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Celebrating snow snakes

Native students place their handmade snow snakes on a table for artistic judging during the first-ever Snow Snake Festival in White Earth Friday morning.1 / 4
Fourth grader Bishop Burnette, 9, slid his snow snake from 20 feet and hit a rolled hoop during Friday's inagural Snow Snake Festival at the new Circle of Life Academy in White Earth.2 / 4
Robbie Bellanger slides his snow snake along the snow in an attempt to get it as close as he can to the center of a bullseye in an accuracy test Friday morning.3 / 4
Landris Thompson of White Earth listens to the history of the snow snake Friday.4 / 4

It's finally winter as we know it, and students on the White Earth Indian Reservation are celebrating the flakes with snakes.

The first ever Snow Snake Festival kicked off at the new Circle of Life Academy outside of White Earth Friday.

Snow snakes, or goonginebigoog in Ojibwe, is an ancient Native American game that was once very popular amongst upper-Midwestern tribes.

But now, the game that was played thousands of years ago is making a come back as it slithers off the pages of history books and into the hands of young Native American students.

The snow snakes are actually long, thick sticks that are carved and decorated into artistic poles that are then used to play the old, traditional game.

The festival drew students grades four through eight from Naytahwaush Charter School, Pine Point and the Circle of Life Academy in White Earth to compete against each other for big goonginebigoog bragging rights.

But the competition began far before they arrived Friday.

"Last fall the students were bussed out into the forests around the Reservation to pick out their sticks or poles," said Program Coordinator Robert Shimek. "They cut them, carved them, peeled them, wood burned them and painted them."

The students didn't go into the forest empty handed though; they went with a handful of tobacco.

"When we live our lives Indian way, we have a reciprocal relationship with all that's around us, so if we're going to take something from somewhere, we put something back and thank that small tree for giving itself up," he said, adding that the students left the tobacco by their chosen tree.

Once they had their wood, they slowly but surely transformed it into a goonginebig.

"I carved it and did some wood burning, and then I painted it and waxed it," explained Circle of Life sixth grader Sharon Basswood, pointing to the colorful pole that took her about 10 hours to complete.

But the decorations on the snow snakes aren't just aesthetics, they're intended to be a reflection of that person's dreams -- giving it Ojibwe cultural representation as well as Ojibwe language expression.

"A lot of these kids are hungry for this kind of thing," said Shimek. "It's brought about a means by which they can talk about their dreams, their visions, their hopes without really talking about it because it's all expressed in their own snow snake."

Circle of Life eighth grader Precious Domiaguez worked for hours on her snow snake, painting colorful flower vines that wrapped around the pole.

"The floral patterns keep going and going and going, which is pretty much like, keep going and keep your head up," she explained.

The students were judged on the artistic quality of their snow snakes before taking them out onto Mission Lake.

There, the roughly 100 students began the traditional winter games that children their age played to keep entertained thousands of years ago.

In addition to their artistic designs, the students were also judged in distance (to see how far the snow snakes could travel in a plowed out snow path), accuracy (to see who could hit a given target), and hoop (to see who could throw their snow snake through a rolling hula hoop).

Although distance was how the game was made popular, locally Shimek says people often played the hoop aspect.

But snow snakes weren't just for fun and games.

"Historically snow snakes have been a way to communicate between villages," said Stephen Carlson of the Forestry and Extension Department of the U of M. "They sent messages on a snow track and people would monitor that track just the like the pony express or basically they'd have like little tweets on a stick -- they would send one, then every mile someone would pick it up and send it down."

Carlson was on hand for the festival to offer support for the schools' first ever Snow Snake Festival.

That's because he's already put together three previous events on a regional level in Minnesota -- in both Pinehurst and at the Bemidji State American Indian Resource Center.

His goal isn't simply to resurrect this old, traditional game, but to inject lessons in a whole spectrum of areas.

He says the idea is to teach young Native Americans culturally appropriate activities and apply them to science, math and engineering.

"So basically in learning this game, they're also learning a bit about physics, biology, some chemistry, art and then they're tying it to their cultural background," said Carlson.

And although not all the students likely realize the extent of what they're learning through snow snakes, many sense it's something much more than just any old game.

"I think it's important that we learn how to play this because then we can show our kids when we get older," said Naytahwaush fifth grader Clint Walker.

And with that, a little piece of Native American history lives on.