Ancient Mi'kmaq game of Waltes makes a comeback

An ancient Mi'kmaq dice-and-bowl game of Waltes is making a comeback.

Legend says Mi'kmaq dice-and-bowl game was so much fun it was favoured by the spirit world

The game Waltes, which has variations once played by aboriginal people throughout North America, is believed to date from long before contact with Europeans. In this 1936 photo, Mi'kmaq children play Waltes. (Mi'kmaq Portraits Collection/Nova Scotia Museum)

Legend has it that the ancient Mi'kmaq dice-and-bowl game of Waltes was so much fun it was favoured by the spirit world.

Pronounced WALT'-iss, the game was exciting, fast-moving and often played to celebrate weddings and liven up long winter evenings.

"It changes so quick," said Kerry Prosper, whose family still has his great-grandmother's Waltes set, featuring a 250-year-old bowl. "It gets people's spirits up."

The game, which has variations once played by aboriginal people throughout North America, is believed to date from long before contact with Europeans.

But its bowls were also used for spiritual quests that were discouraged by Christian newcomers. Waltes waned further over the last century with the cultural onslaught of residential schools, television and computers, and as older players who knew its complex counting rules passed on.

Now, though, it's on the rise again as aboriginal people increasingly seek out customs that once tightly bound their communities.

Blend of strategy and chance

It's part of the annual Mi'kmaq summer games and tournaments in Cape Breton that offer cash prizes, Prosper said.

"It reminds you of old times," said Prosper, a member of the Paq'tnkek First Nation near Antigonish, N.S. "The humour that goes with playing, young and older people playing together or against each other."

Kris Moulton, owner of the Board Room Game Cafe in Halifax, said Waltes is an interesting blend of strategy and chance.

Waltes can be played in various ways using a hardwood bowl about 30 centimetres in diameter, hollowed to about three centimetres at its centre.

There are six disc-shaped dice — one side round, the other flat — traditionally made of moose bone, each with one side plain, the other with a design. There are 55 scoring sticks: one notched on both sides is often called The Old Man; three notched on one side are often called The Old Women, and 51 plain sticks.

Counting methods differ, but in one version three of the plain sticks are worth one point; Old Women notched sticks are five points, and the king pin or Old Man varies in value.

Players sit opposite each other with the dish between them on folded cloth or leather. The six dice are placed on the bowl with marked faces downward. One player takes the dish in both hands, raises it and brings it down with enough force to flip the dice.

If all but one of the dice land on the blank side, or all but one land on the design side, one point is scored and the roll continues. If not, the next player takes a turn.

A roll with all six dice facing blank or all six showing the design is worth five points.

Prosper described how competitors move their hands above the bowl to get the dice to fall one way or the other: "When you're playing, you can fan the dice. But the other person can do that also. It's almost like when you see people play curling and you can sweep the stone."

'The more you talk to the dice, the better they get'

Malglit Pelletier, who grew up playing Waltes on the Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton, offered another tip: "When we all played at home we'd say the more you talk to the dice, the better they get," she said in an interview.

"You pound and you flap your hand back and forth. You try to turn them over."

Waltes can continue until one person has all the sticks or may go on indefinitely depending on how players decide to settle.

The game is played with six disc-shaped dice and 55 counting sticks. (Angela Robinson )

The game reminds Moulton of Pog, the '90s craze involving decorated cardboard discs. Metal or rubber slammers were used to flip the pogs face-up. Players who often built collections of pogs would decide in advance whether discs that landed right side up were "for keeps" or not.

Moulton said dice games are increasingly popular with his customers. Were it to cross over, Waltes might just be a hit.

"It's definitely something that people would be willing to try," he said.

Angela Robinson, an anthropologist specializing in Mi'kmaq research, teaches at Memorial University of Newfoundland's Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook, and has been demonstrating Waltes around the province.

The game also had a serious side, she said in an interview. The bowl itself was used by spiritual leaders who filled it with water, left it overnight and then studied it for guidance.

Missionaries who introduced many Mi'kmaq communities to Catholicism rejected Waltes, especially its use of bowls for divination or future telling.

"In Cape Breton, for example, we find examples of drilled holes in the bottom," so they could not hold water, Robinson said.

The biggest challenge facing the game if it is to grow, though: Actually finding a Waltes set.

"The games are handmade and there's not many people making them. They're hard to get," said Robinson.