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In the Beginning, Hubbub
Primitive man, with a decision to make or a dilemma to resolve, sought to know the will of his gods by divining. The witch doctor, the Magus, the priest, the private di viner shuffled or tossed arrows, sticks, cards, bones, or dice, twisted his body, and indulged in any behavior believed useful to presage the future, propitiate luck, or win supernatural counsel.
"Lo! and of Chance and Fate were they the masters of foredeeming for they carried the word-painted arrows of destiny ... And they carried the shuttlecocks of divination . . . All these things wherewith to divine men's chance, and play games of hazard, wagering the fate of whole nations in mere pastime, had they with them."
American Indians, like the men of all earlier civilizations, believed that their gods were the originators and sponsors of gambling games and made the games their own. Chance and divining were inextricably linked, as when the Onondagas, on their New Year's or White Dog Feast, played dice to. predict the next year's harvest, using the same game on which they bet their possessions in gambling sessions during the rest of the year. Stones of the white plum, ground down into rectangles with rounded ends, were painted white on two faces, black on the opposite ones. Eight of these black or all white. Next highest was seven of one color and one of the other, down to four of each, which was low score.
Gambling was often an incidental diversion during religious ceremonies, the Indians of a tribe dividing themselves into clans or teams and betting on the results of their play. Writing of the Iroquois, in 1634, William Wood reported "two sorts of games, one called puim, the other hubbub . . ." Hubbub was a variant of the Onondaga game, with dice made from peach stones, one side of each seared black in the fire. Five stones were placed in the dish on the ground and as "violently thumping the platter, the bones mount changing colors with the windy whisking of their hands to and fro, which action in that sport they much use, smiting themselves on the breast and thighs, crying Hub Hub Hub. They may be heard playing this game a quarter of a mile off."
The dish game was also considered curative and the local medicine man prescribed it for patients urgently if a vision of the game had occurred in the dreams of a seriously ill member of the tribe. A messenger was sent to another village challenging it to shake the dice for loss or gain.
Challenged and challenger chose their champion gamblers who prepared for days ahead, denying themselves the pleasure of their wives, fasting for twenty-four hours before the game and spending part of the preceding night with their assistants practicing shaking the dish that contained the dice. When the contenders went to sleep that night they hoped for propitious dreams and in the morning any familiar objects they had dreamed about were collected and taken along for good luck. Old men were regarded as personifying luck. It was not uncommon for a venerable patriarch to perch on the shoulders of a stalwart buck-sometimes the ace gambler's-on the way to the scene of the duel.
The two ace gamblers took their places in the center of the long house in winter, or a clearing in summer, surrounded by excited spectators, while assistants held a blanket on which the good-luck pieces were ranged.
The chief of the challenging village usually made a speech earnestly asking the spectators not to become angry in the heat of partisanship, to make no show of hostility toward the contestants, and admonishing the gamblers to play fair. Betting followed: skins, ornaments, wampum strings, implements of war and agriculture, everything down to the last blanket being wagered.
When the shaking of the dish began the customarily stoic Indians alternated loud and rapturous roars with hoots of derision, made hideous faces, contorted their bodies a thousand ways, and implored the peach stones to fall right for them. They called on evil spirits to annoy and distract their opponent and prayed good spirits to bring their man luck.
At the close of the session the sick man expressed his thanks to the two teams, especially to the ace gamblers, declaring that the contest had done so much to restore his health that he could anticipate many more winters and summers. More often than not he died soon after, presumably cheerful, as the Iroquois believed that much of his life after death in the happy hunting grounds of the Great Spirit would be spent at this enjoyable game.
The Indians of the Eastern ranges favored dice made of animal bones, whittled to six faces, with two sides larger than the others and painted in black and yellow. The galloping dominoes thrown by the Indians of the Western plains were made from wild-blue-plum stones and marked by numerous hieroglyphics.
In 1643, Roger Williams described the Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island gathered on a plot of ground set aside for gambling. Poles, sixteen to twenty feet high, on which the wampum was strung, were set in the earth and ace gamblers from competing villages were cheered by their supporters. "Sometimes," George Henry Loskiel wrote in 1794, "whole townships, and even whole tribes, play against each other. One of the missionaries happened to be present when two Iroquois townships, having got together a number of goods, consisting of blankets, cloth shirts, linen, etc., gambled for them. The game lasted eight days. They assembled every day, and every inhabitant of each township tossed the dice once . . . each township offered a sacrifice in the evening to insure success.... Afterward the whole company danced."
There is a legend that the Spanish sailors on Columbus's ships played cards for the long weeks they were out of sight of land. Deciding that the cards were bringing them ill luck and that they were sailing to their doom, they threw them overboard and promptly made landfall. On shore they regretted their impetuosity and made a crude deck of cards from the large leaves of the copas tree. If there is any basis for this tale, they manufactured the first playing cards in America in 1492.
The first card game, in the modern sense, on this continent was probably played by the conquistadors under Cortez. Montezuma, while held as a hostage, showed great interest in watching his Spanish captors gamble with cards. The early colonists along the Atlantic seaboard imported their card games, but the Indians had similar forms of gambling with straws and sticks. William Strachey in a history of Virginia said the Indians "use a game upon rushes much like primero, wherein they card and discard, and lay a stake, too.... They will play at this for their bows and arrows, their copper beads, hatchets, and their leather coats."
For their more intricate games in which combinations of splints or reeds had higher and lower values, the equivalent of a gambling bank was set up, replacing primitive blanket-against-blanket betting. Fruit stones were used as chips, given relative values, and each of the players took the number of chips equal to the estimated worth of the articles he was risking.
The games involved skills like shuffling and guessing the number of sticks in piles. In the first years of the eighteenth century John Lawson was fascinated by their proficiency. "Some are so expert at their numbers that they will tell ten times together what they will 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 doeskin."
The Indians of the Northwest Pacific set aside days to play their mamook-te-lo (to make, to bet). Sla-hal, their favorite game, gave each player an opportunity to shuffle ten small, flat wooden disks. He then separated them into two hands and kept them concealed until his opponent called which hand he believed held the marked disk, either winning a disk or losing one of his own. The first man to win all ten scooped in a jackpot of wampum. Trickery was thoroughly approved and the most successful cheats were considered the best gamblers.
Early colonists reported that the rattling of dice and click of sticks at the Indian fireside was common, usually attended by frenzy. Tom-toms announced the beginning of gambling bouts, and the drums pounded ceaselessly, all through the game, raising the blood pressure of the gamblers and heightening the emotions of the throbbing wall of spectators.
I will go home if I am beaten, to get more articles to wager... from an old Indian song.
There was no limit to what was wagered. A Jesuit explorer, Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, said of the Hurons: "At this (game of the dish of which these people are fondest) they sometimes lose their rest and in some measure their reason. At this game they hazard all they possess, and many do not leave till they are almost stripped quite naked and till they have lost all they have in their cabins. Some have been known to stake their liberty for a time, which fully proves their passion for this game, for there are no men in the world more jealous of their liberty than the savages."
The champion gambler was a man of distinction and often the richest man in his tribe. Understandably, a reputation for being an unlucky gambler stood in the way of a brave when he sought a wife. No father wished to see his daughter reduced to poverty by her husband's gambling reverses. Squaws, who always watched their men at play, were often the last wager of luckless and desperate husbands. Sometimes they charged violently into the game, chasing the men away when they had lost everything but their breechcloths. The squaws were equally avid for gambling, but could play only when not observed by their husbands, and their losses were small since they rarely owned anything of value.
The Indians enthusiasm for athletics offered them another outlet for wagering. Football was their favorite game, played with a buckskin ball two or three inches in diameter on an enormous playing field, with goals sometimes a mile apart. The game could last for days before a goal was scored, while hundreds of bets were laid, articles of value put up by supporters of one side against articles of equivalent value. Roger Williams noted that they played "upon some sandy shore" to protect their naked feet and had "great stakings, but seldom quarrel." The bets were set aside by supervisors who awarded the winnings when the contest was over.
When the white man's card games were first introduced to the Indians of the Western plains, they lost regularly to professional paleface poker players. No Indian could learn the caution necessary for poker and carried over to it his extreme natural recklessness.
One traveler, quoted by James Cox in My Native Land, describes a scene in a Western shack with an Indian mother, her papoose in its baby case peeping from her back, watching her painted, beaded, and half-intoxicated husband put up his saddle against a professional gambler's five dollars. In five minutes the buck had nothing else to bet. So intense was his love of gambling, he began to put himself in pawn, piecemeal, saying, "I'll bet you my whole body," which meant that he offered himself as a slave to serve the gambler for a specified time. "So it was that this Indian mother stood leaning back wearily against the wall, half drunk and dazed with smoke and heat, when all at once the Indian who lived with her said to her: `Put in the baby for a week. Then payday will come.' It was done. The baby was handed over.