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Over the course of years the paleface has taken many things from the red man, including the Indian game of lacrosse, but somehow he overlooked adopting as his own one of the most amazing games ever played.
This is the game of Snow-snake, and long before the coming of the white man, the mighty Iroquois whooped and hollered as they played it during the winter months. Today, on the banks of the Grand River on the Six Nations reservation near Brantford, Ontario their descendants still shout Hung Yu! as they toss their snakes a mile along the snow at speeds which have been estimated to reach 120 mph. No other missile in the world that is propelled by a man's hand travels so far and so fast as an Indian's snow-snake.
The snake is actually a wand about seven feet in length which is banded and weighted with lead at one end, while the other end has a groove, or notch, for the finger.
To make a good snake takes about two years because for at least one year the wood must remain soaking in oil so that it will take the highest possible finish. After the oil-soaking process the snake is rubbed and polished for months, each maker using a wax of his own particular choice of ingredients. Sometimes the formula has been handed down through the centuries and is a closely guarded secret.
The course for a snow-snake contest is made by dragging logs through the snow, which form a hollowed-out trough. It is about one foot deep and stretches out for more than a mile. It is by no means downhill, but follows the rise and dip of the land. Since the course is frequently laid out by the edge of a road, the trough often contains many curves.
The object of the game is to see who can throw his snake the farthest along the trough, and usually a player gets two tosses. However, when a tournament is on, with teams turning up from other reservations, the contests often last two days, the players backing their ability with money.
Whereas a golfer would give his eye-teeth to drive a ball 350 yards, an Indian will toss his snake anywhere from a half to three-quarters of a mile under normal conditions. When the weather is sharp and cold and the track lightning-fast, tosses of a mile and more are achieved. Because the speed of the trough changes with the weather, each Indian has snakes for use on slow, wet or fast tracks.
The game comes by its name honestly, for no other inanimate object looks more like a real snake than one of these wands slithering through the snow. It is also downright amazing to see how readily they glide. For example, if a snake is placed in a trough and given a slight push with a single finger, it will travel 50 yards. Little wonder then that such prodigious distances are achieved by a skilled player making a full toss.
The Hung Yu! the player shouts as he makes his toss is equivalent to the golfer's fore! It's a warning, and a necessary one, because the snakes travel so fast that they often leap out of the trough, especially at curves, and fly through the air. When they do the spectators dive for cover, for a flying snake can be a mighty dangerous missile. Even a spent one will pierce a leather boot.
So if you're a golfer, don't be too proud of your distance the next time you get a 250-yard drive. Just remember that a four-year-old Indian boy can beat that kind of distance easily with his snow-snake.