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Native American games and the roles they serve in society

A portion of the Indigenous games exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum
Dawn Scher Thomae
Milwaukee Public Museum
A portion of the Indigenous games exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum

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, Scher Thomae had the thought to establish a walk-through exhibit featuring Indigenous games that the museum agreed to.

Scher 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," she notes.

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 according to Scher Thomae. 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, Scher 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 bones from the mixture and reconstruct the animal's body part.

Throughout November, the Milwaukee Public Museum will honor the history and cultural impact of Native Americanswith special events, programs, and free admission for Wisconsin tribal members sponsored by Potawatomi Hotel and Casino.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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