Indians, probably the original inhabitants of America, already knew a lot of gambling games. They had various attributes and rules of play. According to some scientists, therefore, in the history of gambling, we should not just look at ancient China. Columbus and later visitors brought gambling to America. But the Indians' games also had an influence on gambling games in Europe.
After the discovery of America, there were several researchers who visited Indian tribes. But especially from the 19th century, books and articles have appeared about everyday life, such as the ways of cooking and playing. Authors who regularly wrote about their experiences were Stewart Culin and Washington Matthews.
Gambling songs from the Navajo Indians
Matthews, an ethnologist and linguist in the US Army, noticed that the Navajos sang gambling songs with their gambling games. In the beginning he found it particularly special that the different tribes knew the same songs. While the tribes were scattered across America and had no contact with each other.
Gradually, however, he got to know the background of the gambling songs and continued to search. The songs appeared to have a more or less religious background. The gambling songs favored the gods of the Indians, increasing the chance of winning.
In his stories Matthews casually tells about the daily habits of the Navajos. He gives special attention to the gambling songs. He discusses them with a gamble game. That is Kêsitcè, which literally means moccasins in a row. It is the favorite gambling game in the winter season; a hiding game that the Navajos prefer to play in the twilight.
Matthews discusses several gambling songs. Each song has its own background. So there is also a myth with the moccasin game, a story in which events and actions from the distant past are described for explanation. But first he explains the game.
The gambling game
The requirements of the game are eight moccasins, a pebble of about 3.5 centimeters, a blanket and a stick. The game is played between two participants or parties. A sheet with one blank side determines who can start. There are further 102 calculation means. In the maccasin game, that plant is 102 root stems of a palm lily, two of which are notched at the ends.
The two participants each bury four shoes in the ground, until only the nose of the shoe is still visible. Four on two sides of the campfire. The token with the blank side is then thrown as we do head or coin with a coin.
It is the party's turn to raise the blanket to hide the actions of the other party. He then hides the pebble in one of the moccasins and covers the shoes with sand and earth again. When the blanket drops, the other participants or party may guess in which shoe the pebble is hidden. A participant taps the nose of the shoe with a stick.
If he guesses where the stone is, he gets his turn. However, if he makes a mistake, the winning participant will receive a number of stems. The amount of stems won depends on the position in the row of the selected shoe and the shoe with the stone.
In the beginning an unconcerned spectator rules all the root stems. If they are all forgiven, the winning party gets them from the loser of a turn. The winner is of course the participant who has collected all stems. He then gets the two notched stems, which are called grandmothers.
The winner places these two stems in the trusses of his cabin and says "go find your grandchildren". In other words, also bring other "stems" to the living. The possession of the two grandmothers should bring good luck.
And that is also the purpose of the gambling songs. The Navajos, like many other Indians, believe that when they sing the spirits of their ancestors help with gambling. There are conditions attached to this.
First of all, good knowledge of the gambling songs is a requirement to impress the spirits. The playing party or participant starts singing at the start of a turn. The song must be sung until the end of the turn. If the pebble is found quickly or the choice is made quickly, so it is a short turn, then the singing of the song also stops.
No matter how briefly sung, a song may never be repeated during the game. The Navajo therefore have a lot of gambling songs. They have been passed on from generation to generation. Matthews is actually the first person to capture some texts. But he had no illusion that he could make a complete collection. Most Navajos did not all know the songs, and they took years to know a few.
Gambling song and the myth
The gambling songs, along with other songs, are part of the prayers, stories and philosophy of life of the Navajo. An extensive story is part of the gambling game with the moccasins. Animals that can see well in the dark play a leading role in this. That is why the game is usually played on a winter evening.
There are many animals in the myth with references to parts of the game. For example, there is a pale, old snake that claims to be the grandmother of all snakes. The game was played with 100 stems. But the snake forced the Indians to take two extra stems. The Indians gave those stems two incisions to make them look more like snakes.
Noquilpi the gambler
The story about the gambling songs and the maccasin game is worth reading. But if you like such a story, we can recommend the story about the gambler Noquilpi. It tells the mythological story about how the Navajos got their settlements.
Noquilpi, meaning "he who wins from everyone", challenges men of other nations. They play gambling games, regular games and make all kinds of bets with him. But Noquilpi always wins. First he wins their property, then their wives and children and finally the men themselves. They become his slave and build the houses where the Navajos will live.
Sources and more information:
- Article that Washington Matthews wrote about the gambling songs of the Navajo Indians (pdf)
- Matthews story about the gambler Noquilpi and the myth about the settlements of the Natojos (pdf)
- The Navajo Indians are nowadays called Dineh. This is because most tribes live in Dinetah (Wikipedia)