American Indian Games

By Stuart Culin

Presidential Address, American Folk-Lore Society,
Baltimore, Maryland, December, 1897,
Published in The Journal of American Folk-Lore,
Volume XI, October-December, 1898, No. XLIII, Pages 245-252.

Note: The text for this page is by Stuart Culin. The Figures and Plates indicated in the text are from Culin's article. Additional graphics have been interpolated from other sources.
American Indian

Our ideas of a game are primarily associated with mirth, amusement, play, such, indeed, being the original meaning of our English word. A careful examination of games, however, reveals the fact that they originated not as pastimes, but as serious divinatory contests. This is especially true of the games of those we call primitive people or savages.

We quickly find that a distinction may be drawn between these sacred and divinatory games and the mimetic plays of children. In speaking of games I shall confine myself to the former class alone. The latter constitute another, though related, chapter in the history of culture. Children play at real games as they play at every other serious business of life. They thus perpetuate games that have otherwise disappeared. Hence the value of children's games in our study. At the same time, this observation applies chiefly to the higher cultures. In savagery we deal with the games of adults, - first of men, then women, - with games so complex that no child mind could grasp their principles or objects; with games so wrought and interwoven with primitive concepts of nature and the universe that no modern mind could create or invent them.

World Map

When we review the true or divinatory games of the world, no matter how or in what manner they are played, we find their underlying objects and principles precisely the same. One and all they appear as aids in that instinctive process of classification by which humanity endeavored to establish the connotation of unrelated facts, as the devices through which the gods or the cosmic forces might be led to reveal the unknown or hidden relations that exist between man and his environments. The central idea upon which this classification is based, as first distinctly insisted upon by my distinguished colleague, Dr. Daniel G. Brinton, is that of the four quarters of the world. Corresponding with the world quarters, we have the four [Page 246] seasons. With these, again, are associated the primary colors. By the aid of simple and obvious analogies we may extend the classification to beasts, birds, and men; to human relations, family and communal, secular and sacerdotal; to inanimate nature, the stars, the sentiments, emotions, to everything, in fact, for which the tongue has framed a name. Such indeed is the comparatively simple mental process that we find to have been practically common to mankind. I should mention here that with the Four Directions was associated a fifth, the Centre, thus establishing categories of fives instead of fours, and again with these Five Directions, the Above and Below, the Upper and Lower regions, extending the number of directions to seven. Not infrequently we discover the intermediary points assuming equal importance with the quarters, resulting in a division among eight, or with the middle, nine. Yet another assignment to the world quarters and their extensions, of high importance in games, remains to be considered, that of number. Thus, the number attributed to the North may be one; to the West, two; to the South, three; and to the East, four; or the numbers from one to nine may be distributed among the eight points of the circuit and the centre.

Another fact of importance should also be noted: the connotations of direction and color are not invariable, and do not agree in the Old and New Worlds - do not agree, in fact, between adjacent tribes on the American continent.

Having thus outlined the fundamental principle underlying games, I desire, before proceeding to the immediate subject of my address, to say a few words as to the methods we should employ in the comparative study of games to insure results of certain value in ethnographic science. Collection and publication, while in themselves diverting, are merely preparatory. They but afford us materials with which to approach the solution of one of the important problems in man's life and development; that of the interdependence of his culture and the location of the centre or centres from which it emanated.

Superficial comparisons, however close the similarities evoked, amaze, rather than enlighten. Identity of customs and myths are no longer regarded as proof of a common origin, and the functional similarities which characterize games are scarcely of higher ethnical value than those observed by the zoologist in reviewing the animal kingdom.


There are two kinds of evidence, however, which, taken together, afford promise of trustworthy results in our work; the first we find in linguistics and the second in morphology. From a linguistic side we derive less advantage as yet in the American Indian games than in the corresponding games of Asia. The identity of chess is [Page 247] asserted by its name from China to the shores of the Atlantic; and the Hindu Pachisi is recognized and understood from Persia to the Philippines. In America we may trace the analogue of the latter game under its name of Patole, from the ancient Aztecs to the existing pueblos of New Mexico. In general, however, the American Indian names of games are descriptive and vary from language to language, though sometimes identical among tribes of the same stock.

Experience leads me to attach by far the highest importance to our second source of information: that of morphology. It is their objective side, indeed, that lends to games their peculiar value in the field of study represented by this Society, and a demonstration, based upon the material before me, will form the concluding part of my address. The games of the American Indians may be arranged in four principal classes, represented by Lacrosse, or "batted-ball"; Chunkee, or "ring and javelin"; Straw, or " Indian cards," and Platter, or "dice". This natural classification was employed by Mr. Andrew MacFarland Davis in his admirable memoir1 which practically exhausted the literature of the subject down to the time of its publication. I have drawn in my own work chiefly upon the resources of museums and the obliging and never-failing assistance of many original observers. With reference to Indian games in general, I desire to say that all the games in each of the four classes named appear to be related, either directly to each other, or to a common source, throughout the entire area of their distribution, and that one of them, at least, appears to have been practically universal in the northern continent. Again, that they present no anomalies, and that corresponding games in three out of the four mentioned classes exist as equally representative and widely distributed games in the Eastern hemisphere.

It would not be difficult to extend the list of typical games, as for example, by the addition of certain guessing games played with marked bones; but these, like others, will be found to be the products of one of those mentioned.

For the purposes of illustration, I have selected the last of the four classes for exhibition and comment. The games of this class, comprising the platter or dice of the Atlantic coast, the plumstone game of the Sioux, and the game of tossed canes or staves in the Southwest, I have found recorded as existing among some 61 tribes,2 [Page 248] comprised in 23 linguistic stocks, described or collected by some 75 observers,3 extending from the year 1634 down to the present, and represented by some 90 specimens of implements from 41 tribes, 18 stocks, and 39 collectors in the five principal American museums of ethnology: Washington, New York, Chicago, Cambridge, and Philadelphia, and the hands of five individuals. The older accounts of the game among the Indians of Mexico are not included in this enumeration.

Among all these tribes the principle of the game is invariably the same. Two-faced lots are tossed and numerical values attributed to the various combinations. The number of these lots varies from three to 13, four being the most common. Their form and material range from slips of cane, about a span in length, through wooden staves and blocks of various sizes to fruit stones, and disks of bone, and even beans. The numerical counts attributed to their falls in general bear a relation to the number of heads or tails that come uppermost, but the count is often augmented by one or more of the lots, distinguished by marks from the others, turning in a specified manner. The methods of tossing are much diversified. The fruit stones and bone disks are usually thrown in a bowl or platter or in a small basket; the canes tossed or shot against a suspended blanket or skin, and the wooden staves struck on a stone, ends down, so that [Page 249] they rebound, hit sharply on a stone held beneath, or allowed to fall from some little height upon a blanket placed upon the ground.

Plate IA
Set of Four Canes
US National Museum, 69277

Zuni cane and wood gaming staves

There are two principal methods of keeping count: one by means of a bundle of stick or tallies, of which the observed numbers are 8, 12, 15, 32, 40, 48 + 4, 48 + 5, 51 + 4, and 100; the other, with pieces, now designated as "horses", moved around a circuit usually consisting of small stones arranged upon the ground. The shape of the circuit is either rectangular or circular, and the number of openings, called "houses", 40, although in one instance 160 has been observed. The 40 stones are usually arranged in tens, with reference to the four cardinal points, towards which, when the circuit is circular, larger spaces, called "rivers", are sometimes left open. With reference to the two methods of keeping count, the one with tallies is invariably used when the lots are tossed in a bowl or basket, and with the beaver teeth. On the contrary, the counting circuit is almost always used when staves are employed.

Comparison of such names of games as are recorded reveals no similarities outside of the same linguistic stock.

Figure 1
Zuni Canes for Sho-le-we
showing inside marks
referring to the four directions

Figure 1

I shall proceed now to a detailed examination of one of the games of this group as played in Zuni, and as described to me by my friend and collaborator, Mr. Cushing. It is known in the native language as sho-li-we. The lots employed in it are four slips of reed (Plate IA) each marked in a distinctive manner on the outer side, and in a corresponding way with black paint within. The name sho-li-we is derived, according to Mr. Cushing, from shooli, "arrow," and we, plural ending, signifying "parts of," and may be translated, therefore, as "cane-arrow pieces" or "parts."

Figure 2
Zuni arrow-shaftments
of the four directions.
From a sketch by
Frank Hamilton Cushing.

Figure 2

Mr. Cushing has pointed out to me that from the fact that these slips are so split and cut from the canes as to include at their lower ends portions of the joints or septae, and from the further fact that they are variously banded with black or red paint or otherwise, it may be seen that they [Page 250] represent the footings or shaftments of cane arrows, in which the septae at the lower ends serve as stops for the footing or noeking plugs. The bandings of the slips (Figure 1) are representative of the rib-bandings of cane-arrow shaftments (Figure 2). Mr. Cushing has found that the arrow sets of Zuni, as well as the ancestral Cliff Dweller arrows, were thus ribboned with black or red paint, to symbolize in the arrows so marked the numerical sign or mystical values and succession of the four quarters. Each set, especially of war arrows, consisted of four sub-sets, the shaftments of each differently marked. Without dwelling further upon their origin and significance, we find one slip, banded only at the middle, associated with the North, and called the al-thlu-a, or the "all speeder," or "sender." Another, blackened its entire length, associated with the West, and called the k'wi-ni-kwa, or the "black." Another, banded at either end, associated with the South, and called the pathl-to-a, or "divider divided;" and, finally, the cane slip of the East, banded only at one end and called the ko-ha-kwa, "white," or "white medicine."

[Page 251] There is a peculiarity in the method of tossing. The a-thlu-a, or " all sender," was laid across the two middle fingers and the other three slips upon it, inside of one another, all being then cast together. From its name and use in casting, Mr. Cushing drew a pointed comparison between the a-thlu-a and the ancient Mexican atlatl, or throwing-stick.

Plate 1B
Painted stave
one of a set of three
US National Museum,

Plate 1B

A more popular game in Zuni is called Ta-sho-li-we, "wood canes," or "arrows," and is played with staves instead of canes (Plate IB, Plate IC). It would appear that the wooden staves are substitutes for canes, a fact which is abundantly confirmed by the wooden lots used by adjacent tribes.

Many of the latter are grooved like the cane on the inner side, and even some of the ungrooved ones have a longitudinal band of red paint, as for example those of the Cocopa, simulating the hollow cane. There is abundant evidence to confirm the cane-arrow ancestry of the staves and blocks.

Plate 1C
Set of three painted staves
Museum of Science and Art
University of Pennsylvania

Plate 1C

Scrutinizing the series of sets of gaming implements for some common peculiarity, we find that practically all of them have one of the lot pieces tied round the middle with cord or sinew, or burned or engraved with a transverse band (Plate II A and B). On some this mark is in the form of a cross, and suggests tying and something tied to the stick.

The peculiarity extends to the beaver-teeth dice used by the Indians of the Columbia River (Plate IIC), and is most significantly discernible on some of the lot staves from the Southwestern Pueblos. This transversely marked or tied piece is the one that augments the throw.

Blackfeet bone gaming staves showing chevron decoration and tied piece.

Plate IIA Plate IIB
Plate IIA
Field Museum, 51693
Plate IIB
Field Museum, 51964
Plate 2C
Plate IIC
Twana, Washington Museum
of Science and Art,
University of Pennsylvania,

The probable source of the beaver-teeth game (IIC) of the Columbia River, as well as the bone guessing game implements (IID) (one tied) of the northern tribes.

Plate 2D
Plate IID
Alaska Museum of
Science and Art,
University of
Pennsylvania, 15494

It recently occurred to the speaker that the explication of this piece might lead to the discovery of the common principle or source of origin in the game. The cane slip so marked in one of the Zuni sets (Plate IIIA) proved to be the one painted only in the middle of the inner side and designated as the a-thlu-a. (Editor's Note: Plate III was missing from the source document.)

 Figure 3 - Cliff Dweller's Atlatl

Mr. Cushing had already suggested to me that this slip, which is placed beneath the others in throwing, corresponded with the atlatl. Comparison of the banded sticks with a prehistoric [Page 252] throwing-stick from a Cliff Dwelling in Colorado (Figure 3 - reproduction of original in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Science and Art) led to my conclusion that the banded sticks actually represented the atlatl, the cross marks perpetuating the crossed wrappings for attachment of its finger-loops.

Figure 3The Cliff Dweller atlatl has finger-loops of leather, which are cross-wrapped on both sides of the shaft (Figure 4). It is also wrapped at the finger-loops with co1ored yarn, now a uniform brown, but which Mr. Cushing regards as having been originally of various colors.

In a set of gaming sticks from the Tewan Pueblo of Santa Clara we find the banded stick (Plate IIIB) marked with a cross between fifteen transverse notches, which are painted green, red, yellow, and blue, the colors attributed to the world quarters. The colored notches, I assume, represent the yarn of different colors on the original throwing-stick. The fifteen notches, corresponding with a common name of the game, " Fifteen," Spanish Quince, probably stand for three turns around for each of the five colors.

Plate VMy general conclusion as to the interrelation of American Indian games is extended, in the case of the particular game I have described, to the belief that its various forms are not only derived one from another, but that its place of origin may be definitely fixed in the country of the reed arrow and the atlatl, or throwing-stick; that is, in the arid region of the southwestern United States and northern or central Mexico. It is in ancient Mexico that I conceive we find evidences of its highest development. What indeed is that pictured diagram in the Fejervary Codex (Plate V), not without parallels in other manuscripts, but the counting circuit of the Four Quarters, set with colored grains on the North, West, South, and East, and in the middle the god with his three arrows and the atlatl, here, as in Zuni, the presiding genius of the game.


  1. "Indian Games", Bulletin of the Essex Institute, XVII. 89; XVIII. 168.
  2. Algonquian: Arapaho, Cheyenne, Chippeway, Illinois, Massachusetts, Menominee Micmac, Narraganset, Nipissing, Ojibwa. Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Siksika; Athapascan: Apache, Navajo; Caddoan; Arikara, Pawnee; Eskimauan: Eskimo; Iroquoian: Delaware, Huron, Iroquois, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora; Keresan: Keres (Acoma, Cochite Laguna, San Felipe, Sia); Kiowan: Kiowa ; Koluschan: Tlingit; Lutuainian: Klamath; Mariposan: Yokut; Natchezan: Natchez; Piman: Papago, Pima, Tarahumara, Tepeguana; Punjunan: Nishinam; Salishan: Clallam, Cowlitz, Lkungen, Lummi, Nisqalli, Nslakyapamuk, Queniut, Skagit, Snohomish, Soke, Sushwap, Twana; Shahaptian: Klikitat; Shoshonean: Comanche, Paiute, Shoshoni, Unikaret; Siouan: Assinaboin, Dakota (Sisseton, Teton (Brule) Yankton), Iowa, Mandan, Minnetaree, Omaha; Tanonan: Tewa (Isleta, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Taos, Tesuque); Waukeshan: Kwakiutl, Macah; Yuman: Cocopa, Havasupai, Mohave; Zunian: Zuni.
  3. A. B. Averill, Paul Beckwith, W. M. Beauchamp, Franz Boas, H. M. Brackenridge, J. Breboeuf, Mrs. W. W. Brown, Jacques Bruyas, George Catlin, P. de Charlevoix, E. C. Cherouse. Frank H. Cushing, Dr. Z. T. Daniel, William H. Danilson, Edwin T. Denig, William Dinwiddie, George A. Dorsey, T. S. Dozier, J. Owen Dorsey, L. S. Dyer, Myron Eels, George B. Emmons, Miss Alice C. Fletcher, A. S. Gatschet, George Gibbs, Dr. Gray, George Bird Grinnell, Stansbun Hagar, Charles Francis Hall, John N. B. Hewitt, Walter T. Hoffman, G. Wharton James, Peter Jones, J. P. Kimball, J. Lalemant, Le Page du Pratz, Francis Le Fleche, J. Long, G. H. Loskiel, Carl Lumholtz, Charles F. Lummis, Charles E. McChesney, W. J. McGee, C. N. B. Macauley, T. P. Martin, Washington Matthews, James Mooney, Lewis H. Morgan, Joseph Nicolar, Edward Palmer, Nicolas Perrott, Zebulon M. Pike, J. W. Powell, George H. Pradt, Horatio N. Rust, Steven Powers, Henry R. Schoolcraft, H. L Scott, Benjamin Sharp, Col. James Smith, George E. Starr, James Stevenson, Mrs. M. C. Stevenson, Matthew F. Stevenson, Mrs. G. Stout, James G. Swan, John Tanner, James Teit, Sagard Theodat, J. Hammond Trumbull, H. R. Voth, G. M. West, Roger Williams, Edward F. Wilson, William Wood.

Last update January 29, 2010