game is said to have originated in a contest between the Day and Night Animals.
The following excerpt explains how..
Now it happened in the early days that the night animals wished it were night all the time, and the day animals wished it were day all the time. So they decided to have a game, and the winner of the game would determine whether it would be always day or always night.
They played a game that the Navajos are very fond of to this day. They all got together in a big hogan, and then drew a line across the floor in the center of the room, dividing the players into two groups. Thereupon, each side buried four moccasins in the sand, only the tops of the moccasins remaining visible. The players stand back of their own moccasins. One individual is assigned to keep score.
The trick of the game is to hide a pinion gum ball in one of the moccasins in such a way that the other side cannot guess which moccasin it is in. Each side chooses a leader, and while a blanket is held in front of this leader to prevent the opponents from seeing what is done, he goes through various motions with his hands and in the course of these motions drops the ball into one of the moccasins. Then the moccasins are filled with sand, and the blanket is taken away.
The leader of the opponents must now say in which moccasins the ball is not, indicating last of all the moccasin in which the ball is. He does this by striking what he regards as empty moccasins, saying, 'It is not in this one. It is not in this one. It is not in this one.' And then finally, striking the moccasin in which he thinks the ball is, he says, 'It is in this one.'
If the ball is in either one of the end moccasins and he does not guess it right, it counts for ten points in favor of his opponents. If it is in the right center one and he misses it, it counts for six points in favor of his opponents, and if the left center, four points. Furthermore, if he misses his guess, the opponents have another opportunity to hide the ball; if he guesses right, the ball goes to hisside. The side which first passes the hundred mark wins. The game was started at sundown and lasted all night. First one side would gain the advantage, and then the other side; but neither side could pass the hundred mark and win.
Finally the owl said to the night animals, 'Let me try. I am sure I can beat them.' They agreed, and sure enough, when the owl hid the ball the other side could never guess the right moccasin. The owl just sat there and looked wise, while the day animals were in despair, thinking they would surely lose out.
The coyote had been changing sides right along. When the day animals were ahead he would jump to their side, and when the night animals were winning he would jump to that side. He wanted to be with the winners. Now he was sticking to the night animals, thinking they could not lose.
The day animals realized how serious the situation was, and asked for a little time off to take a rest. During this interval the giant, who was on the side of the day animals, said he believed the owl was playing a trick on them and wasn't putting the ball into any moccasin at all. He therefore told the gopher to dig a hole quickly under the hogan and bite through the tip of each of the four moccasins of the opponents, to see if the ball was really in one of them. The gopher did this without being observed by the other side, and came back with the report that the ball was not in any one of them.
The day animals then said they were ready to guess once more as to the location of the ball. All the night animals were just as happy as they could be. They were singing and dancing and having a great time. They were sure they would win, and that thereafter it would always be night. But to their surprise, the leader of the day animals said four times, 'It is not in this one.' Then he gave the owl a whack over his wing and said, 'There it is.' And sure enough, the pinion gum ball dropped from under the wing of the owl.
That broke up the game, and as it was nearing dawn, the night animals scurried off as fast as they could so as to get home before daylight. One pair of moccasins belonged to the bear. In his great hurry he put them on the wrong feet, and that is the reason that to this day when you see bear tracks you note that his moccasins are pointing the wrong way. Besides, the bear was so slow in getting home that the dawn overtook him. In those days the bear was black, but owing to his dallying too long at the game, the early sunlight overtook him and partly bleached his hide, so that to this day his descendants in the Navajo country are brown.
And because neither side won the game, day and night continued as before."
From "He-Who-Always-Wins", Dr. Richard H. Pousma, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1934.