The Cherokee version of stickball was just one of
the games that Native Americans gambled on
Traditional Indian Gaming
In the late 1800s, historian Andrew McFarland Davis went through records from the 1600s and 1700s of the early explorers and found accounts of games and gambling of Native Americans at the time of first contact. The games showed up in the accounts of tribes from Maine to Florida and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Some were games of skill; some were games of pure chance. Almost invariably, the games were accompanied by gambling with serious stakes at risk.
- Lacrosse or stickball seemed to be one of the most popular games all across the continent. One of the earliest accounts came from a Frenchman, Licolas Perrot, in 1667. He described a game near Saut Sainte Marie: "More than 2,000 persons assembled in a great plain each with his cross. A wooden ball about the size of a tennis ball was tossed in the air. From that moment there was a constant movement of all the crosses which made a noise like that of arms which one hears during a battle." Perrot described the betting on the games — "All of [the player's] possessions and the property of his friends and neighbors in the form of skins and beads were staked upon the result of the contest." In some tribes, women also played lacrosse or stickball, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee have oral histories recounting how stickball got started and how rough the women played the game.
- Northern tribes played various forms of a game called "platter" or "dice." Each variation of the game had elaborate rules where dice with two sides of different colors were tossed up into the air. If all of the dice came down showing the same color the player generally won. There were various ways of scoring other combinations of dice. What was common in all of the games was how much was at stake. A man by the name of Charlevoix described a Huron game of platter in 1721: "They stake all they are worth, and several of them have been known to continue at it till they have stript [stripped] themselves stark naked and lost all their movables in their cabin. Some have been known to stake their liberty for a certain time. This circumstance proves beyond all doubt how passionately fond they are of it [the game], there being no people in the world more jealous of their liberty than our Indians."
- Another indoor game of Northern tribes was "straw" or "Indian cards." Early observers describe how an odd number of straws — like 51 straws — would be arranged and then divided into piles or thrown up in the air. The players would quickly have to calculate whether they had a pile with an odd or even number of straws. The observers were amazed at the skill the players exhibited. Another Frenchman named Lafitau called it "a game purely of the mind and of calculation, in which he who best knows how to add and subtract, to multiply and divide with these straws will surely win. To do this, use and practice are necessary, for these savages are nothing less than good calculators."
Like modern casinos, the organizers of these games issued stones or other counters to act as symbolic chips for the value of the wagers. After the games, the loser would have to surrender his gun, blanket or whatever had been wagered.
- Handgames were a common guessing game for many tribes and are still played today. Two members of one team will take bones or sticks and hide them under their hands, shifting from one to another while other members of the team sing, drum and distract the other team. At the end, the second team has to guess where the bones are. Historical documents show that the games were once played for land use or female companionship, or for horses or cattle. Today, if you go to a pow wow you may find groups playing informal or formal handgames, although presumably with less at stake.
There are many variations of games of skill or luck. What was common amongst all tribes is that the more that was at stake, the more exciting the game. Yet, in general, the losers accepted their lot with grace. There are accounts of Northern Indians losing their leggings at a game of platter and cheerfully walking home through three feet of snow.
And just in case we are tempted to pass critical judgment on the gambling habits of early Native Americans, we are reminded that the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia — as well as the American War of Independence itself — were financed by government sponsored lotteries.
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