Although gaming was a significant part of the history of the development of the United States, centuries prior to the White man’s appearance on the scene, Native Americans seemed mesmerized by gambling, taking a chance at anything that could have an unknown outcome.
Such discoveries also indicate that since the beginning of their culture in North America, Native Americans spent a considerable time wagering on games of skill and chance. As a result of their own culture, the white man’s law had little or no effect on Native American gambling, since in most cases, Native Americans gambled amongst themselves in a manner adopted by their people hundreds of years before.
Zuni myths tell of holy men being patrons of divine chance, gambling the entire future of a tribe or nation as a form of recreation.
It was a mythical belief that all men inherited their desire to gamble from these patrons of religion, considered by Native Americans to be the first gamblers. Many sacred artifacts discovered at Zuni burial grounds are similar to, and may be the forerunners of, latter-day gaming equipment.
In more recent times, contests such as foot races, lacrosse, and contests of warrior skill earned their winners prizes of baskets, eagle tail feathers, jewelry, buckskins, rabbit skin blankets, and, of course, horses.
The Chippewa were known to have gambled intensely by playing checkers. At stake were weapons and smoking pipes, which tended to give an air of seriousness to their game. The Crow tribe was reported to wager cartridges on sleight-of-hand games.
To win, the contestant tried to guess which of his opponent’s hands held an object, a game sounding like the forerunner of Three-card Monte.
The first sailors to the west coast were reported to have observed Coastal Native Americans wagering for animals with tokens resembling dice.
Some of the first fur traders to the Pacific Northwest returned with stories of Native Americans who played a game similar to dice. One game featured a form of doubling the wager. It started with a minor token matched by the opponent’s token. The winner then wagered his original bet with his winnings against a second item of considerably more value than the original items of the first wager. The game continued until one or the other contestant lost everything.
At certain points of the game, a return of some of the spoils occurred allowing the loser to continue with the game. Usually, however, games ended when one winner took all. Games could last days without pause except to eat and possibly to sleep.
Some victims lost everything they had of value— horse, dogs, cooking utensils, lodge, wife, even wearing apparel. The loser was then obliged to get an old skin from someone to cover himself and to seek shelter in the lodge of one of his relations.
If a wife was gambled and lost by her husband, she could say nothing about the outcome. She merely took up residence with the winner.
Today, Native Americans and their reservation treaties regarding the conduct of gaming on reservation lands are in a position to exert great influence as gaming proliferates.
Vast territories of the United States may feel the tremendous influence that Native American gaming can exert on the economies of surrounding communities. Some of the largest casinos are operating under the auspices of several Indian nation counsels and are providing healthy support to Indian reservations.