Folk Toys

Centuries before the influx of European American settlers, Native Americans of the Great Plains developed hundreds of ingenious and highly differentiated toys to instruct and entertain both the young and not-so-young. Among the most widespread and creative examples were six-foot-long knotted loops, usually of deer hide or rawhide, which were used to produce string figures, variations of the modern "cat's cradle." Play could be solitary, or it might join two persons of different generations passing the intricate loops back and forth (thus, the practice was called "web weaving"). Tribes shared many designs and each produced a variant of the nearly universal cat's cradle. Many Great Plains Native American string figures illustrated tribal histories and folklore, as well as religious narratives.

Other Native American toys both entertained and developed eye-hand coordination. Many were comprised of an eight- to twelve-inch pin of wood, bone, or antler connected by a length of cord to a series of up to nineteen small rings, or to a piece of leather punched with various-sized holes. As the pin is swung upward at arm's length, the rings or leather form a large arc, and when reaching the apex, begin to fall downward. At that instant, the player attempts to thrust the pin through all the rings or through a designated hole in the leather. The considerable deftness and skill required helped train children for spearfishing and hunting.

A related toy combines a hoop with darts. In each variant, whether from the Ojibwas of North Dakota, Lakotas of South Dakota, or Gros Ventres of Montana, a hoop, with a diameter from two-and-three-quarters up to twenty-five inches, fashioned from a thin branch, bone, or supple corn husk, surrounds a central weaving of yarn, string, beads, or rawhide. The weaving divides the hoop's enclosed area into sectors, with a small hole remaining in the center. The target hoop may be set on the ground, suspended from a tree branch, or rolled along the ground. Two players throw sharpened and sometimes elaborately decorated darts, or shoot arrows at the hoop, seeking to hit an exact spot or find the hoop's center. A variation has players throwing short spears instead of darts while running after a rolling hoop.

One of the continent's most ancient toys is the buzzer, a disk-shaped piece of wood, bone, or pottery pierced with two holes, through which a deerskin thong or piece of doubledover sinew, about two feet long, is passed. The object is placed at the center of the doubled thong and spun rapidly by the winding and unwinding of the thong, with the rhythmic pressure of the hands and arms moving inward and pulling outward on the thong in the manner of playing an accordion. The thong, stretched tight between the hands, supports the buzzer, which functions as a flywheel. The Gros Ventres and the Lakotas used a knee bone or knucklebone as a buzzer; other tribes used painted and patterned wooden disks that would change color (for example, red and yellow becoming orange) and apparent shape as the buzzer spun. The term "buzzer" derives from the sound made while the bone, wood, or pottery piece is rotated clockwise and then counterclockwise at high speed.

Plains Indians also fashioned many designs of spinning tops of wood, bone, and horn; the Crees of Alberta as well as the Crows of Montana and the Lakotas crafted tops of solid horn, which children kept spinning with rawhide whips.

Balls for numerous kinds of play were crafted from hardwood, buckskin filled with rag or animal hair, and even pebbles covered with yarn. In Montana, the Northern Cheyennes and Crows, and in North Dakota the Mandans, developed a soft ball of buckskin, antelope hair, or dyed porcupine quills wrapped with cord, which they kicked gently in the air and caught on the top of the foot. A girl's toy, it was nearly identical to the modern "hacky sack."

Many Plains Indian children fashioned human and animal forms (especially horses and buffaloes) of red-brown sun-dried mud; Lakota children made clay animal forms and mixed vertebra from buffalo, deer, or antelope and their imagination to create "bone ponies." Children would gather the bleached bones into herds or use them in single combat or races. These folk toys were sometimes copied by white settlers' families in the nineteenth century.

Native American dolls were nearly universal, with great variations in design, color, and sophistication. Construction materials ranged from the simplest combinations of fabric tied to a forked stick to finely finished figures with beaded deerskin dresses, sometimes attached to miniature cradleboards. Today, replicas of these latter dolls are sold widely at reservation gift shops. 

 Great Plains settlers brought with them a small  number of notable folk designs from Europe  and the eastern United States, including the  "limberjack," an Irish and Scandinavian dancing figure used to accentuate Celtic musical rhythms; carved, brilliantly painted Scandinavian toy animals; and carved dolls. Rag dolls had become common in New England following the Revolutionary War, took up little space, and traveled well. But because of the hardships involved in settling the Plains, children's amenities, including folk toys, were often lost.

Folk toys could be constructed by parents or other adults at a final destination once housing, a water supply, and other necessities were established. Miniature cradles and rocking horses were fashioned using a saw, jackknife, hammer, and nails. Additional sturdy folk toys, including stilts, swings, and seesaws were made on the spot from scraps of available wood, providing years of delight to Great Plains children.

John R. Nelson Jr. University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Culin, Robert Stewart. Games of the North American Indians. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1907.

Nelson, John R. Jr. American Folk Toys. Newtown CT: Taunton Press, 1998.

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.