Messekuche Kunek (The Handgame) for four or more players: When anthropologist David Mandelbaum visited the Plains Cree in 1934, the elders told him this game was taught by the Flathead tribe to those Cree who took temporary refuge in the United States after the Rebellion of 1885. Since then, it has evolved as the most popular gambling game among all tribes in Saskatchewan.

The playing pieces consist of two bones or wooden cylinders. One is marked with a cord or a ring of bark, the other is left plain. The object is to find the unmarked piece; the other is to add confusion to the game.

To further confuse and taunt the opposition, lively songs are sung by the hiding team. The singers beat an accompanying rhythm to their songs on a log placed before their team.

Traditionally, stakes included belongings such as a horse or a coat. Wagers still take place between individuals; the stakes are always of equal value. Long ago, if one man bet his tipi against another man's clothing, they might agree that the tipi was worth five times as many points as the clothes, so the man betting the clothing would have to win five games to win the tipi, while the man wagering the tipi could win the clothing in one game.




  1. This is played between two teams consisting of four to eight players each. The teams sit facing each other. A log is placed before each team.
  2. The game begins using only one tally stick. The remaining tallies are placed in the center to one side. Each group chooses a leader to do the guessing. Taking turns, both leaders try to guess where the other has hidden the unmarked piece. When one is right, the successful guesser takes all four pieces and the one tally stick.
  3. The successful guesser chooses two men from his team to hide the pieces. The leader of the opposing team may also ask someone from his team to do the guessing at any time during the play. Each hider receives one marked and one unmarked piece.
  4. The hiding team chants songs, keeping time by beating the log. These songs, coupled with body movements, are to confuse their opponents. Adding to the confusion are the hand movements behind their backs or under the blanket. The guessing team watches closely, silently, trying to detect any clues as to the whereabouts of the unmarked piece.
  5. To make a legitimate guess, certain specific hand signals are used by the guesser. He must also shout "Ho!". Often a guesser will tease the hiders by using a proper hand signal, but not shouting "Ho!" which must be audible to indicate a guess. According to David Mandelbaum, the hand gestures used to denote the arrangement of the pieces are as follows:

O = unmarked; X = marked





Thumb and index finger out stretched, other fingers flexed.

Correct guess; guesser's side takes both pieces of bones.


Index finger pointed to the right; all others flexed

 Guesser's side takes one pair of bones; opponents score one point.


 Hand edgewise down middle.

 Guesser wrong; opponents score two points.


Hand edgewise down middle. 

 Correct guess; guesser side takes bones.


 Index finger pointed to right; all others flexed

 Correct guess; guesser side takes bones.


 Thumb and index finger outstretched, others flexed.

Correct guess; guesser side takes bones.

The guesser must remember to shout "Ho!" each time a guess is made.

  1. If the guesser misses both unmarked pieces, the hider wins two points and another turn. If the guesser is correct about both unmarked pieces, his team receives both sets to hide. Should the guesser find only one unmarked piece, the hiders receive one point and must hide the remaining set until their opponents guess correctly. The hiding team can win only one point a turn when they have only one set to hide. They score only when the guessers are wrong.


Both of the following variations have to do with scoring. In either case, the games go much more quickly.

  1. Each team can begin the game with half the number of tally sticks.
  2. The people from Poorman's Reserve play the game using more than one tally stick per score. If a man is confident of his guess, he may wager three tally sticks. If he guesses correctly, he receives both hiding pieces and scores three points. If he is incorrect, he loses all three points

Click on one of these pictures to hear a traditional handgame song sung by Edmund Bull at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. These songs would serve as an accompaniment to the handgame.

 Song 1 (1.2 MB)

  Song 2 (2.5 MB)

 drum to handgame1

 drum to handgame2

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