Indian Games
By Andrew McFarland Davis

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Straw or Indian Cards.

The third game mentioned by Father Brebeuf was that which was called straw. We have seen that the first of these games called for strength, agility and endurance. It was as free from elements of chance as any human contest can be. The victory belonged to the side which counted amongst its numbers those players who were the fleetest runners, the most skilful throwers and the most adroit dodgers. The second was purely a game of chance. If honestly played no other element entered into its composition. The third which we are now about to consider was much more complicated in its rules than either of the others. It closely resembled in some respects several of our modern gambling games. The French found it very difficult to comprehend and hence the accounts of it which they have given are often confused and perplexing. Boucher [Footnote: p. 57.] says, “Our French people have not yet been able to learn to play it well; it is full of spirit and these straws are to the Indians what cards are to us.” Lafitau [Footnote: Vol. II, p. 351.] after quoting from Boucher says, “Baron de LaHontan also made out of 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.”

“Sieur Perrot, who was a celebrated traveller, and that European whom the savages of New France have most honored, left a description of this game in his manuscript Memorial. I would gladly have inserted it here but it is so obscure that it is nearly unintelligible.” Charlevoix admits that he could understand nothing of the game, except as played by two persons in its simplest form and adds that he was told that “there was as much of art as of chance in the game and that the Indians are great cheats at it.” [Footnote: Charlevoix, Vol. III, p. 319, Father Tailban who edited Perrot says he has not been any more successful than his predecessors and the game of straws remains to him an unsolved enigma. Perrot, Notes to Ch. X, p. 188.] Where Lafitau and Charlevoix, aided by opportunities to investigate the game itself, have failed, it would seem to be useless for us to attempt. Perrot has indeed succeeded in making his account hopelessly involved. There is however much information to be derived from it and the obscure points are after all unimportant unless one should actually wish to reproduce the game in practice. In that event there are many points connected with the counts which would prove troublesome.

To play the game, a number of straws or reeds uniform in size and of equal length were required. They were generally from six to ten inches long. The number used in the game was arbitrary. Lawson puts it at fifty-one. Charlevoix at two hundred and one. The only essential points were that the numbers should be odd and that there should be enough of them so that when the pile was divided into two parts, a glance would not reveal which of the two divisions contained the odd number of straws. In its simplest form, the game consisted, in separating the heap of straws into two parts, one of which each player took, and he whose pile contained the odd number of straws was the winner. Before the division was made the straws were subjected to a manipulation, somewhat after the manner of shuffling cards. They were then placed upon the deer-skin or upon whatever other article was selected as a surface on which to play. The player who was to make the division into two heaps, with many contortions of the body and throwing about of the arms, and with constant utterances to propitiate his good luck, would make a division of the straws with a pointed bone or some similar instrument, himself taking one of the divisions while his adversary took the other. They would then rapidly separate the straws into parcels numbering ten each and determine from the fractional remainders, who had the odd number. The speed with which this process of counting was carried on was always a source of wonder to the lookers-on, and the fact that the counting was done by tens is almost invariably mentioned. Between two people betting simply on the odd number no further rules were necessary. To determine which had the heap containing the odd number, there was no need to foot up the total number of tens. It was to be settled by what was left over after the last pile of complete tens was set aside. The number itself might be either one, three, five, seven or nine. In the more complicated form of the game, this led to giving different values to these numbers, the nine being always supreme and the one on which the highest bets were wagered. It was generally understood that the holder of this number swept the board taking all bets on other numbers as well as those on the nine. It was easy to bet beads against beads and skins against skins, in a simple game of odd or even, but when the element of different values for different combinations was introduced, some medium of exchange was needed to relieve the complications. Stones of fruit were employed just as chips or counters are used in modern gambling games, and a regular bank was practically instituted. Each player took a certain number of these counters, as the equivalent of the value of the merchandise which he proposed to hazard on the game, whether it was a gun, a blanket, or some other article. Here we have all the machinery of a regular gambling game at cards, but the resemblance does not stop here. The players put up their bets precisely as they now do in a game of faro, selecting their favorite number and fixing the amount, measured in the standard of the game, which they wished to hazard. “By the side of the straws which are on the ground are found the (grains) counters," says Perrot, “which the players have bet on the game.” In another place, the method of indicating the bets is stated as follows: “he (meaning apparently the one who has bet) is also obliged to make two other heaps. In one he will place five, in the other seven straws, with as many (grains) counters as he pleases.” These phrases may fairly be interpreted to mean that a record of the bets, somewhat of the same style as that kept with counters upon a faro table, was constantly before the players. Complicated rules determined when the players won or lost; when the bets were to be doubled and when they were to abide the chance of another count. The loser at the game, even after all that he had with him was gone, was sometimes permitted to continue the game on his promise to pay. If ill luck still pursued him the winner could refuse him credit and decline to play for stakes that he could not see.

The game often lasted for several days, one after another of the sides relieving his comrades at the play until one of the two sides had lost everything, it being, says Perrot, [Footnote: p. 19.] “a maxim of the savages not to quit play until one side or the other had lost everything.” Those who had bet at the game had the right to substitute any person whom they pleased to play for them. “Should any dispute arise on this point,” says Perrot, “between the winners and the losers, the disputants backed by their respective sides would probably come to blows, blood would be shed and the whole thing would be very difficult to settle.” Cheating often took place at this game. Its exposure was considered praiseworthy and its practice denounced. If doubts were expressed as to the accuracy of a count, the matter was peacefully adjusted by a re-count by two of the spectators.

“This game of straw,” says Perrot, from whose account we have made the foregoing digest, “is ordinarily held in the cabins of the chiefs, which are large, and are, so to speak, the Academy of the Savages.” He concludes his account with the statement that the women never play it. [Footnote: See also Shea’s Hennepin, p. 300.] The authority on this game whom Ogilby quotes slides over the difficulties of the description with the statement that “many other whimsies be in this game which would be too long to commit to paper.” Abbe Ferland [Footnote: Vol. I, p. 134.] epitomizes the results of his investigation of this game as follows: “Memory, calculation and quickness of eyesight were necessary for success.”

Like the game of dice or platter it was essentially a house game, and like platter it is rarely mentioned by writers who describe the habits of Indians in the south. Lawson describes it, but in slightly modified form, as follows: “Indian Cards. Their chiefest game is a sort of Arithmetick, which is managed by a parcel of small split reeds, the thickness of a small Bent; these are made very nicely, so that they part, and are tractable in their hands. They are fifty-one in number, their length about seven inches; when they play, they throw part of them to their antagonist; the art is, to discover, upon sight, how many you have, and what you throw to him that plays with you. Some are so expert at their numbers, that they will tell ten times together, what they throw out of their hands. Although the whole play is carried on with the quickest motion it is possible to use, yet some are so expert at this Game, as to win great Indian Estates by this Play. A good set of these reeds, fit to play withal are valued and sold for a dressed doe-skin.”

A. W. Chase [Footnote: Overland Monthly, Vol. II, p. 433. Dorsey found a survival of the game in use among the Omahas. He called it “stick counting.” Third Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, p. 338.] speaks of “native games of cards among the Coquelles and Makneatanas, the pasteboards being bundles of sticks.” He furnishes no description of the games, but uses the same phrase which was applied by Lawson in North Carolina and by Boucher in Canada.

Frank H. Cushing [Footnote: The Century, Vol. XXVI, p. 38. My Adventures in Zuni.] speaks of a game of “Cane-cards” among the Zuni which he says “would grace the most civilized society with a refined source of amusement.” He was not able fully to comprehend it.

In the list of games, there is none of which we have any detailed account, which compares with straws as played by the northern tribes, in elaborateness of construction. The unfortunate confusion which prevails throughout Perrot’s description of the method of counting, and the way in which the point was shirked by all other writers on the subject, prevents any attempt at analysis. So far as we can see, the rules were arbitrary and not based upon any calculations of the laws of chance. If some other detailed account of the game should be discovered it would be interesting to follow up this question and ascertain how far the different combinations which affected the counts were based upon a theory of probabilities and how far they were arbitrary.

It will of course be noticed that the game described by Lawson was relieved from much of this complication. The dexterity required to make a throw of such a nature that the player could tell exactly the number of reeds with which he had parted, was of course remarkable and naturally called forth expressions of surprise. But there were apparently no other combinations resting upon the throw than the simple guess at the number thrown. Travellers in California have described the game in still simpler form in which we see hints of the more complex game. Here the “sticks” were thrown in the air and an immediate guess was made whether the number thrown was odd or even. An umpire kept the account with other sticks and on this count the bets were adjusted. [Footnote: Kotzebue, A Voyage of Discovery, etc. London, 1821, Vol. I, p. 282 and Vol. III, p. 44. note. W. H. Emory, U S. and Mexican Boundary Survey, Vol. I, p. 111, says: “The Yumas played a game with sticks like jackstraws.” Stanley, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. Vol. II, p. 55, gives among his “Portraits of North American Indians,” a picture of a game which he describes as “played exclusively by women. They hold in their hands twelve sticks about six inches in length which they drop upon a rock. The sticks that fall across each other are counted for game."]

Wherever we find it and whatever the form in use, whether simple or complicated, like games of lacrosse and platter the occasion of its play was but an excuse for indulgence in the inveterate spirit of gambling which everywhere prevailed.


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.