The Navajo Shoe Game

Photo credit: See The Southwest Illustration

During winter evenings, Navajo families spend the time telling stories of the people — of their emergence into this world and of the trickster, Coyote — and they enjoy playing games. In particular, they play the Shoe Game. According to Navajo legend, long ago, the night creatures and the day creatures did not understand the importance of the cycles of the universe. Each group wanted it to be either day or night all the time. A contest was held to see which group had the most power and this was the first Shoe Game.

The two groups of animals took turns hiding a Yucca ball in four boots that were almost completely buried in the sand – only an inch of the top of the boot remained above the sand. A member from each time tried to guess in which boot the yucca ball was concealed. If they choose correctly, they were given a counter. The two teams played through the night, trying to guess in which of four shoes the ball made of yucca root was hidden. As the game went on each team would gain or lose 102 yucca stems. At sunrise there was no winner and the animals had learned that all seasons and cycles are part of the grand plan.

The modern version of the game is even more interesting. Before the game a small Yucca is uprooted — 102 leaves are used as counters, while the root is fashioned into a ball and one side is colored black. The root is tossed into the air to determine which side will go first.

Then some team members will hold up a blanket to conceal the activity of hiding the ball and buyring the boots in sand. The curtain is then dropped and the opposite team sends a member to discover in which boot the root is hidden. This is done by striking the boots with a stick of pinon pine and by asking questions of the other team. Players may guess up to three times, given the right circumstance. Guessing the right boot on the first guess earns 10 yucca leaves for the team, guessing right on the second guess earns 8 leaves, and 4 leaves for the final guess. If the root cannot be located in three guesses, the guesser returns to his side. The “defenders” then raise a blanket separating them from the opposite side and re-hide the yucca ball.

Games can continue all night, ending only when the rays of sun streak the Eastern sky.

Because the Navajo respect the seasons, discussions of Shoe Games and Winter Tales and the activities themselves are not done after early Spring or before November.

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