Indian Games
By Andrew McFarland Davis

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Other Games of Chance.

There was diversity in the forms of the games of simple chance as well as in the athletic games, and besides those which have been already described, the Indians on the Pacific Coast had a great variety of games, or forms of the same game, in which, in addition to the element of chance involved in determining the numbers or positions of certain sticks or counters, there was also an opportunity for the player who was manipulating them to deceive by dexterous sleight of hand. The simplest form in which this is found is guessing in which hand a small stone or bone is held. It would hardly seem that this artless effort could be transformed into an amusing and exciting game; yet it has attracted the attention of all travellers, and scarcely any writer, who treats of the habits of the Pacific coast Indian, fails to give a full account of this simple game. Lewis and Clarke, [Footnote: Lewis and Clarke, Vol. II, 140; and also II, 94.] when writing about the Indians near the mouth of the Columbia, say: “The games are of two kinds. In the first, one of the company assumes the office of banker and plays against the rest. He takes a small stone, about the size of a bean, which he shifts from one hand to another with great dexterity, repeating at the same time a song adapted to the game and which serves to divert the attention of the company, till having agreed on the stakes, he holds out his hands, and the antagonist wins or loses as he succeeds or fails at guessing in which hand the stone is. After the banker has lost his money or whenever he is tired, the stone is transferred to another, who in turn challenges the rest of the company. [Footnote: See also, Adventures on the Columbia River, by Ross Cox. p. 158; The Oregon Territory, by John Dunn, p. 93; Four Years in British Columbia, by Commander R. C. Mayne, p. 273; it was played by the Comanches in Texas with a bullet, Robert S. Neighbors in Schoolcraft, Vol. II, p. 134; by the Twanas with one or two bones, Bulletin U. S. Geol. Survey, Vol. III, No. 1, p. 89, Rev. M. Eels.] In the account given by George Gibbs [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. I, p. 206.] the count of the game among the tribes of western Washington and northwestern Oregon, was kept by means of sticks. Each side took five or ten small sticks, one of which was passed to the winner on each guess, and the game was ended when the pile of one side was exhausted. According to him, “The backers of the party manipulating keep up a constant drumming with sticks on their paddles which lie before them, singing an incantation to attract good fortune.” Powers describes another form into which the game developed among the Indians of central California. It is “played with a bit of wood or a pebble which is shaken in the hand, and then the hand closed upon it. The opponent guesses which finger (a thumb is a finger with them) it is under and scores one if he hits, or the other scores if he misses. They keep tally with eight counters.” [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. III, pp. 332-3.]

Schwatka, in his recent exploration of the Yukon found this game among the Chilkats. It was called la-hell. Two bones were used. One was the king and one the queen. His packers gambled in guessing at the bones every afternoon and evening after reaching camp. [Footnote: Along Alaska’s Great River. By Frederic Schwatka, p. 71.]

The simplicity of the game was modified by the introduction of similar articles in each hand, the question to be decided being in which hand one of them having a specified mark should be found. Kane [Footnote: Kane’s Wanderings, p. 189.] thus describes such a game among the Chinooks: “Their games are few. The one most generally played amongst them consists in holding in each hand a small stick, the thickness of a goose quill, and about an inch and one-half in length, one plain, the other distinguished by a little thread wound round it, the opposite party being required to guess in which hand the marked stick is to be found. A Chinook will play at this simple game for days and nights together, until he has gambled away everything he possesses, even to his wife.” [Footnote: See also Overland, Vol. IV, p. 163, Powers, H. H. Bancroft’s Native Races, Vol. I n 244 Clay balls are sometimes used, Ibid, Vol. I, p. 353, The Northwest Coast James G Swan, p. 158, Montana as it is Granville Stuart, p. 71.]

Among the Utahs this form of the game was common: “A row of players consisting of five or six or a dozen men is arranged on either side of the tent facing each other. Before each man is placed a bundle of small twigs or sticks each six or eight inches in length and pointed at one end. Every tete-a-tete couple is provided with two cylindrical bone dice carefully fashioned and highly polished which measure about two inches in length and half an inch in diameter, one being white and the other black, or sometimes ornamented with a black band.” At the rear, musicians were seated who during the game beat upon rude drums. [Footnote: Edwin R Baker in the American Naturalist, June, 1877, Vol. XI, p. 551.] In this game it will be noticed that the players paired off and apparently each man played for himself.

Still another element is introduced in another form of the game, which increases the opportunity afforded the one who manipulates the bones for dexterity. This form of the game is repeatedly alluded to by Powers. While relating the habits and customs of the Gualala, whose homes were near Fort Ross, he describes what he calls the gambling game of “wi and tep” and says that one description with slight variations will answer for nearly all the tribes of central and southern California. After describing the making up of the pool of stakes, he adds: “They gamble with four cylinders of bone about two inches long, two of which are plain, and two marked with rings and strings tied round the middle. The game is conducted by four old and experienced men, frequently grey heads, two for each party, squatting on their knees on opposite sides of the fire. They have before them a quantity of fine dry grass, and with their hands in rapid and juggling motions before and behind them, they roll up each piece of bone in a little ball and the opposite party presently guess in which hand is the marked bone. Generally only one guesses at a time, which he does with the word ’lep’ (marked one), and ’wi’ (plain one). If he guesses right for both players, they simply toss the bones over to him and his partner, and nothing is scored on either side. If he guesses right for one and wrong for the other, the one for whom he guessed right is ’out’, but his partner rolls up the bones for another trial, and the guesser forfeits to them one of his twelve counters. If he guesses wrong for both, they still keep on and he forfeits two counters. There are only twelve counters and when they have been all won over to one side or the other, the game is ended. [Footnote: Powers in Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. III, pp. 90-152; 189-332.] Sometimes the same game was played without going through the formality of wrapping the pieces in grass, simply shaking them in the hands as a preliminary for the guessing. [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Vol. III, 332; Alexander Ross’s Adventures, pp. 308, 309.]

A slightly different method prevails among the Indians of Washington and northwestern Oregon. Ten disks of hard wood, each about the diameter of a Mexican dollar and somewhat thicker, are used. “One of these is marked and called the chief. A smooth mat is spread on the ground, at the ends of which the opposing players are seated, their friends on either side, who are provided with the requisites for a noise as in the other case. The party holding the disks has a bundle of the fibres of the cedar bark, in which he envelops them, and after rolling them about, tears the bundle into two parts, his opponent guessing in which bundle the chief lies.” [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Gibbs, Vol. I, p. 206.] The same game is described by Kane, except that the counters, instead of being wrapped in one bundle which is afterward torn in two, are originally wrapped in two bundles. [Footnote: Kane’s Wanderings, p. 189; Swan’s Northwest Coast, p. 157, Eels in Bulletin U.S.G. Surv., Vol. III, No. 1.]

Still another complication of the guessing game was described by Mayne. [Footnote: Mayne’s British Columbia, p. 275.] Blankets were spread upon the ground on which sawdust was spread about an inch thick. In this was placed the counter, a piece of bone or iron about the size of a half a crown, and one of the players shuffled it about, the others in turn guessing where it was.

The game of “moccasin” was but a modification of this game. As described by Philander Prescott three moccasins were used in this game by the Dacotas. The bone or stick was slipped from one to another of the moccasins by the manipulators, and the others had to guess in which moccasin it was to be found. Simple as this description seems, the men would divide into sides, playing against each other, and accompanying the game with singing. [Footnote: Schoolcraft, Vol. IV, p. 64; Domenech, Vol. II, p. 192.]

Among the Zunis, the guessing game was exalted to the nature of a sacred festival. Frank H. Cushing [Footnote: The Century, Vol. XXVI, p. 37.] gives the following account of its practice. “One morning the two chief priests of the bow climbed to the top of the houses, and just at sunrise called out a ’prayer message’ from the mount-environed gods. Eight players went into a kli-wi-lain to fast, and four days later issued forth, bearing four large wooden tubes, a ball of stone, and a bundle of thirty-six counting straws. With great ceremony, many prayers and incantations, the tubes were deposited on two mock mountains of sand, either side of the ’grand plaza.’ A crowd began to gather. Larger and noisier it grew, until it became a surging, clamorous, black mass. Gradually two piles of fabrics,--vessels, silver ornaments, necklaces, embroideries, and symbols representing horses, cattle and sheep--grow to large proportions. Women gathered on the roofs around, wildly stretching forth articles for betting, until one of the presiding priests called out a brief message. The crowd became silent. A booth was raised, under which two of ho players retired; and when it was removed the four tubes were standing on the mound of sand. A song and dance began. One by one three of the four opposing players were summoned to guess under which tube the ball was hidden. At each guess the cries of the opposing party became deafening, and the mock struggles approached the violence of combat. The last guesser found the ball; and as he victoriously carried the latter and the tubes across to his own mound, his side scored ten. The process was repeated. The second guesser found the ball; his side scored fifteen setting the others back five. The counts, numbered one hundred; but so complicated were the winnings and losings on both sides, with each guess of either, that hour after hour the game went on, and night closed in. Fires were built in the plaza, cigarettes were lighted, but still the game continued. Noisier and noisier grew the dancers; more and more insulting and defiant their songs and epithets to the opposing crowd, until they fairly gnashed their teeth at one another, but no blows. Day dawned upon the still uncertain contest; nor was it until the sun again touched the western horizon, that the hoarse, still defiant voices died away, and the victorious party bore off their mountains of gifts from the gods.” The picturesque description of Cushing brings before our eyes the guessing game in its highest form of development. Among the tribes of the East, if it had a home at all, it was practised in such an inobtrusive way as not to attract the attention of writers who have described their habits and customs. The nearest approach to it which we can find is a guessing game described by Hennepin, as follows: “They take kernels of Indian corn or something of the kind, then they put some in one hand, and ask how many there are. The one who guesses wins.”

Mackenzie [Footnote: Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages in 1789 and 1893 London, 1801, p. 311.] fell in with some Indians near the Pacific coast who travelled with him a short distance. They carried with them the implements for gambling. Their game was different from the guessing games which have been heretofore described. “There were two players and each had a bundle of about fifty small sticks neatly polished, of the size of a quill, and five inches long. A certain number of their sticks had red lines round them and as many of these as one of the players might find convenient were curiously rolled up in dried grass, and according to the judgment of his antagonist respecting their number and marks he lost or won.”

The same game was seen at Queen Charlotte Islands by Francis Poole. [Footnote: Queen Charlotte Island, a narrative etc., p. 25.] He says there were in this game from “forty to fifty round pins or pieces of wood, five inches long by one-eighth of an inch thick, painted in black and blue rings and beautifully polished.” These pins were divided into two heaps under cover of bark fibre and the opposite player guessed odd or even for one of the piles.


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.