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Apache Indian Playing Cards

By Virginia Wayland

( Article orginally published December 1961 )

Little is known of the origin of playing cards; however Italian records of the 14th century give us our first data in the Western World. By the time of Columbus, playing cards were in wide use throughout Europe, and the suit symbols of the various countries were becoming standardized.

When Cortez first marched into Mexico City in 1520, it is reported that Montezuma enjoyed seeing the soldiers playing at "Cards and Dyce." And, too, when a tribute had been paid from the King's storehouses, and divided up among the Spaniards, Diaz writes "...heavy gaming was always going on with...cards made from drum skins by Pedro Valenciano."

Since there is no evidence as to the date of adoption of card playing by the American Indians., it is assumed that these cards were carried across the New World by traders, soldiers, and explorers, and were quickly taken over by the Indians and their love for games of chance.

The Spanish decks contain 40 cards with traditional suit symbols of cups, swords, coins, and batons. The 10 cards in each suit are numeral cards from one, to seven, and three court cards, King (Rey), Knight (Caballero), and Valet (Sota). The Indian cards derive from these.

There was very little available in formation on American Indian playing cards until this year, when the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles published its Apache Playing Cards. This fine booklet, consisting of 18 pages of text and five plates of illustrations, may be secured from the Museum, at Highland Park, Los Angeles 43, Calif. Price 25c.

According to the Museum, Apache cards date from between 1850 and 1900. They are hand-painted on rawhide which has retained its stiffness of this day. Colors most generally used were yellow, rust, dark blue, and black.

Though the Apache decks are the work of different artists, they all show the effect of Spanish, Indian, and Colonial American culturepoints of historical and ethnological interest almost ignored up to now.

The Southwest Museum owns four such Apache decks. They form a vital part of its collection. The first deck was presented to the Institution in 1925 - as part of the Elias Jackson Baldwin collection. This deck is of fine material and is skilfully and artistically designed.

The artist followed the Spanish tradition in many details, but as he progressed through his work he simplified the design and began to express his own culture. The court cards show the mixture of these influences: the Spanish-cloaked Rey of Clubs contrasts with the Indian ceremonial garb on the Caballero of Coins.

In another deck in the Museum's collection a Caballero wears a Mexican hat, and in a third, the sword suit is replaced by one of arrowheads.

A recent acquisition to the Museum's collection came as a gift from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Hubex°t Howe Bancroft, and provides an excellent source for the playing card vocabulary of the Apache Indians. Each card in the Bancroft deck has the Apache name, phonetically spelled, written on the back.

Apache playing cards, adapted from the Spanish tradition, had become an integral part of the social culture of the Apache Indian tribe in the last half of the last century.

The Southwest Museum's comprehensive study of these unique playing cards is a welcome addition to the library of all student-collectors, and will be found most informative regarding the development of these fascinating cards, painted on leather, which form a colorful contribution to the history of the subject.

From left to right:
(Top Row)
The Four of Cups
The Caballero of Coins
The Sota of Arrowheads
The Three of Clubs

(Bottom Row)
The Rey of Swords
The Six of Clubs
The Caballero of Coins
The Rey of Swords

Comparison with Spanish cards will show how the Indian interpreted the Spaniard's designs. The cards are of hand-painted leather.

Apache Indian Playing Cards

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