The game of snow snake is the most revered winter sport for the Seneca and other Iroquois Nations, known amongst themselves as Haudenosaunee or “people who build longhouses.” With a history that pre-dates European contact, snow snake has long been a traditional pastime for the Seneca during the bitter cold winters of what is now Western New York. The name, gawasa’, or ‘snow snake,’ is derived from the visual resemblance of the game’s play to an icy serpent’s motion along the snow.
Though the game varies by region, it generally consists of players, whom compete in teams, called ‘corners,’ to glide their wooden ‘snow snakes’ down a trough, or channel that has been made in the snow. A game typically consists of multiple ‘corners,’ in which there is a thrower (corners can have multiple throwers) and a shiner. The thrower is responsible for each throw and the shiner is responsible for the caring of snow snakes and any applications to the wood. After a full round in which a player from each ‘corner’ throws their snow snake, the team with the longest throw is then awarded 1 point. The game continues until a team reaches a predetermined score, for the Seneca, that number is 4.
The snow snakes themselves vary in length, but are always made of a North American hardwood, usually maple, oak, or hickory. For added weight, increased balance and aerodynamic sensibility, snow snakes are outfitted with a lead tip, which can vary in size and shape depending on a throwers preference.
The Seneca play with two variations of the snow snake: a ‘mudcat,’ which is a three foot long stick and a standard ‘snow snake,’ which can be anywhere from 6 to 10 feet in length. The tracks for the games also vary in length and height, ranging from about 75 yards to in excess of 1.5 miles in length, and from 1 to 4 feet in height.
The channels in which the snow snakes traverse are created using a particularly ingenious method: Once the ground is fully frozen, track builders begin to form the accumulating snow into a track so that it forms a solid base from which to build. Once a desired height is achieved, a wooden log is then dragged down the track to form the ‘halfpipe-like’ formation of the track. Depending on the track’s maintenance and weather conditions, each track becomes a unique venue and each game presents new obstacles and requires various skills to compete.
As with most games, snow snake can be played for a variety of prizes, but it is most often played with good intentions and small wagers amongst friends and with family. A snow snake game can also be a grand event with players travelling great distances to battle rival ‘corners.’
“I can remember playing at ‘State Line Run’ near the Pennsylvania/New York border in Onoville, NY.” said current Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI) President Maurice John, Sr. “There were teams from Syracuse, Canada, a couple from Newtown (an area of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation) and one that was comprised of all non-natives.”
John has been playing snow snake for “as long as I can remember.” Like many, his introduction to the game began by helping his father, Coleman John, prepare for games. “It’s like a science, you know?” explains Kory Dowdy, a 30 year veteran of the game. “You have to experiment with different mixes,” says Dowdy when referring to the process of applying various combinations of waxes, schellac and other slippery concoctions, called ‘swagum,’ used to make the snow snakes glide better. “It all depends on the condition of the snow… I used to keep records of what worked best with what snow… The biggest thing is to win.”
Allen Burch, who along with Dowdy is very active in the snow snake community, explains “I’ve seen as many as 20 ‘corners’ in a game… every Saturday, we start with a ‘mudcat’ game at 11 AM. After that, we play 3rd class throwers (‘corners’ can have multiple throwers, 1st, 2nd and 3rd class)… then on Sunday we play the big game.” “It’s mostly for bragging rights, you know?” “With Onoville, we play for pride!” laughs Burch.
John later recounts his favorite snow snake memory. “I was in Canada once with my dad, who was a shiner for that game. I used to watch him and I used to experiment making my own ‘swagum.’ While the teams would retrieve their sticks, I would practice throwing… one of my throws that day went almost as far as the winners’ did. My dad saw this and he took me aside…‘can I have your ‘swagum?’ he said. I looked up at him and said, ‘sure, if I can have a hamburger.’” John’s corner won the game. “It was the first and last time I found that perfect recipe,” said John.
When asked what the future of snow snake may hold, “It’s getting stronger,” says Burch. “There’s more teams now than ever,” agrees John. Burch becomes especially animated thinking about the upcoming season. “When I hear people say ‘the snow’s gonna be flying,’ I say ‘bring it!’ ‘We can go to the game!’”
As with snow snake for the Seneca, the Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino now has a traditional winter sport of its own. Over the last few years, the Casino has developed its featured winter event, “Seneca Allegany’s U.S. Air Force National” presented by AMSOIL Championship Snocross. “ACS-AMSOIL Championship Snocross is the featured national series within ISOC (The International Series of Champions) Racing. The series brings together the finest professional and amateur athletes in the sport, in the most fan friendly venues in the U.S., and provides the best, most technically challenging tracks in the world. These facets combine to create the biggest, best Snocross racing show in the world, brought to fans by AMSOIL, the first in synthetics.”
This year’s event will be taking place February 5 and 6 at the Seneca Allegany Resort and Casino.
More information is available at snocross.com
By Maurice John Jr