In the great pantheon of winter games – from ski-jumping to luge, to downhill skiing – you’d think there’d be little left to discover in the white world of winter sports.
However, in the frozen depths of North America, Native Americans have been holding their very own, winter sports for as long as 500 years.
Perhaps their most intriguing sport – and one that’s yet to be listed as an official Olympic winter sport – is ‘snow snake’ which owes its origins to an ancient form of messaging among Native American tribes from the Iroquois of the northeast to the Sioux of the western plains of the United States.
During long, hard winters, tribespeople would construct runnels in the snow down which they could send a weighted stick containing a carving or series of marks carrying a message between longhouses.
These channels were sometimes so icy and glasslike that a hefty throw could send a message gliding down the channel for the better part of a mile. The shimmering, oscillating object resembled a snake slithering through the snow.
The activity has since morphed into an established sport amongst First Nations people who compete to throw their seven-foot-long snow snakes the furthest. The run deliberately follows the rise and fall of the ground, and, to make play even more exciting, includes several curves.
Speed varies according to the strength of the toss, but it is also affected by the weather. Native Americans make separate snakes for wet, slow or fast tracks. In normal temperatures, throws up to three-quarters of a mile are possible, but sharp weather hardens the snow, giving added speed to the track.
It is then that a player may achieve a toss of more than a mile.
Waxing and oiling the weighted spears to achieve a glassier finish is sometimes carried out according to long-held and secret family recipes.
Often a snake, reaching a curve, will leap from the furrow and become airborne, scattering spectators who either jeer or cheer the stick’s last few inches, depending on whose team they’re supporting.
“In tournaments, opponents can stand inches away from competitors who are preparing to throw their snakes,” said a report from Syracuse.com.
“Heckling is legal. Shouting, badgering, trying to break the other guy’s concentration … it’s all part of the game.”
Main image: Snow Snake – Ojibwe Winter Games