Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

Once-taboo game of waltes enjoyed by new generation thanks to Eskasoni woman

In the past, only elders counted points in the Mi'kmaw game of waltes. But now an Eskasoni, N.S., woman is teaching all the rules to a new generation.

Mi'kmaw game used to be considered witchcraft or gambling, says Madeline Poulette

Madeline (Sugar) Poulette is shown with the traditional game of waltes, pronounced WALT'-iss, at her home on the Eskasoni First Nation. Poulette has been playing waltes since she was 4. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.

Madeline Poulette has been captivated by a Mi'kmaw game known as waltes ever since she was a little girl.

The 69-year-old grandmother from Eskasoni, N.S., learned about the dice-and-bowl game by watching her elders.

"The first time I saw anybody play waltes, I fell in love with it," said Poulette. "It just made me want to learn about it, made me want to stay. If anybody says they're playing waltes today ... I'd be the first one waiting around."

Poulette started teaching waltes in the early 1970s after being taught to count points in the game by elders. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Over the past five decades, Poulette has been teaching the game of waltes. And now, she's looking to make the game accessible to all. 

Poulette said her love of the game began in the small, two-bedroom home she shared with her parents, grandmother and 11 siblings.

Learning the game

The family had no running water or electricity, and many long hours were spent playing waltes to pass time. 

"I was never allowed to count because that was the part elders did," said Poulette. "You have to just sit there and watch them. And once I started playing, I started asking questions. I said, 'What if this happened? What if this happened?' So then the elders then taught me."

The game of waltes uses small pieces of bone that are patterned on one side and blank on the other. These tiny chips are thrown into the air using the shallow bowl, and points are earned depending on how they land. (Angela Robinson )

The game of waltes is played by two or more people. The goal is to earn wooden sticks or points, which are collected by flipping patterned bone chips in a shallow wooden bowl. The way in which the chips land determine the number of points earned.

Poulette said waltes is one of the longest-running Mi'kmaw games, but not the oldest. She said it was played long before the arrival of Europeans, and was often used to settle scores or predict the future.

"The priests that came, they said it was witchcraft," Poulette said. 

"We had a medicine man or medicine woman, and you could go to her and play waltes. And she would tell you, if you were sick, where you would get these roots, or plants —  whatever you needed to make you better — they were able to tell you all this from the waltes."

Game hidden under floorboards

In the late 1940s and early '50s, Poulette said that Mi'kmaw people in Eskasoni would have to hide their waltes games. 

Poulette, whose nickname is Sugar, said boards and sticks would be taken by RCMP and fines handed out. 

"They said we were gambling and it was witchcraft," she said. "They took all our waltes and they burnt them. Later on, they just came and drilled holes in them and said we weren't able to use them."

Poulette said games would be hidden in floorboards and in piles of wood. The game would only be brought out in the company of other Mi'kmaq.

By the early 1970s, Poulette took what elders taught her and began teaching waltes to a younger generation of people. 

She's taught the game at Indigenous and non-Indigenous schools around Cape Breton. And in 2010, she demonstrated the game to Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, during a visit to the Halifax Commons.

Poulette is shown teaching waltes to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on June 29, 2010, during their visit to the Halifax Commons in honour of the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Grand Chief Henri Membertou. (Submitted by Madeline Poulette)

Last December, Poulette was named role model of the year by students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School for her dedication to preserving the game of waltes as part of Mi'kmaw culture.

Poulette said that since the start of her teachings, the number of people who can count points in waltes has grown. 

"If you go to the high school now, you'll find kids there now who can count," she said. "Some of these kids I've been [teaching] since kindergarten."

Poulette still often travels around Cape Breton to count waltes games.

Waltes at the summer games

This summer, she'll also be in charge of waltes competitions taking place at the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Summer Games in Potlotek from July 15-24.

After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Poulette is now working on new competitions, including a division for children with special needs, as she has a grandson who is blind.

"I'd like to have the Special Olympics for waltes," she said. "[My grandson] plays waltes, and in his hearing, is so keen. He knows when [the dice] falls off on the ground. He's just listening and laughing.

"It's a game of chance, so anybody can win. And it teaches them self-discipline, counting."

Organizers of this year's summer games say they are now considering Poulette's ideas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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