Yokuts Gambling Tray and Walnut Dice
Yokuts Gambling Tray and Walnut Dice

May 28, 2015: Yokuts Gambling Tray and Walnut Dice

Mill Creek Valley, Fresno County, California
Basket purchased October 21, 1903 by Clinton Hart Merriam
56.5 cm diameter

Various forms of dice gambling were widespread throughout Native North America at the time of European contact. Like other games of the continent, the dice game transcended linguistic and geographic boundaries, showing a propensity for game elements, sometimes referred to as “ludemes,” to be culturally transmitted despite linguistic and cultural differences. The dice game could have both material and symbolic significance, bringing communities together in reciprocal exchanges of wealth, aiding in ceremony or divination, and representing ideas of world order.

The dice themselves could be made of a variety of materials, depending on the culture and region. In California, split walnut shells filled with pine pitch or asphaltum and decorated with pieces of abalone shell, such as the ones pictured here, were most commonly used, though split acorns could be used as well. In the Northeast, the northern Great Plains, and southern Canada, painted plumstones were used as dice and cast into wooden bowls. Split sticks were used in the Southwest and surrounding regions, though these usually were not accompanied by a basket or bowl but were bounced onto a mat or the ground. In the Pacific Northwest and surrounding areas, beaver teeth were often used as dice, though they could be substituted with bone or the teeth from other animals. Dice sets made from mussel shells were also known among the Hupa and their northern California neighbors, as well as the Kawaiisu of Southern California.

Basketry trays, such as this Yokuts gambling tray, were important components of the dice game played in California and the Great Basin. Thick coiled baskets are also known to have been used on the Great Plains and in the Southwest. But in California, the land of basketry, gambling trays were especially fine and elaborately designed. Their shape was usually that of a large, decorated winnowing tray. Dice would be rolled onto gambling trays, which acted as a smooth surface for dice to land. The Yokuts, who occupied large portions the San Joaquin prehistorically, made coiled baskets with deergrass foundations with wefts of sedge, bracken fern root, and redbud, as seen here in this basket purchased by botanist and ethnographer C.H. Merriam.

While versions of the dice game could sometimes be played in large gatherings and involve men and women players, the game was generally played, and the knowledge retained, by women. It was not uncommon for male informants, when asked about the dice game, to not know the specific rules of play. Surveys of 131 dice games by turn-of-the-century ethnographer Edward Culin found 81% were played by women only, 12% by men and women, and 7% exclusively by men. Sometimes women would go off together to play the games unbothered, although in other instances it was common for men and other spectators to also bet on the games being played. In many cultures, dice rolling was seen as a skill that could be honed, and it was not uncommon for women to practice their dice rolling.

Some evidence suggests that point structures of the dice games generally corresponded to probabilistic expected payoff, however numerous exceptions exist. In some instances, the dice game was not about gambling but instead served ritual or predictive purposes, such as war divination among the Zuni and distribution of the deceased’s possession among the Sisseton. Among the Fox, dice games following the death of community invariable resulted in victory for the moiety of the recently deceased because “that is the way it is.”

Nevertheless, the material exchange associated with dice game gambling may have played a role in expansive trade networks of Native America. In one instance, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition was surprised to find that parts of iron axes made in Fort Mandan, North Dakota, had reached the Nez Perce of Idaho, travelling a distance of 1,000 miles in just fourteen months since their manufacture. The pieces of the axes he observed were being used as gambling pieces, and their expedient travel may have been related to the role of gambling in trade networks. In this sense, the widespread distribution of the dice game can be seen not only as the product of cultural transmission but as one of the mechanisms that sustained the continued movement of materials and ideas across the native landscape.

An example of the rules of play recorded by Frank Latta in the Handbook of Yokuts Indians is included here.

“[The dice game] was played by four women, two pairs of partners. The players were seated upon the ground, partners side by side and their opponents opposite. Between them was placed a large flat tray made of basketry material and having slightly upturned edges. This tray was called tiwon. The dice, called hoo’utch, were thrown upon the tray. In some localities the dice were made of acorn caps, but in most instances they were made from nuts of the native black walnut. The nut was split in half, the kernel removed, and the hollow filled with pitch or asphaltum. Into the pitch were pressed small bits of abalone shell or white shell beads. In this way the dice were numbered from one to eight; in some instances to as many as twelve. The dice were gathered from the mat between the two hands and sometimes rolled together. They were then thrown upon the mat."

"Four combinations were recognized in scoring. Three flat sides remaining up counted one point and one of the twelve [counting] sticks was awarded to the partners making the point. Two flat sides up counted one point. All flat sides up or all flat sides down counted five points each and awarded five of the counting sticks. When only one dice lay upon the tray with the flat side up, the thrower lost one point and the dice were awarded to the two opposing players. Either of the partners could throw the dice. Considerable skill was thought necessary in throwing them. A [woman] who could roll the dice most rapidly and who could pour forth the most convincing entreaties was usually accorded this privilege. A Huuhchuish game has been known to continue without interruption for several days and nights.”

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