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The Navajos Took Their Medicine



With the wars between the Indians and the whites ended, the Indians' council house, no longer needed for martial powwows and less often the scene of weighty conferences over the welfare of the tribe, was used for gambling. Tribal play declined with the Indians' strength, and freedom and feverish games for amusement took its place.

Traditionally, when a rich Sioux died, his near relations collected all his possessions into little piles and a great feast was held in his lodge to which all the tribe was invited. One Indian, acting as the dead man's ghost, gambled against the guests, who stood to lose nothing, one at a time. Each man who won took a pile of possessions and left the lodge, and play went on until all the piles were gone.

If the Indian died poor, his rich relations or friends supplied the goods to be gambled for. The Sioux found playing cards, one of the first things the whites had introduced them to, an improvement on plum stones and used cards in these rituals.

During the winters many tribes set aside a ho-an, tepee, or wigwam for gambling, and it was not uncommon for an unlucky brave, after losing everything including his breechcloth, to emerge into the snow wearing nothing but a scowl.

At Gold Run, midway between Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, one Injun Jim found a job during 1850-'51 at the Quartz Hotel, where a few fortunate miners lodged. After saving his wages and their generous tips he asked for a day off to go home and visit his wives. Since it was his first homecoming since he had started work, he invested in a fast pony, a saddle, fine bridle, a suit of white man's clothes, a pair of shoes, and a silk hat. As he rode off in style, the miners cheered him.

At midnight one of the miners, awakened by a loud knocking, opened the door and found Injun Jim shivering, stark naked, in the cold mountain air. Jim had gone overboard on a short-stick game, lost his pony, bridle, saddle, suit, shoes, and silk topper, his cash savings, and his favorite wife.

When the white men came and forcibly introduced the benefits of paleface civilization to their red brothers of the Pacific Northwest, these Indians, inherently gamblers, learned new games with delight, above all poker for its bluff and chance. White-GeeseSounding-On-Waters was a youth with so extraordinary a talent for it he was renamed Poker Jim, and there were those who thought that the geese in his original name were the white chumps who sat in card fests with him. The red sage of the pasteboards handed down a remarkably wise counsel to poker novices: "Two pair not much good."

The squaws were as taken with poker as their men. Paiute squaws in Indian camps on the outskirts of Virginia City did the white miners' washing in the early morning and, as soon as the laundry was clean and spread on the rocks to dry, squatted down to play poker. They kept at it till evening, when the miners brought the next day's washing and picked up their clean clothes. After a night in their wigwams the washing and poker playing began again. White men as well as Indians all over the West were often taken to the cleaners by poker-mad squaws, who retain their enthusiasm and skill to this day.

The Western Indian's passion for fast horses and betting on them equaled his love of gambling games. The Indian who could not buy or trade for a horse was not beyond stealing. Races were a signal for feasting, dancing, and wagering, whooping celebrations when the white man's firewater was an added starter.

After the Osage Indians were forced to move to Oklahoma from Kansas, their horse races were particularly animated. The Federal Government, which had sold their lands, held the funds from the sale in trust for them. Flush with money, the Osages splurged on fast horses. Hundreds of Indian families gathered and pitched their tepees along the mile strip of prairie while fifteen to twenty contestants dumped their personal wagers on buffalo robes at the end of the course: red calico, riding whips, beef quarters, anything they could lay hands on. The riders, stripped to their breechcloths, the horses saddleless, got off to the crack of a pistol. Their hair streaming, their lithe bodies bronzed and shining, their voices raised in bloodcurdling yells, they streaked furiously down the prairie. A white official, usually a peace marshal, was referee over any close contests. Frenzied tribal dances and great poker games went on before and after the races.

The American Indian was a singer. He invoked music to bring him what he wanted, to celebrate special occasions, for victory in war and favor in the chase, to cure the sick, and lead the dead to happy hunting grounds. And he sang as he gambled.

When a Navajo had bet everything down to his last blanket on a horse, he stole the dirt in the hoofprints of the competing horses, or snatched dapples of foam from their mouths and bewitched them by singing bad medicine songs over his trophies. He urged great spirits to deprive the rival horses of their shadows, the "living parts," which are the animals' strength, then chanted good medicine for his favorite horse. It was a risky business because if he was caught his life was in danger at the hands of the opposition horses' backers.

Navajos used the same bad medicine on card players, stealing a hair from a gambler's head and uttering evil incantations over it. This was a survival of a past when nothing less than a scalp would serve their hatred. They also prayed their gods to make imbeciles of their card antagonists by removing their judgment and common sense, enfeebling their sight, weakening their arms, bodies, legs, and feet. This was called "singing downward" and was a great alibi for card players who had squandered everything they possessed. Conversely the Navajos sang "upward" from feet to head as good medicine to win, asking the gods to help them retain their strength and wits.

However, no amount of medicine seemed to help the Indians when they gambled with paleface professionals who left as little as possible to the gods of chance.



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