Elders teach the finer points — and spiritual importance — of snow snake

Snow snakes from Bob Shimek’s personal collection
Snow snakes from Bob Shimek’s personal collection were on display at the Rail River Folk School in Bemidji during the four-day workshop this week.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Just as golfers need a golf ball to play, snow snake players need a snow snake. And like golf with its multiplicity of clubs, an assortment of different snow snakes can help meet the challenges of a course.

All week inside the Rail River Folk School in Bemidji lots of people worked hard scraping and sanding long pieces of wood into snow snakes, ready to be launched in competition.

Two person brought racks of precut wood
Great Lakes Lifeways Institute’s Kevin Finney (left) and Frank Sprague (right) brought racks of precut wood for attendees to make snow snakes out of. Finney and Sprague were offered tobacco to help during the four-day workshop.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Keeping warm by a large furnace in the corner of the room Frank Sprague and Kevin Finney of Great Lakes Lifeways Institute in Michigan explained the finer points of their construction, including the five variations of snow snake design. Some perform better when there’s a lot of snow on the track and others on icy surfaces.

Cultural significance

Some non-Indigenous people may recognize snow snake from their days as a Boy Scout. However, for Indigenous nations the game isn't only a sport, it has great cultural significance.

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That's where Sprague, a Gun Lake Potawatomi elder comes in.   

“I've been doing this about 13 years and for me it's a sense of community and it's a sense of working with the spirit and doing things in a good way,” Sprague said.

Frank Sprague shows the next generation how to sand down a snow snake.
Great Lakes Lifeways Institute’s Frank Sprague shows the next generation how to sand down a snow snake.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Snow snakes range anywhere from 2 ½-6 ½ feet long. They can be fashioned from many different woods. The actual game can take different forms. Among the eastern Nations games of distance are popular but in northwest Minnesota throwers strive for accuracy. The playing field is a track leveled by pulling a log across it.

“The farthest thing that's ever been thrown by a person is a snow snake in the world,” said Sprague.

Design tips

For this workshop Sprague and Finney brought a rack of precut wood with them for attendees to fashion their own snow snakes. Elders got first choice.

Discussing design Finney held up a finished example, drawing attention to its center.

“If we actually set this down on a really flat surface, it would only touch in a little area of about maybe 6, 8 inches right here. That's ideal,” said Finney. “And so as we work it down, we tweak it more and more that way. So, when you sit down one of the rules of carving, we tell everybody, and this is really important is you can take it off, but you can't put it back."

A person shows workshopgoers shares how much of a well-designed snow snake
Kevin Finney of Great Lakes Lifeways Institute from Michigan shows workshopgoers shares how much of a well-designed snow snake actually touches the ground when being used.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

After workshop-goers selected their unformed snow snake they used sanders and other wood-shaving tools to begin the shaping process. 

“That takes some time to knock down that wood and to be gentle with it, and we're thinking of the outcome of it,” said Sprague. “And we're putting life into these snow snakes, and it's a part of us and so we do these things in a good way, and we try to be in a good mind when we work with our snow snakes and we work with our communities.”

The snow snake origin story

Bob Shimek has been making snow snakes for 30 years. He's also been sharing their creation story. He says it tells how Fog Woman brought snow snake to the Anishinaabe people at a time when they needed help.

A person adjust the snow snakes.
Bob Shimek has been making snow snakes for 30 years. During the four-day workshop he assisted attendees and shared the Anishinaabe story behind the origins of snow snakes.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Some say this happened on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Others say it occurred on Red Lake. Shimek says he thinks “maybe it occurred at both of them.”

He said the legend of Fog Woman describes life being out of balance with people putting their own interests above that of their families and communities. And it talks about restoring that balance.

“For us around here it has to do with what some call the rolling hoop, some would describe it as the circle of life,” Shimek said.

According to Shimek, Fog Woman told the people to go out into the bush when the leaves had fallen from the trees with their Indian tobacco. She said they would be guided by the little people to a stick or sapling which they would cut and take back with them. Then they were to peel the bark, smooth out the stick and decorate it. Then wait for the snow.

Shimek said Fog Woman told the Anishinaabe that’s when they should perform a ceremony with offerings of food and tobacco.

“When the snow comes you fashion a hoop you fashion a circle. That's maybe 2 ½, 3 feet across, and you have that ceremony. And you ask permission for these ginebig, these gooniikaa-ginebig, these snow snakes to come out and play in the snow,” he said. “Because usually ginebig is sleeping under a rock or a log someplace during this time of the year when there's snow on the ground.”

And then they were to play a game where they attempt to slide their snow snake through a rolling hoop. In so doing, a giant snake, a spirit Fog Woman brought with her, would be happy. According to the legend a giant snake lives under all of the villages.

Shimek said when the Anishinaabe play these games the giant snake “will make sure we have plenty in the up-and-coming spring, summer and fall harvest of all the different gifts. You know, our Indian foods, or our medicines, our wild game, or our meat or furs, hides all these different things, will be there in abundance for us.”

A person adjusts equipment
Manidoo Ogitigaan co-director Zac Earley adjusts equipment before continuing to make his snow snake.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

That tradition will be part of the Indigenous Winter Games through Saturday at Paul Bunyan Park in Bemidji. There will be several types of snow snake events with prizes, food and activities for all ages.

For many of the workshop participants this will be the first time they get to compete with their own personal snow snake. The elders say if the exuberance from the workshop carries over to the games the giant snake underground will be quite happy.