At Crow hand-game tourney, the spectacle rules the night

A young girl with the Black Lodge district gets some last-minute primping. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

I was told by several people that the Crow hand game was difficult to explain, but that once I’d watched a few rounds it would start to make sense.

I suppose it did, sort of in the way that the one cricket game I ever watched had begun to make some sense by the time it ended. The big difference is that at a cricket game, cricket is the main attraction.

Watching a Crow hand-game tournament Wednesday night at Crow Agency, the mechanics of the game seemed less important with each passing minute. What mattered was the spectacle—the teams in their elaborate, mostly handmade outfits, the constant yelling and chanting, the beating of drums and the shaking of rattles, and the furious, frantic, highly theatrical gesticulations of the players themselves.

Some of their movements seemed improvised, but others were too stylized and must have been traditional—kneeling down and pawing the carpeted surface on which the players were gathered, for instance, or grabbing one arm with the other and then thrusting the cradled arm downward, as if into the sleeve of a shirt, while waggling the fingers.

Arranged on bleachers behind the team of male players were rows of women and children, the women and girls dressed in matching dresses and shawls, the boys in outfits matching those of the men.

In the first game of the tournament, pitting the Crow Reservation’s Black Lodge district against the Big Horn district, the men wore cowboy boots, cowboy hats, jeans and beaded white shirts (Black Lodge) or beaded white vests (Big Horn).

The women wore green dresses (Black Lodge) or dresses of pinkish paisley (Big Horn), as well as elaborately beaded, tasseled shawls, beaded moccasins and store-bought scarves. Everything else seemed to be ornamentation of the wearer’s choosing—braid holders, bone chokers, feather pendants, earrings, headbands, silver bracelets and rings.

The women and children take part in the game, often used as “hiders” of the playing pieces, but their main job is to make a tremendous racket to distract the opposing team while it is guessing where the playing pieces are, and then to make, if possible, even more noise when their team scores a point.

Scotty Dawes, on the Black Lodge district team, in the white hat, distracts the Big Horn district team during a hand game Wednesday night at Crow Agency. At left is head guesser C.J. Other Medicine. Click on the arrow at top right for more photos. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Wednesday night marked the opening of the junior games, open to everyone 30 and younger and always held in the third week of April. The senior games, for those over 30, are held in the first week of May. The games start on Wednesday and continue until the championship round on Sunday.

The hand game, or variations of it, have always been played by the Apsaalooke people, as the Crow call themselves in their language, but the formal tournament dates back to 1966.

It was dreamed up by Ed Little Light, of the Black Lodge district. Little Light, who attended the opening of the junior tournament on Wednesday, said he was at a six-team basketball tournament when the inspiration hit him.

“I says, hey, by God, I got an idea!”

 The idea was to invite each of the six districts of the Crow Nation to send a team to the tournament, and to have everyone dressed in elaborate costumes, as a way of showing respect for tradition and to make the people proud of their districts. Fifty-one years later, the hand-game tournament is the second-biggest event of the year on the reservation, second only to Crow Fair.The tournament has expanded since then to include nine teams—six from the traditional districts, two based more on family groupings than geography and one from the neighboring Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

The winner of the tournament hosts the next one, and last year, Wyola—known as “The Mighty Few”—won both the junior and senior divisions.

“That was very rare,” said Louis Walks Over Ice, who was making the pre-tourney announcements in the multipurpose building in Crow Agency. “I can’t remember another time that happened.”

Also helping with the set-up was Myrann Crooked Arm, of Wyola. She was the first one who tried explaining the rules of the game to me. She said there were two elk teeth and four bones, and that two of the bones—these were actually plastic—were marked with black tape.

Each team has a medicine man whose job is to choose who will hold the various pieces. In the case of the elk teeth, the hider has only one and the guesser has to pick which hand it’s in. With the bones, the guesser has to choose which hand is holding the unmarked bone.

The winner of each round—five guesses per round—is awarded one of 14 sticks. The game is over when one team has all 14 sticks. (Don’t take a quiz or try playing the game based on this explanation; there seem to have been all sorts of complications and variations I was not privy to.)

The games can teeter-totter back and forth indefinitely.

As Crooked Arm said, “Games last 10 minutes to four hours. It’s all different. The times are never the same.”

Note the end of the bone piece sticking out of the fist in the foreground. The man on the left, pointing, is trying to guess which hand holds the unmarked bone. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

But again, for the spectators at least, the overall show is the thing. The way the game is played, it has to be. Hardly anyone but a few of the closest spectators can see what’s going on anyway. The men on each team, perched on custom-upholstered stools, sit on the floor in long rows, and the view on either end of the playing area is blocked on one end by three seated judges, on the other by the announcer’s table.

So the audience is mainly reacting to the reaction of the teams and their squadrons of drum-beating, rattle-shaking supporters. But there is money involved, so there is considerable interest in the score, which is announced after each round.

Each team pays an entry fee of $1,200, and it’s winner-take-all in the double-elimination tournament. But there is a table where spectators can place bets on each game, and if they win they can cash in or let the bet ride through another game and another, as long as they keeping winning.

Besides a medicine man, each team has a head guesser and No. 2 and No. 3 guessers. The head guesser does most of the work, but if he falters and makes a few wrong guesses, he might turn the job over to his helpers. If they falter, the guessing duty can go on down the line of subaltern guessers.

Walks Over Ice explained that there is a lot of psychology involved, lots of bluffing and the detection of “tells,” just as in a poker game. Sometimes a hider will squeeze extra hard on the hand holding the tooth, or hold it lower than the other hand—unless of course he or she is bluffing.

Walks Over Ice said that if you want to be the head guesser, you’re chosen for your luck, your skill, your record of bringing home the bacon—“your prowess, I guess you would say.”

The scheduled start time Wednesday was 7 p.m., and only two games were scheduled because the next day was a school day, but the big multipurpose building was still mostly empty at 7.

About 7:30, as Walks Over Ice was making preliminary announcements, he said at one point, “We said 7 o’clock. Sometimes these games are Indian time.”

Sure enough, the first game didn’t get underway until 8:20, and it wasn’t until about 9:30 that the crowd really started to swell. Even then there were still many people outside, mostly swarms of kids running around the perimeter of the building, stopping now and then at concession stands to fuel themselves with food and drink.

Women and children with the Black Lodge team raise a racket. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

There were babies and young children everywhere, in the laps or on the hips of women in the cheering sections, held by parents, siblings and grandparents in the bleachers, or snoozing in strollers despite all the noise.

It was, as Little Light, the founder of the games, said in his introductory remarks to the crowd, “a beautiful night on the Crow Indian Reservation.”

That first game seesawed back and forth for half an hour, an hour and then an hour and a half. I started to wonder whether this would be one of those epic four-hour matches Crooked Arm told me about. What if the second game was also a long one, with a long break in between?

I still had to drive back to Billings, and unlike the school kids sprinting around the building, or the little drummers who had been making noise now for almost 90 minutes straight, I was tired.

I kept thinking I ought to stay long enough to see who the winner of at least the first game was, but then I reminded myself that no, the spectacle was the thing, and I began to make my way home.

If you have a mind to see the spectacle for yourself, I’d recommend going down on Saturday. Most of the teams are still in it on Saturday, I was told, and the crowd is usually biggest then. It is also worth noting that everyone was unfailingly kind to this interloper full of questions, even when the questions were rather stupid.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.