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Native American games and the roles they serve in society | WUWM 89.7 FM

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WUWM is celebrating Native American Heritage Month with stories about Wisconsin’s Indigenous communities.

For Native and Indigenous communities in Wisconsin and surrounding areas, games served a role that transcended the purposes of entertainment. For many Native Americans, games also played a crucial part in social, ceremonial, and political events. Dawn Scher Thomae, curator of collections/senior collection manager at the Milwaukee Public Museum, oversaw the creation of an exhibit that focuses on Native American games and their purpose.

The Native games exhibit was established in 2010 when it was announced that Milwaukee would be the host city of the North American Indigenous Games during the following year’s summer. The games began in 1990 and are held on an intermittent basis and similarly to the Olympics, they feature activities like archery, lacrosse, softball, swimming, canoeing and swimming. In anticipation of the Milwaukee hosting the event, Thomae had the thought to establish a walk-through exhibit featuring Indigenous games that the museum agreed to.

Thomae explains how in these cultures, the games were not merely entertainment but rather served an intended purpose.

“They were often preparing people for adult roles in life…people needed a variety of skills to do [the games], such as sportsmanship, patience, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, endurance and critical thinking,” Thomae says.

The exhibit also explains how lacrosse was originally an Indigenous game with versions intended for both men and women.

Some indigenous games were forged through European influence. For example, the Apache playing cards are a variation of European playing cards that were made from rawhide. While describing one of her favorite games, Thomae speaks about a game called Bone Puzzle. This game was mostly played by young girls who were given a bag of mixed animal bones from a seal, bird or bear, and the objective was to identify the seal bones from the mixture and reconstruct a seal’s flipper using only those bones.

Throughout November, the Milwaukee Public Museum will honor the history and cultural impact of Native Americans with special events, programs, and free admission for Wisconsin tribal members.

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