Dice Games

Menominee Indians Playing Bowl Game
Wisconsin. From Games of the North American Indians.


In one book there are 180 pages of information on dice games for Natives of North America. This gives an idea of the scope of this and the impossibility to sum it all up on a site like this. However, as in other parts of this Native area we are simply trying to give you enough information on a subject to allow you to begin to research it if you wish. We believe that the following will begin to give you an understanding of some of those games. Also, if you are looking for general programming that is not to be related to a special individual tribe, this should give you the information that you need.

General Information

In The Rod and Circle by Alika Podolinksy Webber 1984

"Among North American Indians the thrown dice were said to be dancing. Reference, In Maricopa mythology we hear that
Once, when there was yet no earth a whirlwind came down out of the sky into the turbid water, and they were man and wife. Then he went about making green things grow, shaping what came forth after subsequent whirlwinds into living things."

Spiralling movement of water, and air for instance seems to definitely relate to dancing, spirits, in turn dice.

"Generally speaking in dice games all marked sides up counts highest; none of the marked sides up is second highest; in both of these cases the thrower gets another turn; the more mixed the dice are, the less the count and the thrower does not get another turn. It is of course obbvious that the higher the count the more difficult it is to achieve. All dice up as we shall see implies that a transition to the other world or a return to this world is completed or that a crucial stage towards it has been passed. All marked sides down the same thing, but the stage may not be as extensive and the count may therefore be lower. The more mixed the dice, the farther the transition is from completeion. As wwe shall presently see more clearly this reckoning implies the idea that the more ancestors there are represented on all the dice together, facing up or down, the more assistance the player receeives or, put it another way, the farther the player has progressed past his ancestors towards the First Ancestor or has progressed past his ancestors on his return to the world of the living".

"One observer has noted that Indians do not have games of chance; they are reserved to the callous Whiteman. When an Indian loses consistently, he is given increasingly better chances by his partner so he may win back his losses."

"Culin's work ... makes plain the fact that North American Indians were well aware of the genealogical aspects of these patterns and that they used such dice to achieve the ultimate goal of regeneration, a complex and sophisticated initiation into new life." (Mentions an author called Schuster, but little info on him, etc. Sounds like a book similar to Culin's."

"Gaming devices such as dice and counters are considered to be nothing less than souls. The gamblers regard the dice primarily as ancestors who can reveal and assist in the unfolding of the gamblers fates. The gamblers regard the counters as living participants whose powers have been increased in proportion to the sacrifices that have been made in preparation, sacrifices they may include the adversary's losses."

Dish and Paquessen

In "Journal of American Folk Lore by Stewart Culin" he mentions that (Reference,) the Game of Dish was played in verying forms by 61 different tribes in North America! This however includes the actual game of Dish, and games where sticks and staves (Dice) are tossed as well.

In "Histoire Veritable et Naturelle des Moeurs et Productions du Pays de la Novewlle France, Chapter 10, Paris, 1664", a Pierre Boucher says (Reference, Algonkin, Quebec)

Pawnee Dice and Basket, Oklahoma
Field Columbian Museum

"The game of Dish is played with nine little flat round bones, black on one side, white on the other, which they stir up and cause to jump in a large wooden dish, preventing them from striking the earth by holding it in their hands. Loss or gain depends upon the largest number of one color. The game paquessen is almost the same thing, except that the little bones are thrown into the air with the hand, falling upon a robe spread on the ground like a carpet. The number of one color determines loss or gain."

In "Travels through the Interior Parts of North America", page 238, Philadelphia, 1796, a Jonathan Carver describes the following game (Reference, .... Wisconsin),
"The game of the bowl or platter. This game is played between two persons only. Each person has six or eight little bones not unlike a peach stone either in size or shape, except they are quadrangular, two of the sides of which are colored black, and the others white. These they throw up into the air, from whence they fall into a bowl or platter placed underneath, and made to spin round.

According as these bones present the white or black side upward they reckon the game; he that happens to have the greatest number turn up of a similar color, counts 5 points; and 40 is the game.

The winning party keeps his place and the loser yields his to another who is appointed by one of the umpires; for a while village is sometimes concerned in the party, and at times one band plays against another.

During this play the Indians appear to be greatly agitated, and at every decisive throw set up a hideous shout. They make a thousand contortions, addressing themselves at the same time to the bones, and loading with imprecations the evil spirits that assist their successful antagonists.

At this game some will lose their apparel, all the movables of their cabins, and sometimes even their liberty, notwithstanding there are no people in the universe more jealous of the latter than the Indians are."

In North American Indian Games by W H Carter, the book tells of a mortuary custom relating to the game of Plum Stone (Dish). On the death of a wealthy indian, his personal effects would be placed in piles. Natives would begin to play with one indian representing the ghost. One at a time they would line up and play the ghost, taking one pile of effects if they win, and leaving until all piles were gone.

Carter also mentions the following
Wake game seems to be similar to dish but used 8 disks of elephant tusk. (YES that is right!) If not available used human or animal bone. One side natural colour and one side with burned spots in the middle. They would gather at the home of the deceased and play until midnight. Two squaws would cook and serve a meal at midnight. Squaws immediate and close family members of the deceased. Before they would eat a chief would preach to the family. After eating they would return to the game.

The above item can be ordered from Faire Tyme Toys. Please see "Our Catalogue".

In "Relation of 1639. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents", volume 17, page 201, Cleveland, 1898, Father Lalemant gives the description of a game of Dish by a tribe. To see it click Here

In "Contributions to North American Ethnology", volume 1, page 206, Washington, 1877, Mr George Gibbs states (Reference, Nisqualli, Washington):
"The women have a game belonging properly to themselves. It is played with four beaver teeth , having particular marks on each side. They are thrown as dice, success depending on the arrangement in which they fall."

Stick Dice

Beautiful photo of Havasupai girls playing stick dice
Note the beautiful counting circle
Arizona (From Games of the North American Indians)

Cree Indian, Qu'appelle,
Field Columbian Museum.

"Played with four specially marked oblong sticks (See photo to Left), each stick having a special counting value according to the marks and according to the number of similar sticks which turn face up at the same time, when thrown down.

The game is played by any number of men and women, in groups of four each, opposed to similar groups, and is played for stakes, as in our draw poker. The sticks are thrown to the ground, end down, and falling flat are counted by the markings of those which show the marked side uppermost. The count is as follows: Three plain sides down, one white band up, counts six; two plain sides down, two white bands up, 24; three plain sides down, one X marked side up,14; two plain sides down, two x marked sides up 56; all marked sides up except the stave with 14 X's 14; all marked sides up wins game."

*****To play this game it would be much simpler to simplify the counting system. One white band up counts 1. Two white bands up counts 2. etc.

The above item can be ordered from Faire Tyme Toys. Please see "Our Catalogue".

Stick Dice, Boards, & Counting
Sticks, Pawnee Indian, Oklahoma,
Field Columbian Museum.

J A Mitchell describes the following game description (Reference Cree, Qu'appelle, Assiniboia.):
In "Games of the North American Indians" Cullin mentions a Rev. Paul S Mayerhoff who gives the following account of the game under the name of tsaydithl or throw sticks (Reference, White Mountain Apache, Arizona):
"This is a woman's game and is played with great ardor. The staves are three in number, from 8 to 10 inches long and fall on one side.

The playground is a circle about 5 feet in diameter. The center of this circle is formed by a flat rock of any convenient size, generally from 8 to 10 inches in diameter. On the circumference forty stones are arranged in sets of ten, to be used as counters. Not less than two or more than four persons can participate in the game at one time.

Navaho Woman playing Stick
Dice Arizona.
From Games of the
North American Indians.

In playing the sticks are grasped in the hand and thrown on end upon the rock in the center with force enough to make them rebound. As they fall, flat or round face upward, the throw counts from 1 to 10, as follows; Three round sides up counts 10 points, called yah; two round sides up, one flat, 1 or 2 points, called tlay; one round side up two flat, 3 points, called gah gee; three falt sides up 5 points called dagay. Should one of the players in making her count continue from her set of counters to the adjoining set of the opponent's and strike the place marked by the opponent's tally marker, it throws the opponent's count out of the game, and she must start anew. Who ever first marks 40 points wins."

***** Once again, it is suggested to simplify the count with this game. We suggest that to do this you use a bundle of small sticks or even large tooth picks. Each time a score is made by a person they take that number of tooth picks from the pile, until someone reaches 40. Thus ending the game.

The above item can be ordered from Faire Tyme Toys. Please see "Our Catalogue".

In "Navaho Legends", note 47, page 219, Boston, 1897, and Dr Washington Matthews describes the following game played by Navaho women under the name of Tsidil or Tsindil (Reference, Navaho, New Mexico.) (See Photo to Left):
"The principal implements are three sticks, which are thrown violently, ends down, on a flat stone around which the gamblers sit. The sticks rebound so well that they would fly far away were not a blanket stretched overhead to throw them back to the players. A number of small stones placed in the form of a square are used as counters. these are not moved, but sticks, whose positions are changed according to the fortunes of the game, are placed between them. The rules of the game have not been recorded." ***** The above game can easily be played today safely if you stress that the sticks simply be dropped from a higher position rather than being thrown down with such force.

The above item can be ordered from Faire Tyme Toys. Please see "Our Catalogue".

Ivory Dice, American
Museum of Natural History.

"Eskimo of Baffin Land and Hudson Bay. Bulletin of American Museum of Natural History", Volume 15, Page 112, New York, 1901, a Dr Franz Boas describes the following game played with bones from seal flippers (Reference, Eskimo, Central, Keewatin.):
Each bone represents a certain animal or an old or young person. They are divided into two equal parts. One bone is picked up from each pile, held up a few inches, and then let drop. Should one land right side up, it is looked upon as though it had thrown the other down in a fight. The one which fell wrong side up is then set aside, and another from the same pile is tried with the successful one in this way. This is carried on until one side wins. Then the last bone to win is called the bear, being strongest of all. The player who has lost the game so far takes the bone, holds it up to his forehead, and lets it drop. If it should land right side up, it is looked upon as though the bear has thrown him. Otherwise he is stronger than the bear. Children also use these bones for playing house.

Counting Circles

Please see the Cree Stick Dice description by J A Mitchell under the "Stick Dice" title above for description of the counting circle pictured.

Stick Dice and Counting Circle
White Mountain Apache Arizona
Field Columbian Museum

It seems to have been extremely common for natives to use counting circles when they played Stick Dice. As described above, this circle provided the target for throwing the dice, as well as a circle to count points. These circles would of course very from tribe to tribe in both construction and use. Indeed small points about their use seem confusing but at the moment at least we believe the following to be very accurate.

Please see the centered photo on this page just below the Stick Dice heading. In the middle of the 5 foot circle was often a flat rock, about 8 to 10 inches in diameter. The dice were grabbed in the hand and thrown (very hard!) against this rock causing them to bounce and deflect with great force. The circle was made of small stones around this rock about the size shown. Often there seem to have been 40 rocks used with four "Doors" as shown in the drawing on the left. These doors were often NE, NW, SW, and SE. Often they would start at the North East door. One story at least mentions them putting a stick there to mark that door as the starting point. Everyone starts at the same point. Players simply advance their markers around the circle counting the number of slots out according to their score of the dice. In some cases, if one person's dice lands on another it is mentioned that it "Kills" that count and they have to begin start again. (However, the text is confusing as to whether the new marker or the one that was already there was "Killed". Players can move in either direction around the counting circle.

We caution that although there is a good bit of information on counting circles and their use by different tribes some of it is rather confusing.

Counting Sticks

Counting Sticks, Micmac, NovaScotia
Museum of Science and Art
University of Pennsylvania

In "MicMac Customs and Traditions, American Anthropologist, volume 8, page 31, 1895, Mr Stansbury Hagar writes the following (Reference, MicMac, Nova Scotia):
"A squaw keeps the score on the counting sticks which at first lie together. ......... When he fails to score, the amount of his winnings is withdrawn from the general pile and forums the nucleus of his private pile. His opponent repeats the dice throwing until he also fails to score. ........ "
(Faire Tyme Explanation describing what seems to be taking place here - There is a large pile of counting sticks. Depending on the game that might be 100 or more. The player keeps playing as long as he continues to score. When he fails to score, his "Sqaw" figures the number of points he made and takes that number of sticks. Then, the other player plays until he fails to score, and when he does, his "Squaw" takes the number of sticks corresponding to his count. On and on they go and finally player with the biggest number of counting sticks is the winner.)

"After the pile of counting sticks has been exhausted a new feature is introduced in the count. The player who scores first takes a single plain stick from his pile and places it by itself, with one of its sides facing him to represent 1 point, and perpendicular to this, either horizontally or vertically, to represent 5 points.

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