Annual Stick Game Tournament unites Northwest tribes in friendly competition

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Players of the traditional Coast Salish gambling game, known by a few names including slahal, lahal, bone games and stick games, gathered at the Tulalip Amphitheater during the weekend of June 1-3. Many players arrived an entire day early, equipped with their bones, drums and lawn chairs in anticipation of the 9th Annual Tulalip Tribes Stick Game Tournament. This year’s tournament attracted a record-breaking one-hundred and forty-two teams who competed for a chance to win cash prizes, including the grand prize of $50,000. 

Native families journeyed across Washington and Canada to play in the tournament. The total payout this year was $63,000 which was distributed throughout the weekend during a number of rounds including the kid’s tournament, which drew a large crowd of spectators. 

The game was said to be invented centuries ago in order to settle a number of disputes between tribes of the Northwest, including the rights to fishing, gathering and hunting territories. As legend has it, the game was gifted to the people by the animals in order to unite the tribes and prevent war. 

During gameplay, two teams consisting of three to five players face each other. The game pieces, which include a set of bones and sticks, are discreetly distributed amongst the players on one team. The opposing team has to correctly guess where the bones are and how many pieces the player has in their hands. The sticks are used to keep score and the team with their bones in play, sing traditional family songs in an attempt to distract the other team from seeing where the bones end up. The team who has the correct amount of guesses wins the game and gets to advance to the next round.

 “I came out to play for the Northwest Indian College team,” says NWIC student, Mikaela ‘Miki’ Ponca-Montoya of the Osage Nation. “We held a fundraiser last week so we could register and play in the games. We’ve been practicing, we have a stick game club at the college and a bunch of people participate and came out to play. I enjoy the medicine from the games because when people are playing their songs, some of us don’t know what they mean but we proudly sing those words as they’ve been upheld for generations and generations. You can feel it when your team starts to put their medicine in the music and when they’re playing the game you can feel the energy. That, and if you win, that’s the best part!”

Smiles are shared throughout the entire weekend, even when a team is knocked out of the competition, as most people are delighted to visit with other Native people and practice the traditional game of our ancestors. 

Generations join in the spirit of slehal at the Tulalip Tribes Stick Game Tournament

By Andrew Gobin/Tulalip News, photos by Nessie Hatch-Anderson

On Saturday, May 31, 122 five-man stick game teams competed in the Tulalip Tribes Stick Game Tournament for $50 thousand at the Tulalip Amphitheater. On Sunday, June 1, 110 teams competed in the three-man tournament to close out the weekend of stick games.

“We heard a lot of people, young and old, say they really enjoyed the event, and they look forward to coming to Tulalip  every year,” said Nessie Hatch-Anderson. “Family tradition is what we heard for this event. It was a clean and sober event, and it’s a tradition that goes way back to our ancestors.”

Slehal, a lushootseed word for bone games, hand games, or stick games, is a traditional form of gambling. Historically, it was also used as a way to settle disputes without violence. One of the Snohomish origin stories, depicted on one of three poles at the Tulalip Resort, tells the story of the beginning of the world, and how the humans and the animals played slehal to decide who would rule the earth, both a gamble and a dispute. Slehal honors that tradition.

Generations are brought together through stick games. Nessie’s mother, the late Barbara Hatch (Ane-Cus), lived for traditional competitions, a passion that Nessie carries on.

“Stick games and canoe races, that’s what I remember growing up,” said Nessie.

Stick gamers that have gone on were remembered at the event.

Carrie Fryberg, who chairs the stick game committee, said, “We did an honor song to honor past stick game players that are very respected throughout Indian Country and the stick game community. Big Bill and Mimi Mclean, Louie and Cookie Moses, and many members of the Tom family, who sang their family honor song.”

1.The Tom family sings an honor song for past stick game players. Loretta Tom, Isadore “Dobie” Tom, Al Tom, and Vivian GeorgePhoto: Nessie Hatch-Anderson
1. The Tom family sings an honor song for past stick game players. Loretta Tom, Isadore “Dobie” Tom, Al Tom, and Vivian George
Photo: Nessie Hatch-Anderson

On Saturday, Candace Tait and her team from Lummi took first, and $25 thousand cash prize. Cassandra Kipp’s team from Lapwai came in second, winning $15 thousand, Effie Wall’s team from Fort Dushaine took third and $7,500, and Kevin Seaward’s team from Duncan took fourth and $2,500.

2.1st place $25 thousand winners,  Candace Tait and team from Lummi. Commemorative drums made by Cy Fryberg Sr. He donated enough custom drums to be given to the members of each winning team.Photo: Nessie Hatch-Anderson
2. 1st place $25 thousand winners, Candace Tait and team from Lummi. Commemorative drums made by Cy Fryberg Sr. He donated enough custom drums to be given to the members of each winning team.
Photo: Nessie Hatch-Anderson

Al Tom’s team had an eight game winning streak, only to have upset in the championship bracket, taking fifth place and no winnings. They were only team from Tulalip to make it that far.

Mike Edwards and his three-man team from Muckleshoot won Sunday’s tournament.

The weekend was organized by the Tulalip’s Stick Game committee led by Carrie Fryberg.

Nessie said, “Carrie had everything organized pretty well. The weekend went very smoothly.”


Andrew Gobin is a staff reporter with the Tulalip News See-Yaht-Sub, a publication of the Tulalip Tribes Communications Department.
Phone: (360) 716.4188

Culture night, more than crafts

Young girl learns to play slehal.
Tiyanna Bueno, daughter of Malory Simpson and Jesse Bueno, learns to play slehal. Andrew Gobin/Tulalip News

By Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News

Tulalip – Tulalip Youth Services hosts a culture night every Monday at 5:30 p.m. The evening often features lessons on traditional arts and crafts and always includes time for singing and dancing. Some nights, like March 24th, the cultural specialists, Tenika Fryberg and Taylor Henry, prepare an evening of culture and community through games and other presentation. On the 24th, they presented the traditional slehal game.

Slehal, translated as bone game or also referred to as stick game, is a traditional game that is played throughout the Salishan area, from Northern Oregon up to Haida Gwaii and as far east as Browning Montana. The goal is to win all of the stick by finding the unmarked bone, much like the children’s game ‘pick a hand.’ The number of sticks varies between seven and eleven, but the goal remains the same.

Bone Games mean many things for Salish peoples. There are origin stories about men playing against the animals to determine who will rule the world. This embodies two specific aspects of slehal, gambling and dispute settlement. Historically, slehal was a means to settle disputes. Whoever won the game, won the argument. Traditionally, slehal was a gamble, and still is today with many tournaments for prize money up to $10,000 cash.

Culture night is a chance to enjoy these aspects of our culture, coming together as a community to teach all people about our traditions. It is a place to learn the songs and the dances, and, like this week, the communal traditions.

Culture Night is held every Monday in the portable across from the old tribal center, now the youth center, at 6700 Totem Beach Rd. For more information contact Taylor Henry at (360) 716-4916.

Andrew Gobin is a reporter with the See-Yaht-Sub, a publication of the Tulalip Tribes Communications Department.
Phone: (360) 716.4188