Tribal gathering celebrates unifying culture of an ancient game

Washington tribal families gather at Seattle Pacific University to celebrate the unifying culture of Sla-hal.

Lynda V. Mapes

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Mark H. Stanger, of Plummer, Idaho, enrolled in the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, wears regalia at Saturday's gathering at Seattle Pacific University. The image behind him, a spearhead made of mastodon bone and stuck in a mastodon rib, was part of an anthropological lecture. -  KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

They brought drums and songs from their families east and west of the Cascades, and stories of the tradition that unites them: Sla-hal, a game so ancient many here believe it was played with carved mastodon bones found near Wenatchee.


Volcanic ash found with the cache, discovered in 1987, dates to about 13,800 years ago. Along with the bone sticks were points, made by the Clovis people, thought to be the oldest human occupation in what archaeologists call the New World. The points would have been used to hunt bison and other animals. The sticks have enormous significance to area tribes because it would date their presence in Washington to at least 800 to 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.

But while the bones were found more than 20 years ago, debate continues among tribal members, scholars and scientists who don't think anyone can yet say just what they are. To tribes, the sticks document a cultural continuity and presence in the area for more than 13,000 years — rewriting history that holds the first people traveled here on a land bridge from Alaska.


These are the 13,000-year-old mastodon bones that tribal members have identified as ancient gambling sticks, found in an orchard near Wenatchee. STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

More than just a game, Sla-hal was played by the ancestors of contemporary tribal members to settle disputes in a bloodless contest of skill, with rivals contending with a set of sticks of wood or bone, and songs passed down for generations uncounted. The game is still played ceremonially and for wagers today, and Sla-hal tournaments draw thousands of participants.

Tribal families gathered from across Washington at Seattle Pacific University on Saturday to discuss and celebrate the tradition of Sla-hal, also called the bone game or stick game, that still unites them.

Saturday's gathering also was held in part to celebrate and discuss the find of the mastodon bones in an Eastern Washington apple orchard. The origin and meaning of the so-called Richey-Roberts Clovis Cache is disputed among tribes and archaeological professionals.

Carl Gustafson, a retired professor of archaeology at Washington State University, started the day with a discussion of what those in his profession make of the find. Among scholars and scientists, the mastodon bones are rods with an as-yet-undetermined use and purpose.

That the bones are Sla-hal sticks cannot be ruled out, Gufstason said.

"It sounds very reasonable to me. It could be a game, and it fits within the realm of what they call the bone game or the stick game, and we don't have any better explanation for them," Gustafson said.

He didn't buy into the theory of some scholars that the sticks are fore-shafts for a compound spear, to which a point would have been affixed.

"There is no way I could visualize these were hafted onto a shaft: They are not notched, they are not pegged," Gustafson said. He said his profession hasn't listened closely enough to the tribal interpretation of the find. "Most of my colleagues seem to leave the Native Americans out of it, so they don't hear the stories, they can't get into the potlatches, they don't hear the songs, and the stories, and the fervor with which these people believe. They don't seem to go and ask the people, the Native Americans, what they think these might be. We may need to reanalyze and rethink what we thought we knew."

Passing down teachings

The set of 13 sticks today are at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, where the largest of them, believed to be the so-called Chief's Stick in a Sla-hal set, with its intricate markings, is on public display. On a recent visit there, Marvin Kempf, a Snoqualmie tribal member, held the sticks in his gloved hands. Kempf and other tribal members have been working to reignite discussion of the meaning of the sticks, and Sla-hal, as a unifying force among tribal families, starting with the gathering Saturday.

"We have songs that go back into the ice age," Kempf said. "This is the evidence that we go back to time immemorial."

He sees purpose in the re-emergence today of the ancient sticks, to remind tribal families of their unity: "When times get tough, Sla-hal comes back to us."

It was always so, says Mark Johns-Colson, enrolled in the Chehalis tribe, whose Indian name is syk-Amen, or Remembers Like the Sun. And remember he does the teachings of his people, who instruct that Sla-hal was a gift of the Creator, to give the people a way to resolve their disputes and overcome the destructive possibility of the temptations of anger, greed, jealousy and lust.

Kindness, generosity, humility, consideration: Those are the teachings, the foundation and the meaning in the origin of Sla-hal, and teachings that would help their people in trials that would come.

At Saturday's gathering, Johns-Colson's family members shared ancient stick-game songs, passed down through the family line for thousands of years.

Michael Pavel of Skokomish said Sla-hal is the oldest continuous instructive ceremony on Earth. "But it is also a way for the people to enjoy themselves, laugh, and sing, and to be in rhythm with one another," Pavel said. " Because in the end, we will need that to survive."

Scholars' view

Some scholars caution against deciding just what the Clovis Cache sticks are, and to keep searching for their meaning. Dennis Stanford, curator of archaeology and director of the paleo ecology program for the Smithsonian Institution, traveled to Washington state to look at the sticks with Kempf two summers ago.

"Those objects have a story to tell, and those stories need to be told, or we would not have found them," Stanford said.

"I am pleased they are having this conclave," he said of Saturday's gathering. "But I hope they don't go over the edge; everyone needs to think about it. The stones and bones need to speak, and tell their story. It's their job, and what we have to do is figure out what they are trying to tell us. And I think we would all be surprised.

"We need to have properly toned ears to hear that story. We just have to keep studying, and keep thinking. It is really exciting and really interesting, and maybe someday we will know the answer."

Tribal elders' view

On Saturday, though, some tribal elders said it's the other way around. To them, it's time for the rest of the world to hear what the tribes have to say about their own history.

"This is a long time coming, to let the doctors and the scholars listen to us," said Rose Kempf, Marvin Kempf's mother. "People don't believe what we say unless it is written on paper. But we pass our teachings mouth to mouth to mouth.

"These are from the first people," she said of the bones. "And we are of the first people. This is setting new history for them," she said of non-Indians. "We already know our history."