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A celebration of culture

 A team from Hoopa competes in traditional gambling during last year’s Tolowa Dee-ni’ Day.  Courtesy Smith River Rancheria
A team from Hoopa competes in traditional gambling during last year’s Tolowa Dee-ni’ Day. Courtesy Smith River Rancheria
 This weekend, the Smith River Rancheria invites the public to share in cultural traditions and celebrate the local Native American community during the seventh annual Tolowa Dee-ni’ Day.

The event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and features stick games, traditional gambling, salmon dinners, live music, children’s activities and a horseshoe tournament. Activities will be in the vicinity of the Howonquet Hall Community Center, 101 Indian Court, Smith River.

Locally caught salmon, cooked Indian-style on redwood sticks around an open flame, will be served in a salmon dinner for $5 a plate. 

There will be a children’s area with a bounce house and games for kids.


The horseshoe tournament open to all teams will kick off at 11 a.m. and there are cash prizes of $100 for first, $50 for second and $25 for third place. Players are advised to show up by 10:30 a.m. to get in the tournament.

Vendors will be selling Indian and non-Indian crafts, and some of the items will be given away every hour through a drawing.

Also at 11 a.m. will be a demonstration of sand bread cooking, which resembles fry bread.  Sand bread is cooked by being buried in pea-sized pebbles from the beach that have been heating under a hot fire through the morning.

Local band Border Coast will provide tunes for the event from 1 to 4 p.m. 

One of the main spectacles, the stick game tournament, will be played by the members of the regional Native American community, starting at 2:30 p.m. on the scenic beach near Howonquet Hall. Younger boys will go first.  Cash prizes will be given to the winner of each age group (18 and older, $600; 15-17, $500; 12-14, $400; and 9-11, $300).

Stick games involve two teams of three players each who work to move a “tossel” (two small sticks latched together with a piece of leather) to one end of the playing field.  The very physical game allows players to wrestle and use large sticks to block opponents from moving the tossel downfield. Players cannot strike or jab sticks at opponents, but almost everything else goes. 

 Two contestants square off during last year’s stick games by the sea. Courtesy Smith River Rancheria
Two contestants square off during last year’s stick games by the sea. Courtesy Smith River Rancheria

“Its kind of like the Tolowa version of lacrosse,” said Loren Bommelyn, Tribal Council secretary and resident tribal historian. 

Another long-standing Native American practice planned for the day is traditional gambling where two teams compete. One team member holds two handfuls of wooden cards, shuffling them from hand to hand. One of the cards has a wooden carving exhibiting a black face on it called an “ace” in English, and the teams take turns guessing where the ace lies.

There is a lot of intensity involved when players try to anticipate the moves of their opponents. Throughout the game, one of the team members sings in an attempt to block the opponent’s intention of guessing where the ace is shuffled.

The traditional gambling is interwoven into Tolowa mythology.  After betting away his wife, his house and his canoe, the eel bet his bones and lost them to the sucker fish, according to a Tolowa tale, Bommelyn said.

“That’s why we don’t eat sucker fish because they have too many bones,” he said.

A similar Dee-ni’ Day was held in the 1960s on South Beach and was one of the places where Bommelyn became more familiar with the traditional culture.

“That’s where I learned to dance and  that’s where I first heard the language being used,” he said.

The Smith River Rancheria Tolowa Dee-ni’, which means “people” in the Tolowa language, hold the annual event to celebrate California Native American Day,  which is Friday.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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