One of the more popular games among the Arapaho, especially the women, was a counting dice game. This high stake game had been known to last up to several days. During the early years of reservation life, it was a common occurrence to see the older women put on their blanket and go off to gamble with their friends and family.
The Arapaho had two type of dice games they played, one with bones or seeds and the other with sticks. The games were similar to each other and mainly just differed in the materials used.
To play the bone and seed dice game, you needed at least two sets each made up of two dice and a basket to toss them in. The dice were made of plum-stones, seeds or bone. They were usually marked by burning designs into one side and leaving the other side blank. The dice could also be incised or bored with rows of holes filled in with paint.
There were usually only two sets used at one time but occasionally as many as five sets can be used. The count depends on the combination of marked and unmarked sides as the dice fall.
The stakes are won when all the dice fall alike and match, either unmarked or marked. Points are also given when the dice of each set fall alike even though the sets differ. When one die alone falls different from the rest, one point is scored.
The dice are usually tossed into a special willow basket made for the game. These baskets are about 8 inches round, two inches deep and have flat bottoms, with sides rising without curvature at an angle from the bottom. The center of the basket is wide open. Some basket bottoms are covered with a piece of skin sewed in with sinew thread and the baskets can be dyed red. It was the only time the Arapaho women made woven baskets.
Dice were unique and individually designed with such things as dragonflies, birds and other symbols. When playing a game, two sets of dice were never the same so that it could be told with a glance who won.
The dice game had many of the same elements when sticks were used instead of the bone or seed dice. The sticks ranged in size from half a foot to a foot in length, were split lengthwise and with the pith removed. The flat side was then painted and the outer side left white.
A stick dice game consists of two sets, each set containing four sticks of one color. The unpainted backs were marked by burning various symbols into one of the two sets of sticks.
To play, eight sticks were thrown on the ground or a blanket and points were scored according to the combination of faces up and faces down. If all the dice of each set fall alike, the stakes are won. When one stick is different from the other seven, one or seven points are scored, depending on the rules of the individuals playing. Other combinations, according to some players, earn nothing and others say that you can still score a certain number of points.
The traditional Arapaho dice game was popular during the early 1900’s when the Arapaho first arrived at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, but, today, it is rarely, if ever, played.
The dice game was preserved by Alfred L. Kroeber in his book, The Arapaho, on pages 387-394. Illustrations used in this post were also on these pages.
The Arapaho was first published in three parts in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in 1902, 1904, and 1907.
Jackie Dorothy 2016©