Hand game highlights Native heritage

UNL professor Mark Awakuni-Swetland demonstrates the duties of a feather carrier.

by Molly Young, NewsNetNebraska

As a drumbeat pulsed through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Gaughan Multicultural Center, more than 60 people gathered in a room called Unity to play hand game.

In fact, the Nov. 19 hand game became the second-ever hosted in the university’s $8.7-million building that opened in April. It also marked the middle of Native American Heritage Month and a time for the Lincoln Native community to come together.

Throughout the night, the beat remained near constant – a hand game cannot begin without a starting song. The drum group, several men who sit together around a large rawhide drum, sang throughout every game. They played in the middle of the narrow room, anchoring the east and west sides.

Hoover and Lois Harlan, Omaha tribal elders from Macy, Neb., sat in front of the crowd. The couple acted as the head man and woman for the game, tallying the score and declaring the winner. David Esau, Sr., sat beside them and narrated the scene as the night unfolded.

Mark Awakuni-Swetland, a UNL professor who has been in charge of hand games himself, explained how the game is played.

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Awakuni-Swetland’s Umonhon language class sponsored the Friday night event, joining with the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services. Bill Waters, an OASIS program coordinator, typically organizes an annual hand game in honor of Native American Heritage Month every November. The groups collaborated for the first time this year, Waters said.

The evening game marked the language class’ fall semester final test and the last demonstration in the 16-credit, three-semester program.

“It was great fun,” said Awakuni-Swetland, who began teaching the course in 2000. A decade later, Umonhon (more commonly known as Omaha) remains the only
Native language class offered at UNL. Students in their final semester host a hand game to give back to tribal elders and leaders, Awakuni-Swetland said.

UNL reported just 132 of its 24,100 students were Native American, accounting for one-half percent of students enrolled in fall 2009, according to the most recent University of Nebraska Factbook. That number dropped 17 percent from the previous year, when 159 Native students enrolled. Meanwhile, eight Native faculty members taught at UNL in 2008, only one of them fully promoted.

Then, in November 2009, six students attended a Nebraska Cornhusker football game wearing fake headdresses atop their shirtless bodies. Red paint streaked their faces and chests. Some of the men held a sign that read, “WE WANT OUR LAND BACK.”

For months, the university issued no official response to the incident. Their actions eventually prompted the student government to pass a resolution calling for increased Native American awareness on campus through curriculum and events.

Several UNL students attended the recent hand game.

Earlier in the day, the Umonhon language students started cooking the community meal several hours before the game’s scheduled 6 p.m. start. Yet the meal wasn’t served until the game ended several hours later. Turkey and salad, corn soup and fry bread filled two kitchens.

The greasy scent of fry bread floated from the kitchen and into the event next door. Many tribes adopted the staple after they were forced onto reservations and granted government commodities. The sweet bread tempted players as the game lengthened.

Later in the night, many of the students also recited a story entirely in Umonhon about a zombie monshtinge akha – a rabbit.

Several rounds of hand game sandwiched their recitation. The west side won. Then they won again. Then it was the east side’s turn to win. A round dance and gourd dance punctuated every victory.

Tribes throughout the Great Plains hold hand games, which are social events with roots that stretch back generations. They remain especially popular in Lincoln, home to a Native population that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates at more than 1,500. Different groups and families often host games at the Lincoln Indian Center to celebrate birthdays, honor veterans or commemorate other occasions.

The traditional game has continued in part because it is fun, Martha McCollough said. The UNL professor discussed hand games and other Native games during a recent interview.

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Back at UNL, the west side won another game. Then the east side won two more. More than three hours into the game, a winner still hadn’t been declared. It came down to one final round.

The west side eventually won. But neither team left defeated.

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