Indian Games
By Andrew McFarland Davis

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Other Amusements of Women and Children.

Under the name of “Fuseaux,” La Potherie [Footnote: Vol. III, p. 24.] describes a similar winter game of the children. He further says the women only played at platter or dice. The children played at lacrosse, seldom at platter. We have seen that the women in some parts of the country joined in the lacrosse games. Sometimes they played it by themselves and sometimes they played other ball games which closely resemble that game. Romans describes a woman’s game in which they tossed up a ball which was to be caught before it reached the ground; but in the meantime the one who tossed it had to pick up a small stick from the ground.

The women of the Natchez, [Footnote: Le Page du Pratz, Vol. III, p. 2, Domenech, Vol. II, p. 192.] according to Le Page du Pratz, played with three pieces of cane, each eight or nine inches long, flat on one side and convex on the other with engravings on the convex side. Two were held in the open palm of the left hand and the third was dropped round side down upon the ends of the two, so that all would fall to the ground. If two convex surfaces came up the player won. He also says, and in this Romans concurs, that the women were very reluctant to be seen while playing.

Among the Natchez, the young girls played ball with a deer-skin ball stuffed with Spanish moss. Other than that they seemed to him to have no games. [Footnote: Le Page du Pratz, Vol. III, p. 2.] The young Choctaws, according to Romans, engaged in wrestling, running, heaving and lifting great weights and playing ball. Hennepin says, “the children play with bows and with two sticks, one large and one small. They hold the little one in the left, and the larger one in the right hand, then with the larger one they make the smaller one fly up in the air, and another runs after it, and throws it at the one who sprang it. They also make a ball of flags or corn leaves, which they throw in the air and catch on the end of a pointed stick.” Powers [Footnote: Contributions to North American Ethnology. Vol. III, p. 331.] describes a game among the children of the Nishinams which consisted in tossing bunches of clover from one to another, and another in which the boys placed themselves upon three bases and tossed a ball across from one to the other. Points were won as in base ball by running bases, if possible, without being put out by the one who at the time had the ball. The Choctaw [Footnote: Romans, p. 70, Bossu, Vol. I, p. 308.] boys made use of a cane stalk, eight or nine feet in length, from which the obstructions at the joints had been removed, much as boys use what is called a putty blower. The Zuni children are said to play checkers with fragments of pottery on flat stones. [Footnote: The Century, Vol. XXVI, p. 28, Cushing.]

Running matches, swimming, wrestling, the simple ball-games which are hinted at rather than described, practice in archery and hurling the spear or javelin, furnished the Indian youth with such amusements as could be derived outside the contests in which his elders participated. Most of these latter were so simple as to be easily understood by the very young, and we can readily comprehend how deeply the vice of gambling must have been instilled in their minds, when they saw it inaugurated with such solemn ceremonials and participated in with such furor by their elders.

Our information concerning the habits of the Indians comes from a variety of sources. Some of it is of very recent date, especially that which deals with the Indians of the Pacific coast. The early Relations of the French Fathers were faithful, and, as a rule, intelligent records of events which the priests themselves witnessed. The accounts of the French and Indian traders and travelers are neither as accurate nor as reliable as those contained in the Relations. Some of these authors faithfully recorded what they saw; others wrote to make books. They differ widely in value as authorities and must be judged upon their individual merits.

Much of our information concerning the manners and customs of the natives of the Pacific coast is derived from the publications of our national government. The reports which are collated in these documents are from a great number of observers and are not uniform in character, but many of them have great value. As a whole, the work was well done and in a scientific manner.

The narration of the different games tells its own story. Lacrosse is found throughout the country; platter or dice is distributed over an area of equal extent; chunkee was a southern and western game; straws a northern game with traces of its existence in the west; the guessing game was apparently a western game. Everywhere, gambling prevailed to the most shocking extent.

There are writers who seek to reduce the impressions of the extravagance indulged in by the Indians at these games. The concurrence of testimony is to the effect that there was no limit to which they would not go. Their last blanket or bead, the clothing on their backs, their wives and children, their own liberty were sometimes hazarded; and if the chances of the game went against them the penalty was paid with unflinching firmness. The delivery of the wagered wives, Lescarbot tells us, was not always accomplished with ease, but the attempt would be faithfully made and probably was often successful. Self-contained as these people ordinarily were, it is not a matter of surprise that the weaker among them should have been led to these lengths of extravagance, under the high pressure of excitement which was deliberately maintained during the progress of their games. [Transcriber’s Note: Lengthy footnote relocated to chapter end.] From one end of the land to the other these scenes were ushered in with ceremonies calculated to increase their importance and to awaken the interest of the spectators. The methods used were the same among the confederations of the north and of the south; among the wandering tribes of the interior; among the dwellers in the Pueblos; and among the slothful natives of the Pacific coast.

The scene described by Cushing, where, at the summons of the “prayer- message,” the Zunis gathered upon the house-tops and swarmed in the Plaza, to hazard their property, amid prayers and incantations, upon a guess under which tube the ball was concealed, is widely different from that depicted by the Jesuit Fathers in Canada, where the swarthy Hurons assembled in the Council House at the call of the medicine man and in the presence of the sick man, wagered their beads and skins, upon the cast of the dice. It differs equally from the scene which travellers have brought before our eyes, of the Chinooks, beating upon their paddles and moaning forth their monotonous chants, while gathered in a ring about the player, who with dexterous passes and strange contortions manipulated the stone and thus added zest to the guess which was to determine the ownership of the property staked upon the game. The resemblances in these scenes are, however, far more striking than the differences. Climate and topography determine the one. Race characteristics are to be found in the other.

[Relocated Footnote: The following extracts will illustrate these points: They will bet all they have, even to their wives. It is true, however, that the delivery of the wagered women is not easy. They mock the winners and point their fingers at them (Lescarbot, Vol. III, p. 754); all that they possess, so that if unfortunate, as sometimes has happened, they return home as naked as your hand (Lalemant, Relation, 1639); their goods, their wives, their children (Ferland Vol. I, p. 134); some have been known to stake their liberty for a time (Charlevoix, Vol. III, 319); have been known to stake their liberty upon the issue of these games, offering themselves to their opponents in case they get beaten (Catlin, Vol. I, p. 132); I have known several of them to gamble their liberty away (Lawson, p. 176); a Canadian Indian lost his wife and family to a Frenchman (Sagard Theodat, Histoire du Canada, Vol. I, p. 243); they wager their wives (A. Colquhon Grant, Journal Royal Geog. Soc., London, Vol. XXVII, p. 299); their wives and children (Irving’s Astorla, Vol. II, p. 91); their liberty (Parker’s Journal of an Exploring Tour, pp. 249-50); Domenech has never known men to bet their wives (Vol. II, p. 191); women bet as well as men (Romans, p. 79; Am. Naturalist, Vol. XI, No. 6, 551); Philander Prescott (Schoolcraft, Vol. IV, p. 64); Cushing (Century, Vol. XXVI, p. 28); the liberty of a woman wagered by herself (Lalemant, Relation 1639); women are never seen to bet (Le Page du Pratz, Vol. III, p. 2; Mayne Br. Col., p. 276); rash gambling sometimes followed by suicide (Romans p. 79; Brebeuf, Relation 1686).]


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.  •