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Source: Indian Games

The third game mentioned by Father Brebeuf was that which was called
straw. We have seen that the first of these games called for strength,
agility and endurance. It was as free from elements of chance as any
human contest can be. The victory belonged to the side which counted
amongst its numbers those players who were the fleetest runners, the
most skilful throwers and the most adroit dodgers. The second was
purely a game of chance. If honestly played no other element entered
into its composition. The third which we are now about to consider was
much more complicated in its rules than either of the others. It
closely resembled in some respects several of our modern gambling
games. The French found it very difficult to comprehend and hence the
accounts of it which they have given are often confused and perplexing.
Boucher [Footnote: p. 57.] says, "Our French people have not yet been
able to learn to play it well; it is full of spirit and these straws
are to the Indians what cards are to us." Lafitau [Footnote: Vol. II,
p. 351.] after quoting from Boucher says, "Baron de LaHontan also made
out of it a game purely of the mind and of calculation, in which he who
best knows how to add and subtract, to multiply and divide with these
straws will surely win. To do this, use and practice are necessary, for
these savages are nothing less than good calculators."

"Sieur Perrot, who was a celebrated traveller, and that European whom
the savages of New France have most honored, left a description of this
game in his manuscript Memorial. I would gladly have inserted it here
but it is so obscure that it is nearly unintelligible." Charlevoix
admits that he could understand nothing of the game, except as played
by two persons in its simplest form and adds that he was told that
"there was as much of art as of chance in the game and that the Indians
are great cheats at it." [Footnote: Charlevoix, Vol. III, p. 319,
Father Tailban who edited Perrot says he has not been any more
successful than his predecessors and the game of straws remains to him
an unsolved enigma. Perrot, Notes to Ch. X, p. 188.] Where Lafitau and
Charlevoix, aided by opportunities to investigate the game itself, have
failed, it would seem to be useless for us to attempt. Perrot has
indeed succeeded in making his account hopelessly involved. There is
however much information to be derived from it and the obscure points
are after all unimportant unless one should actually wish to reproduce
the game in practice. In that event there are many points connected
with the counts which would prove troublesome.

To play the game, a number of straws or reeds uniform in size and of
equal length were required. They were generally from six to ten inches
long. The number used in the game was arbitrary. Lawson puts it at
fifty-one. Charlevoix at two hundred and one. The only essential points
were that the numbers should be odd and that there should be enough of
them so that when the pile was divided into two parts, a glance would
not reveal which of the two divisions contained the odd number of
straws. In its simplest form, the game consisted, in separating the heap
of straws into two parts, one of which each player took, and he whose
pile contained the odd number of straws was the winner. Before the
division was made the straws were subjected to a manipulation, somewhat
after the manner of shuffling cards. They were then placed upon the
deer-skin or upon whatever other article was selected as a surface on
which to play. The player who was to make the division into two heaps,
with many contortions of the body and throwing about of the arms, and
with constant utterances to propitiate his good luck, would make a
division of the straws with a pointed bone or some similar instrument,
himself taking one of the divisions while his adversary took the other.
They would then rapidly separate the straws into parcels numbering ten
each and determine from the fractional remainders, who had the odd
number. The speed with which this process of counting was carried on was
always a source of wonder to the lookers-on, and the fact that the
counting was done by tens is almost invariably mentioned. Between two
people betting simply on the odd number no further rules were necessary.
To determine which had the heap containing the odd number, there was no
need to foot up the total number of tens. It was to be settled by what
was left over after the last pile of complete tens was set aside. The
number itself might be either one, three, five, seven or nine. In the
more complicated form of the game, this led to giving different values
to these numbers, the nine being always supreme and the one on which the
highest bets were wagered. It was generally understood that the holder
of this number swept the board taking all bets on other numbers as well
as those on the nine. It was easy to bet beads against beads and skins
against skins, in a simple game of odd or even, but when the element of
different values for different combinations was introduced, some medium
of exchange was needed to relieve the complications. Stones of fruit
were employed just as chips or counters are used in modern gambling
games, and a regular bank was practically instituted. Each player took a
certain number of these counters, as the equivalent of the value of the
merchandise which he proposed to hazard on the game, whether it was a
gun, a blanket, or some other article. Here we have all the machinery of
a regular gambling game at cards, but the resemblance does not stop
here. The players put up their bets precisely as they now do in a game
of faro, selecting their favorite number and fixing the amount, measured
in the standard of the game, which they wished to hazard. "By the side
of the straws which are on the ground are found the (_grains_) counters,"
says Perrot, "which the players have bet on the game." In another place,
the method of indicating the bets is stated as follows: "he (meaning
apparently the one who has bet) is also obliged to make two other heaps.
In one he will place five, in the other seven straws, with as many
(_grains_) counters as he pleases." These phrases may fairly be
interpreted to mean that a record of the bets, somewhat of the same
style as that kept with counters upon a faro table, was constantly
before the players. Complicated rules determined when the players won or
lost; when the bets were to be doubled and when they were to abide the
chance of another count. The loser at the game, even after all that he
had with him was gone, was sometimes permitted to continue the game on
his promise to pay. If ill luck still pursued him the winner could
refuse him credit and decline to play for stakes that he could not see.

The game often lasted for several days, one after another of the sides
relieving his comrades at the play until one of the two sides had lost
everything, it being, says Perrot, [Footnote: p. 19.] "a maxim of the
savages not to quit play until one side or the other had lost
everything." Those who had bet at the game had the right to substitute
any person whom they pleased to play for them. "Should any dispute
arise on this point," says Perrot, "between the winners and the losers,
the disputants backed by their respective sides would probably come to
blows, blood would be shed and the whole thing would be very difficult
to settle." Cheating often took place at this game. Its exposure was
considered praiseworthy and its practice denounced. If doubts were
expressed as to the accuracy of a count, the matter was peacefully
adjusted by a re-count by two of the spectators.

"This game of straw," says Perrot, from whose account we have made the
foregoing digest, "is ordinarily held in the cabins of the chiefs,
which are large, and are, so to speak, the Academy of the Savages." He
concludes his account with the statement that the women never play it.
[Footnote: See also Shea's Hennepin, p. 300.] The authority on this
game whom Ogilby quotes slides over the difficulties of the description
with the statement that "many other whimsies be in this game which
would be too long to commit to paper." Abbe Ferland [Footnote: Vol. I,
p. 134.] epitomizes the results of his investigation of this game as
follows: "Memory, calculation and quickness of eyesight were necessary
for success."

Like the game of dice or platter it was essentially a house game, and
like platter it is rarely mentioned by writers who describe the habits
of Indians in the south. Lawson describes it, but in slightly modified
form, as follows: "Indian Cards. Their chiefest game is a sort of
Arithmetick, which is managed by a parcel of small split reeds, the
thickness of a small Bent; these are made very nicely, so that they
part, and are tractable in their hands. They are fifty-one in number,
their length about seven inches; when they play, they throw part of
them to their antagonist; the art is, to discover, upon sight, how many
you have, and what you throw to him that plays with you. Some are so
expert at their numbers, that they will tell ten times together, what
they throw out of their hands. Although the whole play is carried on
with the quickest motion it is possible to use, yet some are so expert
at this Game, as to win great Indian Estates by this Play. A good set
of these reeds, fit to play withal are valued and sold for a dressed

A. W. Chase [Footnote: Overland Monthly, Vol. II, p. 433. Dorsey found
a survival of the game in use among the Omahas. He called it "stick
counting." Third Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, p. 338.] speaks of
"native games of cards among the Coquelles and Makneatanas, the
pasteboards being bundles of sticks." He furnishes no description of
the games, but uses the same phrase which was applied by Lawson in
North Carolina and by Boucher in Canada.

Frank H. Cushing [Footnote: The Century, Vol. XXVI, p. 38. My
Adventures in Zuni.] speaks of a game of "Cane-cards" among the Zuni
which he says "would grace the most civilized society with a refined
source of amusement." He was not able fully to comprehend it.

In the list of games, there is none of which we have any detailed
account, which compares with straws as played by the northern tribes,
in elaborateness of construction. The unfortunate confusion which
prevails throughout Perrot's description of the method of counting, and
the way in which the point was shirked by all other writers on the
subject, prevents any attempt at analysis. So far as we can see, the
rules were arbitrary and not based upon any calculations of the laws of
chance. If some other detailed account of the game should be discovered
it would be interesting to follow up this question and ascertain how
far the different combinations which affected the counts were based
upon a theory of probabilities and how far they were arbitrary.

It will of course be noticed that the game described by Lawson was
relieved from much of this complication. The dexterity required to make
a throw of such a nature that the player could tell exactly the number
of reeds with which he had parted, was of course remarkable and
naturally called forth expressions of surprise. But there were
apparently no other combinations resting upon the throw than the simple
guess at the number thrown. Travellers in California have described the
game in still simpler form in which we see hints of the more complex
game. Here the "sticks" were thrown in the air and an immediate guess
was made whether the number thrown was odd or even. An umpire kept the
account with other sticks and on this count the bets were adjusted.
[Footnote: Kotzebue, A Voyage of Discovery, etc. London, 1821, Vol. I,
p. 282 and Vol. III, p. 44. note. W. H. Emory, U S. and Mexican
Boundary Survey, Vol. I, p. 111, says: "The Yumas played a game with
sticks like jackstraws." Stanley, Smithsonian Miscellaneous
Collections. Vol. II, p. 55, gives among his "Portraits of North
American Indians," a picture of a game which he describes as "played
exclusively by women. They hold in their hands twelve sticks about six
inches in length which they drop upon a rock. The sticks that fall
across each other are counted for game."]

Wherever we find it and whatever the form in use, whether simple or
complicated, like games of lacrosse and platter the occasion of its
play was but an excuse for indulgence in the inveterate spirit of
gambling which everywhere prevailed.


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