bone Game, Stick Game, Gambling Game, or (when the bones are hidden in a big wad of grass) Grass Game. The Old People used to call it Tep We, meaning marked/plain. Whatever it's called, Handgame was an integral part of the life and religion of the Old People - the native people who lived here before the settlers arrived. Whenever people used to get together for a celebration or Big Time, Handgame was sure to be a part of it.
According to the stories passed down by the Old People, the animals played Handgame back in the days when all the animals were people.
Video (no audio) - Handgame at Janesville
Birds were people. Once two birds went around the world. One bird was over here. And he talked back and forth with the other bird, over there. Finally they came to a place where they couldn't just pass through. They had to stay there and gamble and win their way through. If they won they could go on. Those birds beat all the different animals. They sang like this:
One bird went over the blue sky -
It's blue as far as you can see. Nobody knows what's behind the sky.
He went over the sky
Just to show the others what he could do.
The stories tell us that Human People learned handgame from the animals. Even today, a handgame player may learn songs of power from a little animal....
Bryan's brother learned his gambling song from a hellgrammite. He heard a tiny voice singing while fishing down in Big River. He traced the sound to a rock in the river... a tiny voice. When he tipped the rock over, he found a hellgrammite underneath. That little bug said, 'if you don't hook me, don't use me for bait, I'll teach you a song.' The fisherman said, 'alright, let's hear your song.' That became his gambling song, and he won a lot of money with it.
Gambling songs generally do not have a literal meaning. However, they may contain words, phrases and taunts. Often English words or phrases may sound like parts of old songs. Some singers play with these songs, singing sometimes English, sometimes Indian, having a good time.
Young gamblers used to sit up all night and all day, rapping on a log with sticks, hoping the Spirits would give them a song. A Spirit often came and put a song into two players heads at the same time. That meant those two should be gambling partners, and that song would be their gambling song.
People play Handgame because it's in their blood, because it's part of their religion, because the Spirits of the Land want them to.
A Spirit might come in a dream to an old person and say, 'I want you to put out a big dinner and get everyone to play Handgame.' And people will come to the Big Time and play the game all night and all day and all night again, chanting, singing, trying to divine the locations of the hidden bones.
Sometimes called a guessing game, handgame is more appropriately described as a "hiding and seeing" game. Handgame is a psychic duel between two opposing teams, and music is an integral part of the duel. A good song gives a team the power to hide the pattern of the bones from the gaze of the opposing team. A good song is a song that helps a team win. If a song doesn't work, they'll try another song, looking for one that wins....
Spirits give some fellows a song, and then other gamblers pick up on it. Most players sing gambling songs handed down from the past, or perhaps take a pattern off a song they have heard elsewhere.
In the old days people sang all the time. Whether they were working, playing, dancing, or just walking from place to place, they were probably singing a song. Naturally, many of these songs would be used in the handgame. If a song worked, they'd use it; if it didn't work, they'd try another song.
Cho Cheminy was often sung by women as they pounded acorn nuts on the granite grinding rocks found throughout the Sierras. The pounding rhythm of the stone pestles hitting the mortar holes can be heard in this song, still frequently sung by women players.
Cho Cheminy, Cho Cheminy, way yo hey ya way o hah
Maidu Handgame songs are often characterized by either a rapid rhythm of about three or more beats per second, or a slower but steady rhythm of about one beat per second; key words (such as honi, henna, or helli) and a reiterated phrase, the second portion echoing the initial portion of the phrase. Gambling songs were extremely simple before contact with the West.
click to select, then clck to play or pause
Honi No won, a Honi No Won, Honi No Won a Honi No Won
Winni No We, Winni No We, Winni No We, Winni No We
Photo by Cody Hilbert
Some people say the louder the song the more luck it brings. If players grow discouraged and sing with dejected little voices, their luck will leave them and they will lose. The players on the other side will vigorously chant and run them down. But then again...sometimes it's just a few old women singing in insistent little voices that lead the song, but still no one can guess them!
Sometimes, when the song's just right, the Spirits of the Land like the song, and help the side singing it, perhaps by confusing the other side and tricking them into calling wrong. Once someone has missed a call, they lose some confidence. If they lose all their confidence they will lose the game.
Old timers would chant the same gambling song until they hit a run of bad luck. Only then would they switch to another song. Other outfits change the song every time they have the bones. Each outfit has its own way of singing and its own songs. Its no good to sing the other players' songs because it will bring luck to their side. Yet sometimes a gambler will do just that, to mock the other side, to show that their songs are not so great after all.
Handgame is played with two pairs of bones, each pair consisting of one marked and one unmarked bone. The Old People used to say the white (unmarked) bone is best made from the forearm of Mountain Lion, and the dark (marked) bone should come from the leg of Deer, but today good bones can be made from many different things, including deer bones, cow bones, wood or even metal or plastic. Whatever they are made from, those little bones should be talked to while they are being made.
Flash video - Handgame at Mankins ranch, circa 1968 (no audio)
Making traditional bones
The old people made the black bone (su lu) from deer femurs, pounding splinters of pitch into the spongy part for added strength. Different outfits made the white bone (hin du ko) from the tibia of different animals. The best white bones come from the mountain lion. These will not fracture if they get tossed into the fire, nor will they crack like a bear bone when they get old.
To get rid of the bone oil, they boiled the fresh bones and buried them in the ground where the rains could leach them; or they exposed them to the sun and rain for a few months. Untreated bones will turn a dirty yellow. After treating the bones, they hacked them into segments about the length of a finger, then rubbed them with scouring rushes, making the white bones slightly concave and the black bones slightly convex, like a grooved spindle.
A good Handgame player may hide a piece of his special Luck inside his bones when he makes them.
Handgame is usually a gambling game, but it's played for fun too. One team challenges another by getting together a bet. In the old days, the bet was made up of things of recognized and agreed-upon value, such as beads or hides or maybe even one's wife. In fact, when neighboring tribes got together for a Big Time, they brought all their trade goods to use in the handgame. What was left over was later traded off. That is why many early outside observers thought the people were getting together for big trade 'roundups'. More likely, they were getting together for handgames, and the trading was just people exchanging their unwanted winnings.
Now, the bets generally consist of money. Sometimes tribes, families or Indian casinos will sponsor handgame tournaments, often with substantial money prizes.
In non-tournament play, the challenged team must match the bet before the game gets under way. Only players who have contributed to the pot may actually hold the bones or make calls during the game. However, side bets can be made at any time by spectators, provided someone can be found to match the bet. Also, spectators can contribute to the pot without actually playing the game. When the game is won by one side, each person who bet on the winning team gets back twice the money they put in. The losers win nothing but the experience.
After the pot has been collected, the agreed-upon captains of each team will decide which team hides the bones first: usually one captain will hide a set of bones, one in each hand, and the other captain will show his bones to match the hidden bones. The successful caller (or successful hider) wins the team's right to hide the bones first. The hiding team tries to come up with a good song, a song that will give them the power to hide the pattern of the bones from the inner eyes, or the psychic gaze of the opposing team.
Photo courtesy Dorothy Hill Collection, Chico State University
During the play of the game, the captain of the team holding the bones will choose one or two people to hide each pair of bones (the captain may or may not choose to personally hide one pair). The captain might initially 'warm up' the bones by rolling them in his hands, playing with them until the time feels right to choose the holders who will hide them. When the captain passes the bones to be hidden, the holders will usually warm up the bones further, switching them back and forth rhythmically between hands, behind the back, or underneath a cloth, or a hat - anything to hide the bones from the gaze of the other team. When the hiders feel ready, they will bring their hands out front to indicate 'I'm ready'.
(Except in tournament play where the rules are strict and agreed upon before play...) any time before the guesser of the opposing team makes a call, a hider may choose to go 'not ready' by putting the hands behind the back again, or underneath a cloth, to switch (or not switch) the bones. This may or may not be allowed or pre-agreed upon, and actions like this can often lead to misunderstandings and accusations of cheating - a hider might go 'not ready' just as the other team makes a call, which leads to arguments - but this is just part of the dynamics of the game. In recent years, with the advent of handgame tournaments and big money sponsored by Indian casinos, rules are written down and agreed upon before the games start, to help avoid disputes.
The caller may grunt or shout to indicate 'bring 'em out, I'm calling you' and the holder may then shout back 'show me yours and I'll show you mine'. Of course, once called, a hider should promptly show the bones to keep the game moving. But watch out - someone who is not the designated caller might try to shout out a call. If the singers/hiders don't pay attention, they will probably lose.
Meanwhile on the quiet team, the Captain chooses a designated caller, often for each guessing chance, and usually by passing that person a pointing stick. If the side has already guessed and won one set of bones, the Captain may pass the captured set to the appointed caller, who may use the bones to make his call. Often the Captain will choose to make calls, but a good Captain will always search for someone on his side who is hot. If one caller has a hard time finding the hidden bones, the Captain will try another caller. A good Captain knows that Sometimes you're Hot and sometimes you're not!
Calling for the Bones
The caller, whether the Captain or one of the designated players, looking across at the other team,initially will look for pattern of four bones: two marked bones, and two white (unmarked) bones. Since the bones are handed around in pairs (marked, unmarked), there can only be four possible patterns. More on this later.
The manner in which the pattern of the bones is called must be agreed upon beforehand.
Imagine you're looking across the fire at the hiders of both sets of bones. These people have been singing awhile. Then their captain passes a set of bones to one of the persons on his right and keeps a set for himself. The singing continues. The two move the bones around behind their backs, under a blanket around their knees, or under a hat borrowed from the person next to them. Finally both the Captain's and the other's hands become immobile, firmly separated, held close to their chests, tucked under their armpits, or wherever. They are still singing on stubbornly; they are indicating that they have hidden the bones and that they expect you to lose this guess.
Now it is your moment to choose. There are four possible patterns you face:
Note: California Indians typically make their guesses for they striped bones, as shown here. Tribes from most other areas call for the 'slick' or plain bone. Many California Indians consider it unlucky to guess too often for the slick bone.
Now, suppose you have a hunch - some sort of visual cue, or some sort of feeling in your hands or arms that the marked bones may both be in the center or middle as you face the two hiders on the opposite side. And suppose you have established the rule with the other team that everyone will guess for the marked bones unless s/he indicates that they are calling for the opposite set.
So you know you are calling for the striped bones, and you look back across the fire and you suddenly know somehow that both those marked bones are in the middle two hands that you see as the hiders take them out of their clenched hiding places to show you (and everyone watching) that they've fooled you again
How do you call for those marked bones? You know they're in the middle, so you bring your favorite gesturing hand out in front of everyones eyes and imperiously slash straight downward with it, vertical, emphatic! Maybe you've kept a pointer stick in your hand, which makes the gesture even more emphatic.
Well, they just have to open their hands and reveal those bones. Now be sharp, don't relax. Make sure that everyone sees that you recognize the pattern, if you've won, gesture again, demand the bones. The other side may not stop singing until they recognize that you know your side won those bones, or at least one set of those bones (if you've made a partial right guess).
So you've learned the call for bones in the center or middle as faced by you. What if you feel the marked bones are both on the outside? Then you take the pointer in your gesturing hand and hold it out horizontally, with some of it extending from both sides of your hand (your hand or fingers round the middle of it only). There are different ways of making the point, just as long as everyone understands what you are gesturing for. Another way of guess to the outside is to extend your gesturing hand out in front of you palm downward with fingers clenched, except that the thumb is extended in one direction while the little finger points the other way.
Suppose you had a hunch that the marked bones were both on the left sides (from your view) of the two hiders. That means that your gesture goes left, whether you use a pointer for emphasis, or just your hand. If the two marked bones appear to you on the right, you'll gesture rightwards in some dramatic, sudden way. You have to startle those singers out of their song - maybe that helps the bones to appear in their hands the way you want them to appear, at least it wakes them up!!
Remember, some people like to call for the dark (marked) bone(s), some people prefer calling for the plain. A person used to calling for the dark bone(s) can easily get confused when in a game calling for the plain bone(s).
Stella always loves a good time, and is crazy about the handgame. Staying up all night outside playing handgame is her kind of party. She once explained, 'We play for the white bone here, but the people over there (pointing to Thompson's Peak) play for the black. We were playing here once, and our Captain Harley just couldn't hide the bones. Every time he'd hide them, he'd be caught. He thought we were still playing for the white bone, and he'd be seen every time until we told him Black bone! They're calling for the black bone here! So that's the reason, he said. He held them the rest of the night and didn't get caught again.'
Some old timers say it's unlucky to call directly for the white bone(s) too often. They might play a game guessing for the light bone, but they call for it by circumlocution, by pointing to the black bone. They might call directly for the light bone(s) if something tells them to, or for variety. But usually, this caller would rub his palms together, sight along his arm trying to see through the opponents' hands, perhaps wave his arm from side to side, then bring his fist down vertically and cough out TEP! which means dark or if you don't have the light bone there (in the middle), you're going to lose those bones! But if the hider starts to smirk, a clever caller might rapidly add YOS! saying TepYos meaning not-Tep or Tep-reversed. He's still guessing for the dark bone(s), but he's saying they're in the other hands, on the outside. Beginning players must be careful not to be taken advantage of in a game. How is one to learn? An old timer might say just shake the bones out of your hands and we'll tell you whether or not you made stick! But how are they to be trusted?
Dealing with Cheaters
Cheating happens. Especially if someone is new to the game or not paying close attention, things can happen that let the other team win all the time. Cheating takes a variety of forms. Sometimes the person keeping track of counting sticks will forget to give the other team a stick when they have earned one. Is this cheating? Or is it a minor lapse? Other times, a hider may be called, and quickly flash the bones and re-hide them as if to say see, you didn't catch me when in fact he was caught. Often this is done in jest, but if the other team doesn't catch the joke, it will not be pointed out to them, and they will quickly lose.
Old Bud was a mean old man. He lived in the Sacramento Valley, and if a stranger ever came by to visit, he would try to poison his visitor with songs. One day my brother came by with his tape recorder. 'Sing me a song', he said. 'I'm Bud Bane and I'm a mean old man', said Bud. 'You want me to sing you a song? OK, I'll sing you one of my father's doctoring songs.' He got his cocoon rattle, and started singing. These strange rhythmic sounds came from deep within Bud's belly. He shook his rattle and sang. And sang. After a while he asked 'how are you feeling now?' My brother replied 'oh, I'm feeling fine right now, thank you'. 'You're a big person, strong person', said Bud. 'I'll try a stronger song.' And he would go off into another song, shaking his rattle around my brother's body, singing, shaking, trying to find a strong enough song. My brother didn't know what was happening then. He and Bud became unlikely friends, and only years later, after Bud had passed away, and my brother was editing and transcribing his tapes did he realize that Bud was trying to poison him on their first meeting.
Bud always won at Handgame, but in later years he had a hard time finding anybody to play. Once he confided to my brother, 'When I play, I have a string that runs up my sleeve, under my shirt, and down the other sleeve. If they call me, I just pull on the string and switch the bones.' I never knew if Bud was joking, or speaking metaphorically, or if he really did have a string that ran down his arms.
In the old days Shamans were often discouraged from playing handgame because it encouraged greed and the evil use of Power.
Other methods of cheating are the quick switch and the crossed toss. In the quick switch, a player initially holds both the light and the dark bone in one hand. When called, he merely drops the appropriate bone into the empty hand while uncrossing his arms. This is of course illegal, and if the player is caught doing this, the other team automatically gets both pairs of bones and starts to sing and hide. But a skillful player can perform the quick switch easily. If a hider is suspected of cheating, the caller must try to force the hider to uncross his hands before making a call. Of course the hider might ignore the verbal taunts and orders and refuse to uncross his hands for the call; but a good caller can use patience; the singers tire faster than the callers, and a caller can wait as long as he chooses (except in tournament play, where some time limits may be imposed).
The crossed toss form of cheating usually is encountered only when playing the Grass Game. Here, big wads of grass in each hand are used to help conceal the bones. When called, a cheater may quickly toss out the bones onto the dirt in a crossing pattern, so that it looks as if he had thrown them straight out of his hands. Again, the Captain of the calling team can force the opponent to bring out the hands before a call is made.
Each team captain must keep careful track of the sticks to make sure nothing 'funny' happens during the dynamics of the game...
Lena and Jake had been playing against each other all afternoon. Lena's team had won the first three games, but Jake's luck was changing. Lena and her partners were down to their last stick, and Jake's team was still singing away, hiding one pair of bones. The pressure was on Lena to get those bones back! Jakes partner was 'on a roll'; he hadn't been caught in the last several calls. Now he was intently hiding the bones, not looking anyone in the eye, almost in a trance. Jake sang and sang, trying to avoid Lena's captivating eyes and gestures. Finally, Lena held out her hands and called. Huh! Jake nodded to his partner, who then showed his bones. Lena had missed! Lena's stick-keeper slowly tossed their last stick over to Jake. Jake kept singing. His partner hid the bones again. They didn't know the game was over! Lena and her partner looked at each other. Jake kept singing, kept singing. Lena then shot out her hands and called again. Huh! Tep! Again she missed. This time, having no more sticks to toss over, and disgusted with having missed the free call, she threw her one pair of bones into the center, acknowledging defeat. What would have happened if she had won that last call? Jake's partner probably would have tossed his bones over, Lena's side would sing and hide, and the game would have continued - even though Jake's side had already won all ten sticks! Jake was lucky that time. His team won the rest of the games that night.
Usually, if you don't pay attention, you'll lose.
At the beginning of the game, one side will start by hiding both pairs of bones. (Each hider must hold a light bone and a dark bone, one in each hand.) (Assume that the teams have agreed this time to choose for the marked.) Thus there are four possibilities, as shown on the diagram: both marked bones on the left, both on the right, both on the outside or both in the center.
A team wins points (counting sticks) only by successfully hiding the bones. If a guesser misses the locations of both sets of bones, the hiding team wins two counting sticks. If the guesser successfully locates one pair of bones, those bones are passed over to the captain of the guessing side, and the guessing side gives up one stick for the missed call.
When the guessing side has won both pairs of bones, it is their turn to come up with a powerful song and to hide the bones.
Points are kept track of by 'counting sticks'; the hiding team wins a counting stick each time the opposing team misses a guess. Usually, teams play a ten-stick game; when one team has won all ten sticks, they win the pot and the game is over. The team has to be hiding bones, and singing to win sticks. The guessing side cannot win sticks, but wins each pair of bones they successfully guess. When they have possession of both pairs of bones, it is their turn to hide.
Typically, in a ten-stick game, each team starts out with five sticks each. But these sticks don't 'belong' to any team until they are won. Thus if a team misguesses and loses all its initial (five) sticks, the game's not over- they've only lost five sticks. Once a stick has been thrown over to the other side (i.e. won) its called 'cooked' - because in the old days a fire was frequently built on one side of the space between the two opposing teams, and a stick, when won, was tossed over the fire to the other side and thus became 'cooked'. The game continues until all the sticks have become cooked, and all the sticks have been won by one team. This may take several hours or longer - or, with the right song by one side, may be over swiftly!
The kick stick
Sometimes teams play with a kick stick. The kick is an extra stick that is won as the team captains duel for who will start first. Typically each captain will call the other at the game's beginning. If each guesses the other correcly, they repeat the process. When one guesses right and the other misses, the captain that guesses correctly wins the extra kick stick, and wins the right to begin the game. The kick stick is kept in reserve and is considered a 'won' or 'cooked' stick - an extra stick that must be won by the opposing team if they are to win the game.
Looking for Luck
Poncho and Leland used to talk about something called Luck that they used in winning the handgame. Everyone must find their own Luck, they said. Keep trying different things, deformed things, freaks, until you find something that helps you. Some people never find their Luck. It hides when they look for it.
One fellow found his Luck in a plant with leaves that look just like a carrot.
This is one strong plant! His root's a long slender fellow. If he gets cut, white blood oozes out of him. When you want to use that plant, talk to him, talk to him a long time, saying, 'Old people did it this way and so do we. We want to talk with you. We want to use you in the Handgame. We want you to show us which way to guess.'
After talking to him, dig him up with a sharp stick. DON'T TOUCH HIM! Don't Break the root. Don't make the root bleed either. If you break the root, put him back in the mountain, carefully tamp the sand around him, tell him you are sorry you hurt him, and leave. DON'T TOUCH HIM! When you've got him up, use sticks to put him in a pouch filled with leaves of Rattlesnake Medicine (sanicula). Keep the medicine wrapped around him to keep him warm. Carry that root only at certain times of day. Use him right or he will kill you! Keep him away from the house, under a rock, in a dry place, wrapped up in a warm bundle of Rattlesnake Medicine leaves. Every week or two, reach under the rock and get him out. Talk to him. Feed him... perhaps a deformed grasshopper or cricket. Talk to him as you feed him. If you don't talk to him once in a while, he will run away. He disappears. You look for him, but he left. All you need to do to use him is to keep him nearby. Why keep a bad fellow like him around? Because something tells you which way to guess during the Handgame. Maybe a little voice will talk to you. Or maybe you can look right through the other fellow's hand and see the marked bone.
Old Leland said, 'My father had one of those things. He wanted me to learn how to use it. Then he could give it to me before he died. I said 'No, I don't want to learn how to use it!'
The Old People said 'every plant has a Spirit behind it.
If the Spirit likes you, it will help you.
If it doesn't like you,
you'd better not mess around with that plant!'
Calling the Bones
If Hiding the bones is the soul of Handgame, Calling is the heart. It requires all the energy and psychic help the caller can muster. A caller makes use of every physical clue; perhaps the tie of the marked bone made the roller's hand bump imperceptibly as he rolled the bones down his arm. Perhaps the roller tends to cross the arm with the dark bone over the hand with the light. Some callers say they can actually see the little bones hidden in the hands. Others go for patterns. All learn to play their hunches.
Playing your hunches
To some Paiute people, a Hunch feels like a finger tapping inside their body. If they feel a hunch in their palm, they guess the black bones are both held in the center, between the two rollers. If the hunch taps the back of the forearm, they guess outside. If the hunch occurs on the wrist, they guess the black bones lie in the direction of the hand being tapped, but they will win only one stick. But if the Hunch occurs anywhere else, such as behind the knee, the caller knows he is going to lose, regardless of how he guesses!
To some people a Hunch may be a flash of light glancing off the holder's hand, or perhaps a shadow, or perhaps a little voice telling which way to guess. Just like Luck, a caller must find his own Hunches, and learn to follow them.
Singing the Songs
Handgame songs are seemingly just a part of the process of the game, but when all the questions of who won or lost have become moot, the people go around singing songs to themselves.
Songs are a curious phenomenon: they come up out of the memory at odd times and in odd orders. Some of them stick near the surface -those are your sure fire songs, the songs that you use to start the game, when you first arrive. Later, after the clacking and the chanting has taken hold of the mind, other songs surface, almost impreceptibly. The captain of your side may look around to the others for a song, and the question of who will start a song is on everyone's mind. It's not easy sometimes to start a song - the side will be hesitant to sing your song, sometimes, or may want guidance on how the song will be sung. If the person starting the song can't give a convincing performance, s/he may find a support faltering. But many times, it is the song, and it quickly catches, and the side rides the song, getting better and better at singing it - until you all look up and the team has won.
Songs are also somewhat proprietary to some people. If you have a song, you may lend it to your side to sing. Or it may be only your side's to sing, because you are all Maidu and it's an old Maidu song. This is open to interpretation and is often disregarded by everybody. What seems to happen is that, having sung a song convincingly, others become curious and experiment with it. It is carried to other hand games ceremonies - it gets around. When it comes back to you, it may be all turned around, and people might not even associate it with your side. Or the people singing it, might not know whose song it was.
There are two types of Handgames: fun Handgames and serious Handgames. People can have fun just playing the game, singing the songs and hiding the bones. Fun games are social gatherings, where men, women or children get together like people always have, singing, dancing. Serious games are for those who know what tIhey are doing, who know how to care for and handle the bones, who know how to call the spiritual allies.
Some say if you're meant to learn Handgame it will come to you.
You will find it if you are meant to find it,
if you are receptive to it.
Handgame can't be learned simply from a book, or the internet, or from only watching. It must be learned by Playing, by experiencing the feeling of when you're Hot (and when you're Not!)
Many hangames were played at Galdys Mankins' roundhouse near Janesville, California.
Some Handgame songs
|Hand Game song||Click control to select, click again to play or pause|
|Sacramento Valley handgame/dance song|
|Paiute gambling song|
|Yu Ku Tai Yo|
|Get your mind in gear!|
|Wai yo - Owens Valley song|