The Toys used by Native Children

Playing House

Historical photos and artwork on this web site are reproduced for educational purposes only, and should not be reproduced without the permission of Faire Tyme Toys, and/or their original owner.

A brief Introduction

When looking at Native toys, we must remember that most toys had a purpose. To teach those same children to hunt, to fish, to live.

In Dolls and Toys of Native America, A Journey through Childhood by Don and Debra McQuiston 1995

The same was true on the Great Plains where Lakota girls practiced women's skills using toys of a more domestic nature - dolls dressed in deerskin, decorated with beadwork. With the help of parents and grandparents they would establish their dolls in complete miniature households: small tipis carpeted with animal skins, bags and bundles around their perimeter, cooking gear, cradleboards, and even medicine bundles placed neatly inside. Outside the tipis stood little horses covered with real horsehair, pulling travois on which rode tiny child dolls.

"It was play and it was life. For boys the emphasis was on hunting and war while girls focused on domestic skills."

"Naturally toys reflected local culture. Inuit children had toy dog sleds. Lakota children had toy horses. In the eastern woodlands, infants were given a little leather pouch filled with maple sugar, by sucking and chewing it they could taste the sweetness inside. In the Arctic far from any source of sugar, a baby would be given a strip of blubber to chew on. It was tied to her wrist with a short thong so that if she began to choke on it she could flail her arms and yank it out."

Ďn many ways growing up in a traditional native community must have been a wonderful life. Children played outside whenever the weather allowed. They could ride horses, go swimming, launch toy boats, build play lodges ... "

In Pamunkey Indian Games and Amusements, by Mark K Rowell, the author talks about many toys that were common to non native children of the day in Virginia. Included in the list are spool top, pop gun, buzz saw (In earlier times a three inch oak disc was used), whimmy diddle, cross bows, and string figures were used.

The Insect, The Stone, The Stick, and The Water - Toys provided by God

The first toys that children ever played with were almost certainly the stick, the stone, the insect or pond of water, etc. And through those thousands of years until today, we still find those toys to have endless value. Their simplicity. Their part of our life. All draws us to them. These can be the most important of all toys that any child of any culture will play with.

However, there are times when any toy or item can become too valuable to us, be it young or old. This simple and true story I love. It demonstrates the dangers of "Ownership". Since Native folks of former times did not really "Own" things, this story takes on particular meaning. They of course believed that God owned their land, their clothing, their canoes, and of course - The Grasshopper.

Before "electric trains", children made toys from what they had. The following story tells us a bit about how kids would find things to play with in strange places. (Remember the live kites in Europe? A bird tied to a rope?)
This story was sent to us by a trusted source. He is Eagle, Sub-Chief of the Shawnee Nation URB.

The Grasshopper War

In the east a very long time ago there were 2 Lanape Indian Villages very close to each other separated only by a small shallow river. The two villages got along very well with each other and the warriors hunted together, the woman worked in the fields and cooked together and the children played together.

One day one of the children from the other village across the river found a very large beautiful grasshopper. It was a fine specimen of an insect and he was very proud of it. The other children gathered round and they all agreed that the grasshopper was the biggest and most beautiful they had ever seen.

Another boy from the other village who was gathered around looking at the magnificent grasshopper became jealous and angry that the grasshopper was not his. He thought to himself .... that grasshopper was found on my village's land so it rightfully belongs to the families in my village so he took the grasshopper from the boy who found it. The two exchanged words and before long all the children were fighting each other. The woman of both villages heard the loud screams and hollering and went to investigate. They saw their children fighting each other.

They yelled for the children to stop....but they didn't listen ..... they kept fighting. Now the mothers of the children were getting aggravated seeing their children being hit and kicked. Now the women started fighting with one another. The fracas lasted for a while until they wore themselves out fighting.

The men soon after returned to the villages from hunting and found their women and children bloody, bruised and worn out. They first thought that one of the other tribes they were not friendly with came and attacked their villages while the men were out hunting but the women told the story as they knew it.

This now angered the men of the villages and both village Chiefs swore that they would never be friendly with one another again.

For many years the two villages stayed away from each other and didn't even look at each other if they happened along the river at the same time.

As with some things time heals wounds. Especially since there was no one killed in the "Grass Hopper War". One day one of the warriors said.. "I have had enough of this foolishness. I had long time friends and brothers just across that river and I intend to see them again. Once the two villages started talking again neither one could remember what started the fighting until one of the children, now a young warrior, reminded the elders what had happened that day.

From that time on both villages and all the people always got along and never let themselves get caught up in their children's quarrels.

Now I have heard and read various versions of this story where there were many hundreds of people killed in the war and that the two tribes always hated each other. I don't think that fits well with the native culture, the people needed to keep everyone alive that they could. In those times the Native People were having a hard enough time dealing with the colonial people pushing west....and well... you know the rest.

End of Quote from Eagle

Toy Canoes

In dolls and toys of native America, A Journey through Childhood by Don and Debra McQuiston 1995

"More than a century ago a young Cree father sat by a northern lake working a piece of birch bark. It was June and the forest was green with new growth. The man's son was coming into his third summer. Soon the boy would be the right age to receive his first canoe, a miniature model only 26 inches long.

Although the man was making a toy, he paid close attention to the details of its construction. He put in the right number of maple thwarts, bent the ribs from strips of white cedar, and sealed the seams with spruce gum. When finished, the small canoe would be as accurate a model of a real canoe as he could make.

Yet this canoe was more than a simple toy. It carried a burden of history, tradition, design, and practical technique. The Cree thought that if a boy owned a properly made toy canoe it would help him understand how to build a full size one; by playing with the toy canoe he could make imaginary journeys into the realm of adulthood.

Dolls, Toy Tipis, and things like Cooking pots

Playing House

In Dolls and Toys of Native America, A Journey through Childhood by Don and Debra McQuiston 1995

The same was true on the Great Plains where Lakota girls practiced women's skills using toys of a more domestic nature - dolls dressed in deerskin, decorated with beadwork. With the help of parents and grandparents they would establish their dolls in complete miniature households: small tipis carpeted with animal skins, bags and bundles around their perimeter, cooking gear, cradleboards, and even medicine bundles placed neatly inside. Outside the tipis stood little horses covered with real horsehair, pulling travois on which rode tiny child dolls.

It was play and it was life. For boys thee emphasis was on hunting and war while girls focused on domestic skills."

Native Reenactor's Doll

"SiskiAki had made the doll herself, wrapping strips of leather around a frame of twigs and fitting it with a doeskin dress like the one her mother wore. Her mother had guided her showing her how to cut the leather, how to sew the pieces and finally how to make it look pretty with blue and white beads."

"Most dolls were the product of elderly women who made them as gifts for their granddaughters. Sewn with painstaking attention to detail, dolls and their accouterments helped a girl learn her family's way of making household objects. As she grew older and made her first actual garment, a ceremony was held and the object proudly presented to an elderly relative or to some other respected individual. This important moment marked a girl's first step toward adult responsibilities. ... many women kept one favorite doll throughout their lives.

end of quote

We have been told that often native children played with different types of dolls. Corn Husk dolls are mentioned often, along with rag dolls. A Native Reenactor at Old Fort William in Thunder Bay Ontario kindly allowed me to take a photo of this reproduction of a native rag doll. The dolls of many native tribes had no eyes of facial features because those people of those tribes believed that to put eyes on the doll was to give it a spirit. And that would of course be wrong. On the other hand other tribes used eyes and facial features a great deal. Think of the carvings of (Reference,) western tribes like the Haida. The totum poles and front of homes and canoes were great examples of paintings and artwork with eyes.

In "Traditional Games of the Lakotas by Raymond A Bucko SJ, Reference, Lakota
it mentions that Lakota dolls were carried on backs just as their mothers did, and before they were made of cloth they were made of buckskin. Also, it mentions that girls played with tipis from the size of small miniatures to child size models and like boys enjoyed playing with sleds made of lashed hides and buffalo rib bones.

In "American Philosphical Society Volume VII by Frank G Speck" Reference Delaware
It is mentioned that the permission to make corn husk dolls is very specific and is inherited. Also the dolls are only made by persons born in the summer. Persons born in winter though may make images of their ceremonial group. Wolf, Turkey, etc. A member of the Turkey group may make dolls of images of Turkey, Chicken, Duck, or Goose, and attach feathers to it and let it hand from the dwelling so wind can blow it around.

Bows and Arrows, Drums, Spears, Juggling, Skipping Ropes and Sliding on the Snow.

Crow Indian playing
Grass Target Game,

From "Ethnological results of the Point Barrow Expedition"

We sometimes saw the boys playing with models of little implements and utensils used by their parents. Perhaps the commonest thing of this sort is the boy's bow. As soon as a boy is able to walk his father makes him a little bow suited to his strength with blunt arrows which he plays with the other boys shooting at marks ........ . We also saw children playing with little drums, and one man made a little boy an elaborate Kamoti about 4 feet long. In the collection are a number of implements, spears, etc some of which have already been described which were perhaps intended as playthings for children. As however they were all newly made it is possible they were merely intended to catch the fancy of the strangers.

Another favorite amusement of the women and children is tossing three bullets or small pebbles with the right hand, after the manner of a juggler, keeping one ball constantly in the air. Some women are very skillful at this keeping the balls up for a long time.

In winter the young women and girls are often to be seen tossing a snowball with their feet. A girl wets some snow andmakes a ball about as big as her two fists which of course immediately becomes a lump of ice. This she balances on a toe of one foot and with a kick and a jump tosses it over to the other foot which catches it and tosses it back. Some women will keep this up for a number of strokes.

The little girls also play with the skipping rope. I once watched three little girls jumping. Two swung the rope and the other stood in the middle and jumped. First they swung the rope under her feet to the right, then back under her feet to the left, and then once or twice wholly under her feet and over her head and then began again. They also play at housekeeping laying sticks round to represent the sides of the house or outlining the house by pressing up ridges of snow beneath their feet. Sometimes they mark out a complicated labyrinth on the snow in this way and the game appears to be that one shall guard this and and try to catch the others as they come in, as in many of the games of civilized children.

They also amuse themselves in winter by sliding on their knees down the steepest snowdrifts under the cliffs. ........ As a rule they are not made to do any regular work until they are pretty well grown.

Inflatable Toys

In Book of American Indian Games by Allan and Paulette Macfarlan
It tells of boys playing with bladders of sea mammals. Other places Mammals are mentioned as well. It states that after a boy had inflated it he would find as many ways as possible to use it to amuse himself, especially when conditions sometimes caused him to play alone a good deal. He threw the bladder, he headed it, he kicked it, and experimented to see how many ways he could toss it and keep advancing while doing so.

Toy Pipes

In the book "Canadian Savage Folk: The natives of Canada - page 267 the author writes that small clay pipes have been found in Simcoe County that were probably toy pipes used by children.

Bull Roarer

Dakota Indian, South Dakota
Museum of Science and Art
University of Pennsylvania.

In "Games of the Teton Dakota Children. The American Anthropologist", Volume 4, page 343, 1901, Dr J Owen Dorsey describes the instrument as follows (Reference, Dakota - Teton, South Dakota):
"Chan'Kaobletuntun'pi, Wood having edges, ... : A straight piece of wood is prepared, with four sides or edges, and is fastened by a strip of hide to another piece of wood which is used as a handle. The boy grasps the handle, whirls it around his head, making the four cornered piece move rapidly with a whizzing noise."

To see the similar Faire Tyme Toys Bull Roarer, click Here.

Tops .... For more information on tops see our Web Site area on Games with Possible Common Origin with Other Countries.

Whip Tops, Dakota Indians.
Free Museum of Science and Art
University of Pennsylvania

In "Notes on Cheyenne Indian Games communicated to the Bureau of American Ethnology" a Mr Louis L Meeker writes (Reference, Cheyenne, Oklahoma):
"They have also whip tops. They are played with in winter. When the ice breaks up in the spring, they are thrown into the water as it rises with the implements for the other winter games, and carried away. Playing winter games in summer is popularly supposed to make hairs grow on the body where tweezers will be required to remove them - a nursery tale."

In "Kitchi-Gami, Wanderings round Lake Superior", page 84, London, 1860, a Mr J G Kohl says (Reference, Chippewa, Wisconsin):
"The Indian boys manage to make tops out of acorns and nuts as cleverly as our boys do. They also collect the oval stones which are found on the banks of the rivers and lakes and use them on the ice in winter. Barefooted and active, they run over the ice, and drive the stones against each other with whips and sticks. The stone that upsets the other is the victor."

Wheeled Toys

In American Antiquity by Gordon F Elkholm, Chapter - Wheeled Toys in Mexico. the author talks about a number of toys being found in Mexico which would seem to have had wheels on them, and that they seem to have existed pre Spanish Conquest times. He mentions that it is unknown why a toy would have wheels when there is no real evidence of the wheel being used in carts to transport goods, etc. I have though heard from non documented sources that the reason for this was that the natives probably knew about the wheel but not about how to make a mechanism to steer a vehicle like a cart. If you load a cart with a hundred kilograms of goods and there is no steering you cannot drag the cart around to steer it. It is pretty much useless. However, it is VERY easy to drag a wheeled toy across the floor to steer it. As mentioned, this information in regards to steering still must be documented by us in order to be considered as trusted.

Cup and Ball - A Toy, or a Game? - Inuit Style

Proper Name, Ring and Pin

In Inuit villages the Ring and Pin was originally constructed of the bones of seal. A hole was drilled off center into one of the ends of the piece of “target” bone in order to attach a piece of sinew cord or string. The other end of the cord was attached to a sliver of bone or stick shaped into a long shaft or pin. By swinging “the target” bone into the air, the player attempted to catch it on the point of the bone or stick.

Central Eskimo,
West Coast Hudson Bay
American Museum of
Natural History

Cup and Ball - Native Style

For more information on the Ring and Pin (or Cup and Ball), please see "Hoop and Stick Games" in our Native Games area.

Proper Name - Ring and Pin.

There were many different forms of Ring and Pin played by Native Tribes in almost endless variations. They involved horn, leather, wood, and all sorts of combinations. This is a second native version of this very common toy.

Little Fire Society Zuffi,
New Mexico
Brooklyn Institute Museum

Dancing and Impersonations (not really a game or a toy.)

In a "Report of the Ethnological Survey of Canada in year 1900
It states "But dancing and impersonations of animals were their favorite pastimes and these played an important part in the tribal festivities in early days" Page 488. Sk-qo-mic tribe.

Toys used in Trade

We have found more than one piece of text on toys being used as items of barter by the Europeans to trade with Indians. In "A general history and collection of voyages and travels, arranged in systematic order forming a complete history of the origin and progress of navigation, discovery and commerce, by sea and land, from the earliest ages to the present time" (regards discovering of Cuba and Hispaniola) it mentions... "The Spaniards were Roderick de Xeres a Native of Ayamonte and Louis de Torres who had been a Jew and spoke Hebrew and Chaldee and some Arabic. These people had been furnished with toys to barter, and were restricted to six days .......

Please remember one thing in these "trades". Yes, they mention toys. But remember how an adult today might describe his favorite car or boat as a toy? There is a good chance that such is exactly what is going on here. They may not be toys in the traditional sense. Another book asks - What is a toy. On a voyage of Captain Cook it is mentioned that a native looks into a mirror which he was given among other toys. "He was so frightened he started back and overturned two of the men and did not easily regain composure. Note though that the mirror was considered to be a 'Toy'"

In reference to Cortez and the Spaniards (When reading, please see paragraph above.)
In "A general history and collection of voyages and travels, arranged in systematic order forming a complete history of the origin and progress of navigation, discovery and commerce, by sea and land, from the earliest ages to the present time" we are talked of toys being traded to the Europeans. We were visited on the following day by many chiefs of the neighboring districts who brought with them gifts of golden toys in various shapes; some like human faces, and other in the shape of various animals, as lizards, dogs, and ducks.

Author Carbutt, E. H., Mrs.
Title Five months' fine weather in Canada, western U.S., and Mexico / by Mrs. E.H. Carbutt.

The natives never think of wasting money on clothes, anything does for clothes, an old sac is not at all an uncommon garment, but they buy ices, toys, and cakes freely.

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