Home Madison City revives ancient winter game, with help of Ho-Chunk alder

City revives ancient winter game, with help of Ho-Chunk alder


Arvina Martin didn’t grow up playing snow snake, but recently found the chance to reconnect with a part of her heritage. 

The Madison alder, who is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, just learned about the game last year when she saw it in a social media post from the Nation’s Cultural Preservation Office.

“I saw them making the actual snow structure for it and playing it. I’d never seen it before,” she said in an interview. “I was like, ‘Oh, I really want to play. I want to know what this is about.’”

Martin has worked with the City of Madison’s Parks department to bring an ancient game to Warner Park this Friday for anyone to try.

The game goes back at least 500 years and has been played in the winter by many nations indigenous to the northern climes of North America, including the Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Sioux, Wyandotte, Oneida and other Iroquois people. Players throw long sticks down a groove in a ramp built of snow to see whos “snake” can go the farthest. The ramp can be as long as a football field.

“Because the track isn’t regular, it’s not uniform, there’s little bumps, and maybe it’s not a hundred percent straight, the way the stick moves, it’s really cool because it looks like a snake slithering,” Martin said.

Last winter, Martin reached out to Bill Quackenbush of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s Cultural Preservation Office and made plans to build a ramp and play in Madison, but the weather didn’t cooperate and the snow was gone before it could happen. So the two worked with the City’s Parks Department to try again this week, holding a trial run on Saturday.

“It wasn’t super official or anything, just seeing how it goes, and making sure that we figure out how to distance everybody properly, and would people be interested?” Martin said. “And we got some folks to come by, and we got some folks who were just ice skating at Warner Park who, as they were going back to their cars were like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’”

Martin posted some photos and got messages from Indigenous people as far away as Maine who loved playing snow snake in the winter.

She said now is an especially good time for something outdoors.

“We’re all cooped up. And then last week the weather was so cold, and I know just everybody’s trying to get out of their houses, and here’s something that we could do,” she said. “This is something that was probably played around here previously by Ho-Chunks that lived here. It’s a game that’s indigenous to here. It’s easy. It’s accessible to people. So it’s not only like learning something about the culture that is indigenous to Madison, but it’s also fun. It’s easy. Anybody can do it. And like I said, everybody is so cooped up. And so another thing that we can do to help keep people occupied while we are all mostly stuck at home, I think is good. And learning something new while spending an afternoon outside, I think is pretty cool.”

The city’s parks department provided some broomsticks to use as snakes, and Quackenbush also allowed Martin to borrow some more traditional sticks. The event will take place from 3 to 6 pm on Friday, February 26 at Warner Park. Quackenbush will teach three 45-minute sessions; pre-registration is requested, which you can do at this link.