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When Gambling Was Outlawed

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The Navajo men in this photograph taken in the 1920s are burning their gambling [playing] cards as the hand-written title suggests. The men appear to be near a school, perhaps in Leupp or Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation. There is an Anglo man in a suit at center, possibly a government agent. The federal government had begun to crack down on reservation gambling as Prohibition swept the country.

Gambling by Native Americans had been outlawed in 1825 with the passage of the Assimilative Crime Act, even as the rest of the nation and the Western territories in particular had wide open gambling. Scholars speculate that the prohibition was an effort to prevent Indians from being tempted by base pastimes, a plan enthusiastically supported by missionary groups working among the tribes. Even so, games of chance were a common pastime.

Early games consisted of dice pieces made of sticks and bones. A Navajo game of chance played in the late 1880s included pieces of stick, which represented each player, and 40 stones. The stones were tossed in the air with points assigned by how they landed.

Stewart Culin, author of the definitive work, “Games of North American Indians,” was told that the game was called set-tilth by a Navajo man attending the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Women had their own special game, which was photographed by a Catholic priest at St. Michael’s Mission in the late 1800s. Tsidil required that sticks be placed on a blanket stretched above the playing area. The sticks would fall or be shaken from the blanket onto the playing surface and be counted by their position.

Another pastime was a form of the moccasin game played by men, which involved guessing the location of an object hidden in three or four like things.

Anthropologists have speculated that Native American gambling was rooted in spirituality as well as entertainment. Games of chance may have been a form of communication with deities who could send good fortune or loss to an individual.

By the early 20th century, the federal government had begun to take rules against gambling more seriously. Prohibition of alcohol went hand in hand with prohibition of gambling. In 1924, the federal government added gaming prohibitions to the code of Federal Courts and the Court of Indian Offenses, taking the anti-gambling fervor to a new level. Agents took on the responsibility for eradicating all forms of gambling and games of chance on government property, which included Indian reservations. The result was events like the one shown here.

Among the Navajo, the stricter enforcement of rules against gambling carried over into the culture, so that games of chance were almost taboo. Medicine men were revered for the very reason that they lacked vices such as gambling and drinking.

The Navajo were a holdout against Indian gaming. The tribal government twice put the question of building casinos on Navajo land to a vote, and twice it failed.

One comment

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