As with all children, games were an important part of a young Navajo's life. However, Navajo children in times past spent more time doing their chores than playing, according to the Native Languages of the Americas website. Navajo children's games often tied into their traditional stories for character building or served the dual purpose of training children in the physical skills expected of them when they came of age. With only a few easily accessible materials, Navajo children learned important life lessons through the games they played.
Making a variety of string figures with a loop of string is a game familiar to many children, although most probably don't realize the game has Navajo roots. In homage to Spider Woman, an ancient holy one recounted in Navajo folklore as the weaver of the web of the universe, Navajo children played string games only between the first snowfall and the first spring thunder. According to the Navajo's seasonal taboo warnings, making string figures outside this window invited disaster and bad luck.
The Shoe Game
The shoe game, another winter family tradition, was coupled with telling the tale of a dispute between the night and day creatures. Each group wanted it to be all one or the other, and played the shoe game to settle the matter. According to tradition, one team hid a yucca ball in one of four boots buried in the sand with only the top inch sticking up. A correct guess as to which boot held the ball earned a yucca stem, and each side played to win all the stems for their team. However, after playing all night, neither the night nor the day creatures emerged victorious, teaching them that they could not control the seasons or the cycle of day and night. According to the tale, while playing the game, Owl learned that cheating has consequences, and Coyote defected to what he thought was the winning team. So the tale also teaches Navajo children the importance of virtues such as honor, honesty, loyalty and trust.
The Stick Game
Navajo women and children played a traditional stick game called Ashbii, sometimes sitting under a drying buffalo hide. The game pieces consisted of three painted sticks, a basket and a blanket. The tsi'i head stick was black on one side and half-black, half-white on the other. The nezhi stick was half-red on one side and half-black on the other. The tquelli stick had one all red side and one all black side. Players stretched a blanket overhead and sat on the floor around the basket. They took turns tossing the sticks upward, trying to get them into the basket. Black or half-black faces counted one point while red or half-red faces counted for two. Crossing all black and all red, all black and half-red, all red and half-black or half-red and half-black earned three points; and crossing all-red with half-red counted five points. The first player to reach 25 points won.
Play as Training
In addition to dolls and toys, some Navajo children's entertainments helped them develop skills they would need to be contributing members of the tribe in adulthood. Running foot races trained them for the extended physical exertions required of hunters and warriors. They also developed eye-hand coordination and accuracy with archery games. In addition, they hunted and fished with their fathers and raced horses.
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