Teaching others an ancient Coast Salish game isn’t just about having fun for Swalklanexw (Dallas Guss) while that’s a big part of it, there’s much more to it than that.
The game Guss teaches is called Slahal. At its core, Guss said Slahal is “just a simple guessing game” but at the same time, it also offers great insight into Coast Salish history, culture and teachings.
For Guss, it’s a tool to help bridge the gap between Indigenous culture and Canadian society.
“It's a nice light introduction and crossover into becoming more comfortable with Indigenous culture,” Guss said.
The Squamish Nation member has played Slahal throughout his life and now passionately teaches it to others as an Indigenous support worker with North Vancouver School District and through community events.
The game was and still is played by First Nations across North America, sometimes the game was allowed just for fun, sometimes it was played to settle an argument, and sometimes it was used to prevent a conflict between two Nations.
“It's a game that scientifically goes back to the Ice Age here in Coast Salish territory,” Guss said.
“It was actually invented to replace war. So rather than going to war and fighting, my ancestors just simply played the game. Whoever won the game, won whatever it is they were fighting over.”
In English, Slahal is known as the "stick game or bone game," Guss continued.
“My ancestors used to play with animal bones and that's how we know that it goes back to the Ice Age, because scientists have actually unearthed mammoth bone [pieces] from the Ice Age that had Slahal game markings on them,” he explained.
How is the game played?
The game is played by two opposing teams, with two sets of bones (sticks), one pair with a line marked on them and one without, as well as a set of scoring sticks.
The object of the game is to try and win all of the other team's scoring or guessing sticks.
“Two people are picked on the same team to hide the bones in their hands and then the other team tries to guess which hand has the unmarked bone,” Guss said.
“And so, if you find it, then your team wins a turn to hide the bones. And if you don't find it, that's how your team loses guessing sticks.”
While the game takes concentration, Guss said there’s also a lot of fun to be had with it, with drumming and singing happening while the guesses take place.
“There are bone game specific Slahal songs,” he said. “And, usually, I'm singing during the game and the song has a pretty fast beat, and students like to dance to the beat and try to confuse and throw off the other team while they're guessing.”
The game teaches players to solve conflict in a peaceful way and has been incorporated into some schools on the North Shore to help students work through their feelings during disagreements with other students or stressful situations, Guss said.
“I was given feedback that one student actually shared the game with his family, and his family was really impressed that it really helped his emotions and feelings, and his mental state,” Gus said, adding that some students had also told him they preferred playing the game over having a “stern talking to.”
“That's why I really love the game, because it's not just a game. It has real-life teachings within it.”
His passion for teaching Slahal to students as well as the wider community stems from his bigger goal of connecting people and culture.
“Games are universal,” he said. “Even if a person doesn't speak English, or they're new to North America, I can share this game. A lot of students, from different parts of the world, tell me that they have some version of a guessing game just like this.”
Learn how to play Slahal
Guss will be sharing how to play Slahal at the upcoming Nchem?u?s Day on July 25 and all are welcome to join in.
Nchem?u?s, which means “people coming together” or “unity,” is a special community gathering for people of all cultures and ages to learn and play the game on Coast Salish territories.
The community gathering is hosted by Presentation House Theatre in partnership with Guss, Spakwus Slolem, Eagle Song Dancers of Squamish Nation, and Tsatsu Stalqayu, Coastal Wolf Pack of Musqueam Nation.
Guss said he was approached by Presentation House Theatre back in 2017 to collaborate and help them share Indigenous culture and so he introduced them to the game of Slahal and the annual event was born.
“One of the main reasons that I wanted to work with Presentation House Theatre is so that people can start to fully become more comfortable in participating and learning and understanding the teachings that are thousands of years old, in this territory today we call Vancouver.”
Presentation House Theatre said Nchem?u?s Day was a spinoff event from First Welcome Hych'Ka, a large-scale community celebration that was held in Waterfront Park in 2017 that featured an oversized version of Slahal among other elements.
For Guss, it’s all about Nchem?u?s.
“I picked that name because I want all of us to come together,” he said.
“If you look at our Squamish language dictionary, it doesn't say First Nations, Indigenous, Native Indian, Aboriginal, you know, all the words used to describe us. It just says human beings.
“I'm trying to bring back traditional teachings that way, and bridge the gap between Indigenous culture and Canadian society.”
After having to skip last year’s event due to COVID-19 restrictions, Guss said he was looking forward to bringing Nchem?u?s Day back for its third year.
“It’s great just to see that through a simple, fun, guessing game, they [participants] get some introduction to the Indigenous culture of this territory,” he said.
There will be plenty of food, song and dance to enjoy along with a little friendly rivalry on the day.
The fun and games will take place outside on the lawns of Presentation House Theatre, 333 Chesterfield Ave., at Third Street in North Vancouver, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Space is limited and registration is required.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.