Indian Hazard Games

by Alice C. Fletcher

INTRODUCTORY NOTE.—The objects which are thrown or tossed in games of hazard Dr. Culin for convenience has designated as "dice" and he calls the games "dice games." (Ibid., pp. 44, 45.) He found these games among one hundred and thirty tribes belonging to thirty different linguistic stocks. Throughout this wide distribution the "dice" are not only of different forms but are made from a variety of materials: split-cane; wooden or bone staves or blocks; pottery; beaver or muskrat teeth; walnut shells; persimmon, peach or plum stones. All the "dice" of whatever kind have the two sides different in color, in marking, or in both. Those of the smaller type are tossed in a basket or bowl. Those that are like long sticks, similar to arrow shafts, from which they are primarily derived, were thrown by hand. Myths of the Pueblo tribes speak of the game, in which "dice" shaped like a shaft were used, as being played by the War Gods. The split-cane "dice" were "sacrificed" on the altar sacred to the Gods of War. In this connection it is interesting to find evidence that the "dice game" of hazard was associated with the thought of war among tribes very different, both in language and customs, from the Pueblo Indians. Among the tribes living on the prairies the word used to indicate a "point" made in a "dice game" is derived from the same root as the word used to indicate an honor won on the field of battle.

Two examples of the class of games called "dice games" are here given: the first a Pueblo game played almost exclusively by men; the second a game found among the Omaha and kindred tribes and almost exclusively played by women.

Pa-tol Stick Game

Properties.—Three wooden billets; a flat stone about six inches in diameter or square; forty stones about as "big as a fist" or like pieces of wood; as many sticks for markers as there are players; counters to score the game.

Directions.—The three billets, called pa-tol sticks, are made four and a half inches long, one inch wide and half an inch in thickness; it is important that the wood from which they are made be firm and hard. Two of the billets are plain on one side, on the other side a diagonal line is incised from the left-hand upper corner to a point about two inches below the right-hand upper corner; another diagonal line is incised from the right-hand lower corner to about two inches above the left-hand lower corner. The third pa-tol stick has the same design on one side, and on the other side the design is repeated and an additional diagonal line incised from the right-hand upper corner to the left-hand lower corner. It would be well to blacken all these incised lines in order that the designs can be readily seen during the playing of the game.

Patol Dice

A circle, called the Pa-tol House, about three or four feet in diameter, is made by setting forty stones "about the size of a fist" so as to form the circumference. Between every tenth and eleventh stone there must be an opening of four or five inches. These openings must face the north, east, south and west; they are spoken of as "rivers." The flat stone is placed in the middle of the circle.

Each player has a marker, a small stick or twig, which is called his "horse." As many can take part in the game as conveniently can seat themselves around the pa-tol house.

The following description of the game is given by Dr. Charles F. Lummis and quoted by Dr. Culin (Ibid., pp. 191, 192): "When the players have seated themselves, the first takes the pa-tol sticks tightly in his right hand, lifts them about as high as his chin and, bringing them down with a smart vertical thrust as if to harpoon the center stone, lets go of them when they are within some six inches of it. The three sticks strike the stone as one, hitting on their ends squarely, and, rebounding several inches, fall back into the circle. The manner in which they fall decides the denomination of the throw, and the different values are shown in the diagram. Although at first flush this might seem to make it a game of chance, nothing could be farther from the truth.... An expert pa-tol player will throw the number he desires with almost unfailing certainty by his arrangement of the sticks in his hand and the manner and force with which he strikes them down. It is a dexterity which any one may acquire by sufficient practice, and only thus. The five throw is deemed very much the hardest of all, and I have certainly found it so.

"According to the number of his throw the player moves his marker an equal number of stones ahead on the circle, using one of the rivers as a starting point. If the throw is five, for instance, he lays his horse between the fourth and fifth stones and hands the pa-tol sticks to the next man. If his throw be ten, however, as the first man's throw is very certain to be, it lands his horse in the second river, and he has another throw. The second man may make his starting point the same or another river, and may elect to run his horse around the circle in the same direction that the first is going or in the opposite. If in the same direction, he will do his best to make a throw which will bring his horse into the same notch as that of the first man, in which case the first man is killed and has to take his horse back to the starting point, to try over again when he gets another turn. In case the second man starts in the opposite direction—which he will not do unless an expert player—he has to calculate with a good deal of skill for the meeting, to kill and to avoid being killed by the first player. When he starts in the same direction he is behind and runs no chance of being killed, while he has just as good a chance to kill. But if, even then, a high throw carries him ahead of the first man—for jumping does not count either way, the only killing being when two horses come in the same notch—his rear is in danger, and he will try to run on out of the way of his pursuer as fast as possible. The more players the more complicated the game, for each horse is threatened alike by foes that chase from behind and charge from before, and the most skilful player is liable to be sent back to the starting point several times before the game is finished, which is as soon as one horse has made the complete circuit. Sometimes the players, when very young or unskilled, agree there shall be no killing; but unless there is an explicit arrangement to that effect, killing is understood, and it adds greatly to the interest of the game."

Plum Stone Game

This game belongs to the second and non-ceremonial class of the games of hazard and is generally played by women. The Omaha type is here given, but it is similar to the game as played by kindred tribes.

Properties.—Five plum stones; a basket or wooden bowl; one hundred counters. The Omaha used stalks of the blue joint grass as counters, but small twigs or sticks will serve.

The plum stones should be carefully cleaned and dried. Two of the stones are burned black on both sides with a hot iron; on one side of each of these stones a crescent is marked, and between the lines of the figure the black is carefully scraped so as to leave a clear design of a new moon on a background of black. On the other side of these two stones a star, four or five pointed, is drawn and all the black within the lines is scraped off, leaving a brown star on a background of black. The other three stones are each burned black all over on one side; the other side is left the natural color of the stones. These stones can be prepared in camp, but the basket or wooden bowl will probably have to be furnished from outside.

Directions.—Two players to one basket or bowl. The game is generally one hundred points.

The two players sit opposite and have the basket or bowl between them, with the five plum stones lying in the bottom. The one hundred counters are within reach at one side. As points are made, the winner takes a corresponding number of counters from the general pile and lays them beside her on the side opposite to the general pile; when this is exhausted, then the winner takes her counters from the winnings of her opponent. Whoever wins all of the one hundred points has the game.

Lots should be drawn to decide who shall have the first play. The one who wins the first play takes the bowl or basket by the rim with both hands and gives it a toss sufficient to throw up all the stones, but not violent enough to make them fall outside the bowl or basket; such a throw would not count. If the throw is not such as to move all the stones, make them turn and all move about within the bowl, that throw will not count.

The following are the combinations that count, that is, make points:

Two moons and three whites (natural color) = 10 points.

Two stars and three blacks = 10 points.

One moon, one star and three whites (natural color) = 1 point.

One moon, one star and three blacks = 1 point.

No other combinations count anything in the game. As will be seen, there are a number which cannot be counted. If one tosses the bowl and the stones fall in such manner as to make a combination that does not count, there is no forfeit; the player merely fails to score any points. The player who wins a point, or points, keeps on tossing the bowl until she fails to make a point. She must then let her opponent toss the bowl, who will keep tossing the bowl as long as she can win a point. There are players among the Indian women who are very skilful and are able to make the stones fall frequently in the combinations that win ten points.

Next: Guessing Games

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