(This is the introduction for Shane Doyle’s teaching unit, “Traditional Native Games Along the Lewis and Clark Trail.”)
Since time immemorial, First Nations peoples across the North American continent have played a wide variety of competitive games for a multitude of reasons. Yet nowhere was the spirit of competition and play more prominent and beloved than on the Great Northern Plains. During the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the competition was the lifeblood of the warrior culture that dominated the region. War parties of young men sought to achieve battle honors and glory by challenging warriors from competing tribes and besting them in close physical confrontations. This iconic form of “warfare” took place during the horse era, when agile riders maneuvered their horses with their legs and used their hands and arms to strike the enemy combatant. Plains Indians understood that this symbolic and mostly non-violent gesture, known as “counting coups” to the French interpreters, was the greatest and most impressive achievement by a warrior in battle. Counting coups is not as much about deathly confrontation as it is about thrilling competition. Risking life and limb to touch the enemy with either a hand, bow, or wooden stick served as the motivation in the magnificently executed and dangerous game. Shooting an enemy from afar in battle or killing him without his knowledge was not considered honorable in this competitive oral tradition. While the warrior spirit was what captivated the nation and world, but this particular game was a dangerous and well-publicized one among many. Games and competitive culture have always flourished among the Northern Plains tribal nations whose homeland is located along the Lewis and Clark Trail. The traditional games along the Trail are rich and diverse and emphasize a variety of elements, including physical wellness, mental resilience, emotional health, spiritual wealth, and respectful humility as a teammate. Each tribal nation engaged in dozens of different games, and this curriculum will focus on only a few of the most widely known games played along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
This curriculum is wide ranging in its overall design, providing lessons about Native games for students in grades K–12. The lessons are grouped into three learning levels: early childhood, intermediate, and high school. Each level provides two separate games for students to play, reflect upon, and write about. Two additional lessons provide history and context about Northern Plains tribal athletes and teams and their shared culture of excellence in competition. Overall, the lessons are largely meant to inform, enrich, and inspire students to learn more about themselves and their communities by engaging in competitive Native games with their peers. Through the unique cultural lens associated with games, students will discover the long and rich heritage of excellence in competition fostered by tribal cultures along the Trail.