Indian Games
By Andrew McFarland Davis

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Platter or Dice.

The second in the list of games given by Father Brebeuf is that which he calls “platter.” Writers who describe the habits of the Indians at the north have much to say concerning this game. According to Lescarbot, Jacques Cartier saw it played, and recorded his observations. [Footnote: Histoire de la Nouvelle France par Marc Lescarbot, Nouvelle Edition, Paris 1856, Vol. III, p. 734.]

Sagard Theodat [Footnote: Histoire du Canada, etc., par Gabriel Sagard Theodat; Nouvelle Edition, Paris, 1856, Vol. I, pp. 243-244.] devotes considerable space to it. Both Father Brebeuf, in his Relation in 1636, and Father Lalemant, in his Relation in 1639, give long accounts of the game, the causes for its being played, the excesses in gambling to which it leads, and the methods which prevail in its practice. In Perrot’s [Footnote: p. 50.] work there is a good description of the game, although not so full as his account of lacrosse, from which we have already quoted. La Potherie and LaHontan barely mention it. Latitau [Footnote: Mours des Sauvages Ameriquains, erc, par le P. Latitau, Paris, 1724, Vol. II, p. 339.] in his searching analysis of the manuscripts deposited at Quebec, while seeking for traces of his theory that a resemblance existed between the habits of the Indians and those of the ancient dwellers in eastern Europe, found an unusual quantity of material bearing on this particular topic, which he has reproduced in his book. Charlevoix [Footnote: Vol. III, pp. 260-1.], in a letter dated June 8, 1721, says, “As I was returning through a quarter of the Huron village, I perceived a number of these Indians, who seemed much heated at play. I approached them and found that the game they were playing at was what they called the game of platter. This is the game to which the Indians are addicted above all others. They sometimes lose their rest and in some degree their very senses at it. They stake all they are worth, and several of them have been known to continue at it till they have stript 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, there being no people in the world more jealous of their liberty than our Indians.”

In the description which Charlevoix then gives, he is relied partly upon personal observations and also to some extent, upon accounts which were at that time in manuscript in Quebec mid which were easily accessible to him. He was himself an intelligent observer and a cultivated man. His history and his letters, although not free from the looseness of expression which pervades contemporaneous accounts show on the whole the discipline of an educated mind. We learn from him and from the authorities heretofore enumerated that two players only from each side could participate in this game at any given time during its progress. The necessary implements were a bowl and a number of dice fashioned somewhat like apricot seeds, and colored differently upon the upper and lower sides. Generally, one side was white and the other black. The number of these dice was generally six. There was no fixed rule as to the materials of which they were made; sometimes they were of bone; sometimes the stones of fruits were used. The important point was that the centre of gravity of each die should be so placed, that when it was thrown into the air, or when the bowl in which it was placed, was violently twirled, there would be an even chance as to which of its two sides the die would settle upon when it lodged; and in the game as it was played in early times that the whole number of dice used should be uniform in the coloring of the sides, each die having the different sides of different colors. The dice were placed in the bowl which was generally of wood, between the two players who were to cast them in behalf of their respective sides. These casters or throwers were selected by each side and the prevailing motives in their choice were generally based upon some superstitious belief in their luck. Perhaps this one had dreamed that he would win. Perhaps that one was believed to possess some magic power, or some secret ointment which when applied to the dice would cause them to turn up favorably for his side. [Footnote: Relations des Jesuites, Relation en l’Annue, 1636, p. 113.] The spectators were generally arranged in seats along the sides of the cabin [Footnote: Ibid, Relation en l’Annue, 1639, p. 95.], placed in tiers so that each person could have a view of the players. They were in more senses than one deeply interested in the game. When the cast was to be made the player would strike the bowl upon the ground so as to make the dice jump into the air [Footnote: Sigud Theodat Vol. 1, p. 213.] and would then twirl the bowl rapidly around. During this process and until it stopped its revolutions and the dice finally settled, the players addressed the dice and beat themselves on their breasts. [Footnote: Shea’s Hennepin, p. 300.] The spectators during the same period filled the air with shouts and invoked aid from their own protecting powers, while in the same breath they poured forth imprecations on those of their adversaries. The number of points affected the length of the game and as entirely optional. If six dice were used and all came up of the same color, the throw counted five. [Footnote: Among the Delawares it required eight counts of five to win. History of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians etc. G H Loskiel. Translated by I Latrobe, Part I, Ch. VIII, p. 106.] If five of them were of the same color it counted one. Any lower number failed to count. If the caster was unsuccessful he gave place to another, but so long as he continued to win his side would retain him in that position. [Footnote: Charlevoix Vol. III, p. 264.] The game was often ushered in with singing. Like lacrosse it was prescribed as a remedy for sickness or in consequence of dreams, and the sufferer in whose behalf the game was played was borne to the cabin in which it was to take place. Preliminary fasting and continence were observed, and every effort made that superstition could suggest to discover who would be the lucky thrower and who could aid the caster by his presence at the contest. Old men, unable to walk thither, were brought up on the shoulders of the young men that their presence might be propitious to the chances of the game. [Footnote: Ibid p. 202.] The excitement which attended one of these games of chance was intense, especially when the game reached a critical point and some particular throw was likely to terminate it. Charlevoix says the games often lasted for five or six days [Footnote: Loskiel (p. 106) saw a game between two Iroquois towns which lasted eight days. Sacrifices for luck were offered by the sides each night.] and oftentimes the spectators concerned in the game, “are in such an agitation as to be transported out of themselves to such a degree that they quarrel and fight, which never happens to the Hurons, except on these occasions or when they are drunk.”

Perhaps rum was responsible also for these quarrels; for in the early accounts we are told that losses were philosophically accepted. Father Biebeuf tells of a party who had lost their leggings at one of these games and who returned to their village in three feet of snow as cheerful in appearance as if they had won. There seems to have been no limit to which they would not go in their stakes while under the excitement of the game. Clothing, wife, family and sometimes the personal liberty of the player himself rested in the hazard of the die. [Footnote: Cheulevoix Vol. III, p. 261. Le Grand Voyage du Pays Des Hurons, pan Gabriel Sigud Theodat Puis 1632, Nouvelle Edition, Paris, 1835, p. 85, Relations de Jesuites, Relation de la Nouvelle France en l’Annee 1639, pp. 95-96, Lafitau, Vol. II, p. 341.]

The women often played the game by themselves, though apparently with less formality than characterized the great matches. The latter frequently assumed the same local characteristics that we have seen in the game of lacrosse, and we hear of village being pitted against village as a frequent feature of the game. [Footnote: Penot p. 43, Histoire du Canada par F. X. Garneau, Vol. I, p. 115.]

Morgan [Footnote: League of the Iroquois, p. 602.] describes a game played by the Iroquois with buttons or dice made of elk-horn, rounded and polished and blackened on one side. The players spread a blanket on the ground; and the dice were tossed with the hand in the air and permitted to fall on the blanket. The counts were determined as in the game of platter by the color of the sides of the dice which were exposed when they settled. The number of the dice was eight.

In Perrot’s [Footnote: Periot, p. 50.] description of the game of platter he, alludes to a game, played with eight dice, on a blanket in precisely this way, but he adds that it was practised by women and girls. La Potherie [Footnote: La Potherie, Vol. III, p. 23.] says that the women sometimes play at platter, but ordinarily they cast the fruit stones with the hand as one throws dice.

Under the name of “hubbub” this game has also been described by observers among the Abenakis. Ogilby [Footnote: America, being an Accurate Description of the New World, etc. Collected and Translated by John Ogilby. London, 1670, Book II, Ch. II, p. 155.] says: “Hubbub is five small Bones in a small Tray; the Bones be like a Die, but something flatter, black on the one side and white on the other, which they place on the Ground, against which violently thumping the Platter, the Bones mount, changing Colour with the windy whisking of their Hands to and fro; which action in that sport they much use, smiting themselves on the Breasts and Thighs, crying out Hub Hub Hub; they may be heard playing at this game a quarter of a mile off. The Bones being all black or white make a double Game; if three of one colour, and two of another, then they afford but a single game; four of a colour and one differing is nothing. So long as the Man wins he keeps the Tray, but if he lose the next Man takes it.”

There is but little said about this game in the south by writers. It evidently had no such hold there as among the Hurons and the tribes along the Lakes. Lawson [Footnote: History of North Carolina by John Lawson, London, 1718, p. 176.] saw it played in North Carolina with persimmon stones as dice. While this fixes the fact that the game had a home among the southern Indians, the way in which it has been slighted by the majority of writers who treat of that section shows that it was not a favorite game there.

To what shall we ascribe this? Its hold upon the northern Indians shows that it was peculiarly adapted to the temperament of the natives, and we should naturally expect to find it as much in use among the tribes of the south as with those of the north. An explanation for this may possibly be found in the difference of the climate. The game was especially adapted for the winter, and while its practice was evidently not exclusively confined to that season, it is possible that its greater hold upon the affections of the Indians of the north arose from their being obliged to resort to in-door amusements during the protracted winters in that region. From this necessity the southern Indians being in a measure exempt, they continued their out-door games as usual and never became so thoroughly infatuated with this game.

Informal contests were often held between players, in which the use of the bowl or platter was dispensed with. The dice were held in the hand and then tossed in the air. They were allowed to fall upon some prepared surface, generally a deerskin spread for the purpose. The same rules as to the color of the surfaces of the dice when they settled in their places governed the count. This form of the game is sometimes described as a separate game. Boucher [Footnote: True and Genuine Description of New France, etc, by Pierre Boucher, Paris, 1644 Translated under title “Canada to the Seventeenth Century,” Montreal, 1883, p. 57.] calls it Paquessen. [Footnote: Played by women and girls. Sagard Theodat, Histoire du Canada, Vol. I, p. 244.] The women of Oregon played it with marked beaver teeth. [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. I, p. 206, George Gibbs; H. H. Bancroft’s Native Races, Vol. I, p. 244, The Northwest Coast by James G. Swan, p. 158.] Among the Twanas it was played with beaver or muskrat teeth. [Footnote: Bulletin U S Geological Survey, Vol. III, No. 1, April 5, 1877. Rev. M. Eels.] Powers [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. III, p. 332.] says that among the Nishmams, a tribe living on--the slopes of the Sierra Nevada between the Yuba and Cosumnes rivers, a game of dice is played by men or women, two, three or four together. The dice, four in number, consist of two acorns split lengthwise into halves, with the outsides scraped and painted red or black. They are shaken in the hand and thrown into a wide flat basket, woven in ornamental patterns. One paint and three whites, or vice versa, score nothing; two of each score one; four alike score four. The thrower keeps on throwing until he makes a blank throw, when another takes the dice. When all the players have stood their turn, the one who has scored the most takes the stakes.”

The women of the Yokuts, [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. III, p. 377.] a Californian tribe which lived in the San Joaquin valley near Tulare Lake, had a similar game. Each die was half a large acorn or walnut shell filled with pitch and powdered charcoal and inlaid with bits of bright colored abaloni shell. Four squaws played and a fifth kept tally with fifteen sticks. There were eight dice and they scooped them up with their hands and dashed them into the basket, counting one when two or five flat surfaces turned up.

Schoolcraft [Footnote: Schoolcraft’s Indian Tribes, Vol. II, pp. 71, 72.] says “one of the principal amusements of a sedentary character is that of various games, success in which depends on luck in numbers. These games, to which both the prairie and forest tribes are addicted, assume the fascination and intensity of gambling; and the most valued articles are often staked upon the luck of a throw. For this purpose the prairie tribes commonly use the stones of the wild plum or some analogous fruit, upon which various devices indicating their arithmetical value are burned in, or engraved and colored, so as at a glance to reveal the character of the pieces.” Among the Dacota tribes this is known by a term which is translated the “game of plum stones." He gives illustrations of the devices on five sets of stones, numbering eight each. “To play this game a little orifice is made in the ground and a skin put in it; often it is also played on a robe.” [Footnote: Domenech. Vol. II, p. 191, First Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology. Smithsonian, 1881, p. 195.] The women and the young men play this game. The bowl is lifted with one hand and rudely pushed down to its place. The plum stones fly over several times. The stake is first put up by all who wish to play. A dozen can play at once if desirable.

Schoolcraft [Footnote: Vol. n, p. 72.] describes still another form of, the game which he found among the Chippewas, in which thirteen pieces or dice were used. Nine of them were of bone and were fashioned in figures typifying fish, serpents, etc. One side of each was painted red and had dots burned in with a hot iron. The brass pieces were circular having one side convex and the other concave. The convex side was bright, the concave dark or dull. The red pieces were the winning pieces and each had an arithmetical value. Any number of players might play. A wooden bowl, curiously carved and ornamented, was used. This form of the game may have been modified by contact with the whites. It seems to be the most complex [Footnote: See also a simpler form of the game described by Philander Prescott among the Dacotas--Schoolcraft, Vol. IV, p. 64. The tendency of the modern Indians to elaborate the game may be traced in the description of “Plumstone shooting” given in “Omaha Sociology” by Rev. J. Owen Dorsey. Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, 1884, p. 335.] form in which the game appears. The fact still remains however, that in some form or other we find the game in use across the entire breadth of the continent. [Footnote: Col. James Smith describes the game among the Wyandots. An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, during his Captivity with the Indians in the Years 1755-1759. Cincinnati, 1870, p. 46. Tanner also describes it. He calls it Beg-ga sah or dice. Tanner’s Narrative, New York, 1830, p. 114.]


Lacrosse.  •  Platter or Dice.  •  Straw or Indian Cards.  •  Chunkee or Hoop and Pole.  •  Other Athletic Games.  •  Other Games of Chance.  •  Contests of Skill.  •  Other Amusements of Women and Children.