During bbon (winter) Potawatomi have participated in a variety of activities for centuries, including games like snow snake, storytelling and more that bring the community and families together to pass time and stay warm during the coldest months of the year.
Just as the Potawatomi moons serve as guideposts, like April’s Zisbakwtoke gises (Maple Sugar Moon), wintertime serves as an opportunity to reconvene and rest, preparing for the busy months to come.
“That’s the whole concept of ‘Indian time,’” said Citizen Potawatomi Nation Language Department Director Justin Neely. “Certain seasons are when you pick berries, when you harvest corn, etc. So, there were also certain time periods where you just hung out with your family.”
Europeans often looked down on the concept of resting and taking time to share stories and foster kinship during the winter. However, still to this day, the season serves as an opportunity to tie families and communities together.
“Basically, in the wintertime, we have a lot of free time,” he said. “They always say that in the winter, the spirits are asleep and the earth is asleep. It’s a perfect time for winter storytelling and a perfect time for playing games and maybe sitting around the fire.”
Although Oklahoma’s winters often are not cold enough to hold onto precipitation, many Nishnabé communities still living around the Great Lakes participate in bbon (winter) games like snow snake.
“Snow snake is a game where basically, they take snow and mount it up, pushing it together to make a track, if you will,” Neely explained.
A pathway with snow walls approximately 2-3 feet high serve as the playing field, just tall enough to provide adequate structure.
“And then they’ll carve these sticks, and everyone will get in a line and throw them to see who goes the farthest,” he said. “They may water the track down to ice it up, but the idea is to see who can throw it the furthest.”
Many take the time to carve their stick, or snake, to reflect their personal beliefs, clan and more.
“It’s like regalia; people add their own flair to it,” Neely added. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center’s gallery Gete Neshnabek Zhechgéwen features a digital version of snow snake and bowl and dice.
Gwzege’wen (bowl and dice)
Although wintertime is the only season to play snow snake, learning other games — like Gwzege’wen — can serve as entertainment and fellowship year-round and are not limited to the right weather conditions.
Traditionally, women are the only ones who can make and keep a Gwzege’wen (bowl and dice) game set, but Neely said both men and women can put together the necessary items.
Equipment includes a wooden bowl, six circular die and two animal-based game pieces often reflective of the owner’s dodem (clan).
“It doesn’t have to be a wooden bowl, but that’s usually what it is. A lot of bowls really curve, so it might be nice if you have one with a flat surface inside it,” Neely said.
Deer and other antlers sawed off into thin circles, about the thickness of a quarter, serve as the die. Individuals personalize their game pieces by painting or applying copper and other metals that differentiate one side from the other, which also determines points.
“Then usually there are two little effigies, which are little animals — it could be an eagle, bear; it could be a turtle — and basically, the idea behind it is you toss them up in the air,” Neely explained. “You want to keep them in the bowl, but when they come back down, you get points based on how many blacks versus white, and there are a couple ways to get points.”
Birth order customarily helps define teams, separating the mjigwewes (first-born) and kishko (second-born), with equal numbers of players on each team. Participants take turns casting, or flipping the die inside the bowl. Players receive points based on the color and number of die. The game continues until each player has missed twice or someone reaches 12 points.
Bowl and Dice points:
2 white and 6 black die = 1 point
1 white and 7 black = 5 points
8 white or 8 black = 8 points
1 white and 7 black = 11 points
2 white and 5 black = 12 points
A standing effigy = automatic win
All white = automatic win
All black = automatic win
Learning and playing traditional games serves as a chance for CPN members to engage with their Potawatomi heritage.
“It’s an activity that’s really good for kids to be able to learn to play games,” Neely said. “And it’s nice to have something that you can pass on. Stories and little games are things that anyone can definitely pick up and share with their nieces, nephews, grandkids, that way they can feel like they’re doing their part to help continue the culture.”
Since the spirits rest during bbon (winter), sharing oral traditions about key spirits is central to Potawatomi culture, including Wiske — also known as Nanabozho — the Trickster.
“These stories are fundamental to how our ancestors saw the world and how we continue to see the world and our relationship with the earth,” Neely said. “You want to make sure that our children and our grandchildren have an opportunity to see how their grandparents or great-great-grandparents saw the world.”
Because Nishnabé and Potawatomi culture existed before written word, Neely said it is important to continue sharing traditionally stories orally.
“Though there have been times that someone has written this story down or another one down, there are so many of them, you just have to take them in and remember them that way,” Neely said. “It’s not like you can go to one little spot and here are all the winter stories. We don’t have a long history of writing.”
The CPN Language Department hosts an annual winter storytelling event, sharing some of Tribe’s oral traditions with the community.
“Technically, you’re supposed to tell them when there is snow on the ground, but you know down here, it’s almost impossible to predict that,” Neely said. “The way that we basically try to deal with that is we try to adhere to it the best we can and try and tell them in that window of time when it is wintertime and respecting that tradition of our ancestors — that tradition that the spirits are asleep.”
Neely highlighted that sometimes CPN members may feel compelled to tell these oral traditions outside of bbon. He said to place tobacco down in prayer and “ask the spirits to watch over it and not cause any ill or harm to your family for doing it outside of that time.”
For many, learning a short Potawatomi story is an easy way to incorporate Tribal traditions into their families.
“There are all of these things that make us who we are as Potawatomi people,” Neely explained. “We have our own unique dances, we have our regalia, we have our stories, we have our language, we have our recipes, and we have our own unique blood that flows through us from our ancestors. We have all of these things that make us who we are as a people, and I think it’s important to continue the culture. But it’s also nice that people have different outlets to do that.”