Oldest Known Game in North America

By Peggy Derrick

We think of hoop rolling as a quaint, nineteenth century child’s game, but in fact a complex version of it was once played by thousands of participants in tournaments viewed by thousands more. The game of chunkey is sometimes said to be America’s oldest pastime. Chunkey is associated with the great precontact city of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, MO, and the game is thought to have spread from there along with the Mississippian culture identified with Cahokia, its cultural and political capital.  

Chunkey was played by participants with specially designed sticks or spears (the “chunkey”). Players on two teams raced after the rolling stone disk, hurling their spears and trying to place it closest to the disk. It was a fast-paced game of skill that was as culturally important to the Cahokians as our sports are to us today.

Chunkey stones and images of chunkey players have been found over a broad swath of the continent, from northern Florida in the far south east, west to Oklahoma, and north to the Great Lakes, as Mississipian culture influenced Indians of the Midwest, the south, and the plains. When Europeans arrived in North America, chunkey was still being played throughout the region of Mississipian culture, and there are written accounts by many observers of versions of the game being played by different tribes.

This beautifully polished chunkey stone was donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1927, and Society records state it was found in Onalaska.  According to the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center, chunkey was played in the Upper Midwest by Ho Chunk, Hidatsa and Mandan peoples.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.