Stickgames and Stories – Starleigh Grass, Guest Blogger

My people, the Tsilhqot’in, were traditionally nomadic people. Because we were nomads most of the things that we owned had practical value. Our art was used to adorn clothing, basketry, and practical items. Prior to contact, art was not something behind a glass case or hanging on the wall. It was something we interacted with on a daily basis. Everyone had the capacity to create art and most people did in some form or another.

During the period of time that our material culture became commodified and our subsistence culture became criminalized, people made items to sell to non-Tsilhqot’ins. I’ve seen some of these items in the Museum of Anthropology, including items made by one of my great grandmothers. I’ve held some of her items.

I know on an intellectual level that if it weren’t for colonialism, I would have learned the art of basketmaking, and to hold a Tsilhqot’in basket wouldn’t be such a rare event. I carry some resentment because I know that if it weren’t for the hardships caused by the criminalization of our way of life combined with the gathering of our material goods on the assumption that we would soon vanish, then these baskets would not have been acquired through colonial capitalism and be housed far from where they came from.

On a soul level, though, when I hold these items I am filled with gratitude for the woman who made them, because to some degree I owe my existence to her basketry expertise and her ability to sell the baskets in this newly imposed system of capitalism.

My grandmother beaded medallions and did applique on handmade purses and other items. Many of my family members had medallions on their rearview mirrors. They were treasured because they were a symbol of her affection. I remember her fondly sitting and beading and talking in Tsilhqot’in for hours at a time and she was very happy while she was making things and visiting.

My mother taught me how to bead on a loom when I was a teenager. I spent many hours with my mother and my sister beading. We beaded delicate chokers and experimented with fringes coming off of the chokers. My aunt showed me how to do applique and she made my son a beautiful medallion.

I stopped beading for several years. When my son was in primary school he attended a public school that required blue, yellow, and white uniforms. I embellished his pockets with yellow and blue beaded trim. Beyond that, I didn’t bead much for over ten years. I had beads, and once and awhile I would gather the beads and then look for a needle or thread or scissors, and abandon projects before they were even started because I just couldn’t focus long enough to get my materials together. Someday, I thought, I should start beading again.

I chose sobriety and started playing stickgames in 2011. I started making beaded stickgame sets less than a year later. Stickgames (known by a variety of names including handgames, bonegames, slahal, lehal, lahal) are a traditional game of chance. The oldest stickgame set in existence are about 12,000 years old, and the set is made out of mastodon bones. There are a number of variations of stickgames. The version of stickgames that I play is played by Indigenous people up and down the west coast, and into the prairies. Stickgames and beading have both played an integral role in maintaining my sobriety.

During the potlatch ban (1885-1951), the singing that accompanies stickgames would have been illegal. Many cultural practices were driven underground, and the suppression led to less participation in cultural practices. Now we are in the process of bringing them back. When I bead sets that people are proud to own and use, I feel like I am contributing to the revitalization of culture in a material way.


The first few beaded sets that I made were gifted to friends and family. I also used some of my early beaded sets as prizes for our family stickgames at our traditional fishing camp. I’m an teacher, and I donated a set to a fundraising event for an Aboriginal education organization. I travel extensively for stickgames. If a community near me has never had a tournament or is bringing back a tournament that has not happened for awhile then I make it a priority to go there. I also try to go to places that are new to me or places where I know someone who is from there. Sometimes I raffle off a set to help offset my stickgame travel costs.

My preference is to trade. When people ask “what do you want?” I ask “what are you good at?” I have traded for a traditional Coast Salish weaving, a custom carved staff, a set made out of elk antler, and more. I treasure these items because they remind me that I am part of a community of creative and talented people. Even when people don’t make a trade, the conversations about what could be potential trades are treasured too, because through them I get to know about all of the talents people around me have. One time someone said that they were not good at anything. I told them “I don’t believe you. Everyone is good at something.” I look forward to the day they get back to me with their offer for trade.

My most memorable trade was to an educator from Port Hardy. I met him when I worked for a provincial education organization. In his community traditionally games involved 21 sticks, as opposed to the more common 11 sticks we use today. He requested a set of 21 sticks. He brought his dance group to a conference in Vancouver, and he spoke and led a gifting ceremony. The dance group helped hand out oolichan grease, seaweed, and salmon to myself and my co-workers and I handed the the sticks to the dance group. Then they sang and we went around the room and showed everyone our gifts.

Because I raffle sets, people often recognize me now when I go places and ask whether I have any sets. Sometimes when I am doing a raffle, people tell me how they would do the set differently and sometimes I learn from them. When people say “I could make that,” I respond “yes, you could,” and if they have questions about how to make them, I share what I know.

I draw inspiration for sets from popular colour schemes on the pow wow trail and from colour schemes that appeal to me. I read articles online about analogous, complementary, and neutral colour schemes and this knowledge has enhanced my designs. Sometimes people ask for custom colours and when those are not colours I would normally use, then I grow from the experience of working with their colours.

I do have my own style that has evolved over time. When I am really happy with a set, it usually includes these elements:

  • Solid bands at the top and bottom
  • Continuity between the two sides and the kick
  • The two sides to have an identical pattern, but with the colours switched around
  • The design wraps all the way around the stick
  • The kick is the most complex
  • Bright colours
  • Contrast between the colours used for the two sides

Sometimes I make sets where I try to create an image, such as chipmunks or coastal canoes with canoe pullers. I love seeing people’s faces when they see those designs because I’m 100% certain that the designs are one of a kind. I made a set out of one of my great-grandmother’s basketry patterns and that was a gratifying project. I try to work the designs out in my head as much as possible instead of using a pen and paper. My mind is always going, and when it’s working out the puzzle of a design it doesn’t have time to needlessly worry about the daily stresses of life.

I bead for a lot of reasons. I bead because it puts me in a peaceful state. I bead because I get an inherent joy from creating art. I bead because it connects me to the stickgame community and other artists in a meaningful way. I bead because making useful and aesthetically pleasing items connects me with my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and all of my beautiful ancestors that came before them.

A lot of people I have met want to learn how to bead. My advice is to just start. You can learn from trial and error, from studying others’ work, and from talking with other beaders. You have art and beauty inside of you, and if you feel an urge to share it with the world then just do it!

 – Starleigh Grass

Starleigh Grass is Tsilhqo’tin. She’s a mother, teacher, stickgame player, and beader. Her professional interests include teaching about residential schools in public schools, Indian Control of Indian Education, and the integration of Aboriginal literature in grades K-12. Her personal interests include culture, community, road trips, family, nature, and fitness. Her ideal tea is orange pekoe brewed in a large kettle and prepared with sweetened condensed milk in an enamel cup. She’s trying to be less brand conscious so Tetley, Red Rose, No Name…. anything goes these days. Her ideal bannock is thick, heavy, more salty than sweet, leavened with baking soda, and prepared in a cast iron pan. >> Find her on Instagram, Twitter and on her blog, Twinkle’s Happy Place

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