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Moccasin Game Songs
by Thomas Vennum, Jr.

Hand games have always been the principal form of gambling among native North American peoples; almost always songs accompanied them. Typically, two sides bet against each other. The moccasin game (makzinataadiwin) was the principal form of gambling among the Ojibway and other Algonquian speakers. Formerly, when moccasins were standard footwear, players used two pairs to conceal four bullets or metal balls, one of which was specially marked. The opposing team watched closely as the bullets were hidden, one each under a shoe, trying to determine with as few guesses as possible the placement of the specially marked bullet.
        Years ago the game was played in the open on a cloth spread on the ground, and almost any large gathering, such as a dance, had its "gambling annex."" Nowadays the game is generally played indoors. In place of moccasins, Ojibway tend to use rectangular cloth tabs to conceal marbles, substituted for bullets. Three of the marbles are the same solid color, while the "marked" one is another color. As was always the practice, the person hiding the marbles kneels behind the tabs; using swaying motions to place each marble, he tries all the while, with complete poker face, to confuse his opponents. Members of the guessing team hold long, thin, switchlike pointing or "striker" sticks of oak to indicate where they think the specially marked marble lies. When they decide to make a guess, they swat the area in front of a tab, then flip it over to see if they were correct. One of the guessing team holds counters twenty short ironwood sticks used for tallying; when a certain score is reached, the sides change. Betting is not limited to the players, as bystanders are equally as involved in the game's progress.
        Moccasin game songs were always essential to accompany the action. Typically they are sung at a much faster tempo than songs of other genres, and the drumbeat pattern used to accompany them is distinguished by a heavily accented stroke followed by a short, lighter upbeat. This drumming is so infectious that sometimes the person holding the counters will unconsciously beat them in rhythm to the drum (audible here in the recording of Fred Benjamin, as are the swats of the guessers and generally convivial atmosphere of the game). The style of singing can best be described as lively, even acrobatic, paralleling the excitement of the game. Unlike other Ojibway songs, these are distinguished by their wide leaps and ornaments. As Densmore noted in 1910, "The whole village knows by the beat of the drum when a moccasin game is in progress. " (11)
        Because the games were so popular and lasted continuously for so long-often days at a time-singers would wear out their voices and have to be replaced. The songs were common currency, and on some reservations a team might use two singers simultaneously, one seated on each side of the hider. The drumming and singing were meant to distract the guessers intently watching as the bullets were hidden. To distract them further, the man hiding the bullets would wiggle and gyrate, making many amusing gestures with his arms in time to the music.
        Some moccasin game songs were textless, but many had words referring to an aspect of the game or flinging taunts at the other team. Among song texts Densmore collected, for instance, were the following, in her English translations: "'I have come after your stake, you good players"; "I am beaten I will go home after more articles to wager"; "The sound of his approaching footsteps, [he] who always hits the mark [guesses correctly]"; "I say, he gave us a double crack [a type of score]."
        Moccasin game songs were at one time considered sacred, like prayers to the Great Spirit to help one win. But gradually the genre became secularized and ultimately nearly disappeared from Ojibway culture. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, some Ojibway, faced with the pressures of reservation life, a lack of traditional occupations, and considerable free time, began to gamble excessively. Many lost the bulk of their possessions in the moccasin game. Missionaries opposed such gambling, as did Indian agents, and eventually the federal government prohibited the game on some reservations. Once it was banned, the context for performing the songs was gone, so singers began to forget them. The game, however, has been revived in recent years, and even though the songs are no longer familiar to most singers,, a drum is still played to accompany the game, without the singing. Those, such as Fred Benjamin of Mille Lacs Reservation, who remember and can perform the songs provide a rare link with the past.
        The recordings of moccasin game songs presented here span nearly a century and are clear indication of the continuity of the tradition, despite its near eclipse. Swift Flying Feather's song expresses the singer's desire to join experienced players: ninga-wiidabimaa netaabimodang ("I will sit with one who knows how to score"). The songs of Fred Benjamin were recorded on September 29, 1988, at Mille Lacs Reservation, where the game is played each Thursday evening in a community recreation center. Benjamin's repertoire of these songs, with and without text, is large indeed. The only singer for the occasion, he performed virtually nonstop for forty-five minutes at a time, moving from one song into the next without interrupting the drumbeat. He used an old snare drum, its wire snare long since removed, and damped the drumhead with his fingers, probably to bring its tone more into conformity with the sound of the older Indian moccasin game drum.



Notes:

11. Densmore, Chippewa Music, 157


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